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Syracuse University, College of Arts and Sciences

Glimmers of Possibility for a More Just World

This year’s fully virtual Syracuse Symposium provides inspiration for a more equitable future.

Sept. 29, 2020, by Dan Bernardi

Futures Logo

As we collectively navigate through a global pandemic, pursue social justice on multiple fronts, and seek answers to the global warming crisis, “Futures,” the theme of this year’s Syracuse Symposium hosted by the Syracuse University Humanities Center (SUHC), offers a series of events to broaden people’s perspectives, inspire change and encourage ethically based action.

“Futures,” which launched at the start of the semester and runs throughout the academic year, features a diverse collection of events tackling existential questions like, why are we here, what are we called to do, and to whom/what are we accountable or responsible? Many Symposium events address social, cultural and environmental shortcomings, past and present, and offer ways we can improve the outlook for our shared future.

Some of this year’s Symposium events include: a conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist and creator of “The 1619 Project,” Nikole Hannah-Jones (“The New York Times”) (October 8); a poetry reading and workshop with Philip Metres, whose work illustrates the possibility of moving toward a peaceful future (October 29); a discussion with Haitian-American artist Fabiola Jean-Louis, addressing race and roles of women while engaging with a just vision of the future (November 12) (Jean-Louis’ exhibit “Rewriting History” is currently on display at Point of Contact); and an interactive multimedia symposium, linking Syracuse and South African communities to investigate the impacts of climate change on marginalized and racialized populations (March 26). All Symposium events this year take place virtually, allowing for unprecedented national and international participation.

We recently spoke with Vivian May, Director of the Humanities Center, Principal Investigator of the Central New York Humanities Corridor and Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, for insight into this year’s Symposium.

How does this year’s Symposium address some of the current challenges facing society?

VM: This year is full of uncertainty and ambiguity—because of the pandemic and novel coronavirus, but also because many forms of injustice and inequality are being laid bare, from state violence against Black and Brown communities to the ways that climate change is wreaking havoc on our environment.

In response, “Futures” has many different kinds of offerings: we hope this multifaceted approach provides different portals for people to experience how the humanities matter, how we must not take them for granted, and how they provide us with much-needed tools to navigate so much uncertainty.

How do the humanities help us in times like these and what are the benefits of attending symposium events?

VM: Art, music, history, drama, literature, philosophy, languages, religion—they pull us into different worlds, expand our imaginations, and provide us with tools to deal, at our innermost levels, with our fears, hopes, and disappointments. The humanities lead us to, and through, hard questions about inequality, love, memory, justice and the role of the state. The nature of existence, and definitions of what we mean by personhood, or what a world is – cannot be addressed without the humanities.

So, we hope people find ways to connect with each other, think pro-actively about the future, and to try to ensure, even if we also feel some despair right now, that collectively, we can and should pursue glimmers of possibility for a transformed and more just world.

Nikole Hannah-Jones Headshot
Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of "The 1619 Project," will participate in a virtual conversation on October 8. (Photo by James Estrin)

On October 8, in partnership with University Lectures, Nikole Hannah-Jones (“The New York Times”), a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist and creator of “The 1619 Project”, will engage in a virtual conversation with Rawiya Kameir, a new faculty member in Newhouse School of Public Communications. What can people look forward to that evening?

VM: Hannah-Jones’ work, particularly in “The 1619 Project,” excavates the past, starting with the first ship of enslaved people arriving at Jamestown, as a means to carve out our future differently as a nation. It is well beyond time to collectively confront how systemic racism, structural inequality, and violence are woven into the very fabric of our democracy, in contradiction with our stated aims and goals. Hannah-Jones’ work underscores how the future we say we want is not possible without a return to our nation’s roots, meaningfully reflecting on (and acting from) how our past continues to shape our present structures, practices, laws, and our very sense of self as individuals and as a nation. As James Baldwin wrote in 1965, “History … is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us.”

With symposium events going virtual, how does that impact programming as well as potential audience?

VM: We made the decision to hold all of our offerings in a virtual format early on, when not much was known about how COVID might unfold and what impact that might have on this academic year’s activities. Holding remote-format events, workshops, and dialogues is different—we lose the intimacy of being together, exploring ideas. On the other hand, virtual events have invited broad engagement in new ways. First, our students can participate, no matter where they are in the world. Faculty, staff, students, and community members can easily join activities and, in addition, we have seen quite a lot of national and international participation already in this year’s earliest Symposium events.

Describe your vision for the Humanities Center and its role in larger cultural conversations.

At the SUHC, we showcase how the humanities are needed to address today’s most pressing problems and can help us all explore some of life’s most enduring questions—questions that have no easy answers or quick solutions, but that we are compelled to answer as a broader society but also individually. Through our diverse events, research supports, and fellowships for faculty and students, we break divides, facilitate new knowledges, and bring people together in ways that build community. The SUHC’s impact can be felt well beyond the University’s boundaries—thanks to our many community partnerships, but also because we are home to the CNY Humanities Corridor, an 11-institution consortium supporting humanities collaborations in Central New York, as well as national and international partnerships.

Since 2004, Syracuse Symposium has engaged wider publics with innovative, interdisciplinary work in the humanities by renowned scholars, artists, authors and performers. Symposium’s annual theme is chosen by the Humanities Center Advisory Board, which also helps review proposals and select each year’s final line-up of events and activities.

For more information about the Humanities Center or any of this year’s Symposium events, email humcenter@syr.edu.