Dallas Festival of Ideas to feature five bold thinkers with fresh voices

The chief speakers at The Dallas Festival of Ideas are not household names, a point that organizers insisted upon.

“We wanted people who were engaged in their work, who weren’t famous. A speaker might be well-known, but sometimes they’ve done it so long, they don’t think outside the box. They don’t take risks,” said Larry Allums, executive director of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.

The five featured speakers have all drawn attention for their work, but are still early in — or in the midst of — their careers.

“They’re up-and-coming, so they still have a lot of the energy and emotion of young people,” he said.

The two-day festival, taking place Feb. 27-28 in the Dallas Arts District, will be jointly presented by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture and The Dallas Morning News.

Its purpose is to try, through innovative and entertaining ways, to find creative approaches to the challenges facing Dallas.

The featured speakers are:

— Elizabeth Green, co-founder and CEO of Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization reporting on changes in education across the nation. Her team will examine urban public education.

— Luís Alberto Urrea, author of books ranging from mysteries to historical novels. His 2004 work,The Devil’s Highway, a nonfiction account of Mexican immigrants stranded in the Arizona desert, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His team will focus on strengthening cultural life in Dallas.

— Rahaf Harfoush, a digital strategist who authoredThe Decoded Company, a New York Times bestseller that explored the use of big data as a corporate tool. Her team will examine how technological innovation can address social problems.

— Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer for The Atlantic. He recently triggered a nationwide discussion with his cover story, “The Case for Reparations,” which examined the legacy of slavery in America. Coates will head a team that examines political issues, including the task of overcoming racial polarization and income disparity.

— Vishaan Chakrabarti, an associate professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, who worked as an urban planner in New York City, where he directed city design efforts in Lower Manhattan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. His team will examine the effect of urban planning and design on the future of Dallas.

The featured speakers will be part of teams that include local experts on designated topics. The local figures include Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College; Chad Houser, founder of Cafe Momentum, which gives restaurant job experience to juveniles with nonviolent police records; and Lee Cullum, a longtime Dallas journalist and the host of the business program CEO on KERA TV and radio.

The two-day program opens Friday, Feb. 27, at Dallas City Performance Hall with a two-hour presentation that combines artistic performances with an overview of festival topics.

The next day will begin with a series of free-flowing discussions set on staggered schedules at five venues within the Arts District.

“People can attend all of one event and then part of another, or they can attend parts of several events,” Allums said.

Organizers of the Festival of Ideas sought to upend the traditional “talking-heads” approach, in which the audience passively watches a panel discussion on stage. During the afternoon’s “focus forums,” audience members will sit at tables with the experts and help guide ideas into a pragmatic direction.

Late in the afternoon, there will be a single session at which each team will present its conclusions.

By the end of that day, Allums said, he wants ideas that are not only fresh, but doable enough to have a practical effect on the future of the city.

“We told them to think bold, think big,” he said of the team leaders. “We want something to happen once this festival is over.”


This post was written by David Flick and shared with permission from The Dallas Morning News.