Focus on diversity, election season, influences Tisch College Distinguished Speaker Series fall 2020 lineup

The Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Barnum Hall is pictured on Sept. 24. Nicole Garay / The Tufts Daily

The Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life has selected a total of nine speakers to engage with the Tufts community this semester for its Distinguished Speaker Series, which has been shaped by an increased focus on diversity and the November U.S. presidential election.

While former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, former U.S. Democratic Party presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg and author Ijeoma Oluo already spoke at their respective events, upcoming speakers include activists, political reporters and U.S. representatives. 

In choosing speakers for the series, Jessica Byrnes, program administrator at Tisch College, explained how many factors are taken into consideration.

“As much as possible, [we] try to pay attention to what’s happening in the news at the time and think about what types of speakers and what types of topics will be interesting to the Tufts community,” Byrnes said.

Byrnes emphasized the importance of having speakers who can bring diverse and relevant topics to the conversation, such as racial injustice. 

I think [racial injustice is] a subject that is incredibly important for us to talk about in all of our circles, in all of our conversations,” she said. “We really wanted to … give thought to: Do we have diverse voices in this lineup? Are we explicitly talking about race with our events? What more can we be doing to do that?” Byrnes said.

For this semester, in particular, Byrnes mentioned that the current election season also influenced the types of speakers in the series. 

I think it’s very important to us to engage students and engage the entire Tufts community in topics that might be on the ballot come this November and … how we can be engaged in the election process as early as possible,” she said. 

JumboVote, a student-led organization that promotes civic engagement and voter turnout, is co-sponsoring the series. Various resources from the group are presented at each event, according to Lidya Woldeyesus, student co-chair of JumboVote.

At the start of each series, students can view a PowerPoint slide with several QR codes that are linked to different resources, including a voter registration platform, JumboVote’s website and registration deadline and absentee ballot request dates, Woldeyesus said. 

She also said that JumboVote’s decision to co-sponsor the series with Tisch College helps further JumboVote’s mission.

“There’s a whole number of speakers that [do] work on really pressing societal issues and so part of … JumboVote’s position is finding your civic identity,” Woldeyesus said. “I think the Speaker Series event is presenting you with all these number of options to … create change in all the communities that you’re a part of.

Regardless of the Series’ format, Byrnes addressed the difficulties of confirming speakers and coordinating with their busy schedules. 

“[Confirmation] depends on their very complicated schedule … some speakers might have commitments to news outlets, and we have to work with their availability there,” Byrnes said. 

She also expressed the advantages of planning the series in a virtual format.

I think being virtual really helped us get other speakers that we’d really wanted to bring to campus for years but weren’t able to,” Byrnes said. 

Deborah Schildkraut, professor and chair of the political science department, an academic department co-sponsoring several of the speaker events, echoed Byrnes’ sentiments that there is a potential to reach more people through a virtual format.

More people are coming to our events … we do have an opportunity this semester to broaden our reach, whereas before, we may have had more political science majors and civic studies majors coming to these events,” Schildkraut said. 

When discussing the impact of shared experiences these speaker events can bring, especially in person, Byrnes referenced a previous distinguished speaker, former U.S. Democratic presidential candidate and congressman, Beto O’Rourke.

I think it can be a really moving experience, particularly if it’s someone that students are really excited about. I’m thinking [of] when we hosted former congressman Beto O’Rourke and students lined up hours in advance to meet him … and how much of a meaningful experience that was for folks,” Byrnes said.

Due to the inability to meet or interact with the speakers in person, Byrnes hopes to maintain a similar level of student engagement.

Before we go live, I think as much as possible, we’re trying to keep the Q&A portion of our events as student-focused as possible,” Byrnes said.

Tisch College also hosts more speakers at other events, including its Civic Life Lunch series, co-sponsored events and author talks, according to Byrnes.