The Dallas Festival of Ideas

The Dallas Festival of Ideas

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Contributed by:
Nate Eudaly
Hon. AIA Dallas


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The Dallas Festival of Ideas: The United City

“What we really need is the ‘united city,’” said T.D. Jakes.

Those words from the closing speaker of the 2015 Dallas Festival of Ideas were the clarion call for this year’s festival, held in February and organized under the theme “The United City.”

That year’s closing speaker—Bishop Jakes, author, filmmaker and minister—set the tone by adding, “We need a city that is united and galvanized around ideas that we can build to make a change and make things different, and I really think that can be done.”

For the 2016 festival, held at the Music Hall at Fair Park, the organizers set a goal to shape the future of the city by igniting, uniting, and energizing the people of Dallas through the power of ideas. It focused on the city’s next century, incorporating thought-provoking programs, interactive discussions, live music, visual art, and stage performances.

All photos by Liane Swanson

These panels invited participants to discuss and further develop the ideas presented by the keynote speakers; from those sessions, action plans will be developed to implement key concepts from each of the five “cities” identified as discussion tracks.

History of the Festival

The Dallas Festival of Ideas team refers to the event as “an annual harvesting of big, bold ideas with an eye toward action to help to shape the city of the future.” It began when Larry Allums, Ph.D., director of the Dallas Institute for Humanities and Culture, observed that other cities held meaningful festivals related to their cities, including the Chicago Humanities Festival, The New Yorker Festival, and the Aspen Ideas Festival.

Allums wanted the Institute to organize a similar program that would bring thought leaders across various disciplines to Dallas to discuss concepts that could help improve the future of this city. He organized the inaugural Dallas Festival of Ideas in 2008 and a second festival in 2011.

After collaborating in 2013 on a symposium commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, The Dallas Morning News agreed to partner with the institute to present the 2015 festival. Despite an ice storm, all five keynote speakers arrived safely in Dallas, so an abbreviated one-day festival was held at the Dallas City Performance Hall and the Winspear Opera House. Organizers were very encouraged that, even with the weather challenges, more than 800 people attended the sessions.

‘Cities’ Discussion Tracks

The Dallas Festival of Ideas, again presented by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture and The Dallas Morning News, worked with planning groups consisting of over 60 Dallas leaders to create an integrated program format. Coordinated by Festival Director Emily Hargrove, speakers and guests took the ideas generated by the keynote speakers to discuss them in increasing depth in the panel discussions to bring these new perspectives to Dallas in an implementable manner.

Discussion tracks focused on five “cities”: The Physical City, The Entrepreneurial City, The Educated City, The Healthy City, and The Literary City.

The Physical City team kept its focus “the future of work” in Dallas. What is the future of work in the 21st century city? Are downtown and the suburbs in competition for workplace growth, or should they cooperate to find the right balance? What will the workplace of the future look like?

As Texas continues to grow as a leading business center (Toyota being one of the most recent major corporations to relocate its United States headquarters here), the topic of how and where work occurs becomes of even greater importance. Other major innovative new headquarters—including Apple, Google, and Facebook—offer glimpses of how work will occur in the future.

The session examined how design thinking shapes the way that people work and how that impacts the way they live. It was presented in collaboration with the David Dillon Center at the University of Texas-Arlington’s College of Architecture, Planning and Public Affairs. Keynote speaker was Nikil Saval, an editor of n+1. Panelists were Kate Canales, Peer Chacko, Inga Saffron, and Ron Stelmarski, AIA.

Saval’s first book is Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace. His innovative research and thoughtful examination of this topic provided the foundation for an illuminating discussion—important not only to architects but to all North Texas residents.

Saval pointed out that as office buildings have evolved, those who work in them have become less connected to the fabric of the community. Tracing development from the Industrial Revolution, Saval explained how the development of skyscrapers and then suburban office parks isolated workers from the cities in which they were located.

He and the other panelists called for innovation in co-working and flexibility in office design so that workers can engage with each other and the city to enhance creativity and productivity.

The Entrepreneurial City discussion was headlined by hip-hop magnate and Rush Communications CEO Russell Simmons, who co-founded the Def Jam Record label and has since launched a series of successful ventures in TV, fashion, publishing, and finance. He was joined on the panel by some of the Dallas’ most successful entrepreneurs, including Nina Vaca, Gail Warrior, Trey Bowles, and Salah Boukadoum. They said the Dallas-Fort Worth area is already an entrepreneurial hub, but people just don’t know it yet.

Bowles, who co-founded the Dallas Entrepreneur Center, said that approximately 19,000 new businesses are quietly started each year in the city of Dallas alone. “We’re becoming the i-city,” he said. “We’re the idea city. We’re the impact city. We’re the innovation city. And we can just keep going and going.”

The group had plenty of advice for the start-up entrepreneurs in the audience:

First, focus on the work and not the money. If you do that, they say, financial success will follow.
Second, don’t listen to the “negative noise”— that doubting voice either inside yourself or the outsiders who tell you it can’t be done.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to fail. Consider it an education.

 “I just think things evolve more than they fail,” Simmons said. “You can’t fail until you quit.”

The theme for the session was resilience and faith. Most everyone on the panel had experienced times when their faith was tested or their businesses were near failure. But in the end, their perseverance paid off. They learned from their mistakes and built their businesses back up.

“With each struggle, accept it as your teacher.” Simmons said, adding that it’s crucial to keep a positive mindset and count one’s blessings. “The world cannot give you a payment for your work that’s meaningful,” he said. “It’s all inside. So operate from abundance.”

The panel also stressed the importance of arts and humanities in our schools, saying that the next generation of leaders needs to be encouraged to think innovatively. Simmons put it bluntly: “Schools are like prisons if you don’t think creatively.”

The Educated City panel was headlined by Sarah Prevette, founder of the Future Design School in Canada which focuses on entrepreneurial thinking. She was joined on the panel by Dallas cultural leaders and educators Nakia Douglas, John Mead, Vicki Meek, Jeremy Strick, and Clyde Valentín.

The group lamented the testing culture prevalent in today’s public schools and blamed it for a lack of resourcefulness and confidence in children. “I’ve never met a child that wasn’t naturally engaged,” said Prevette. “We just beat it out of them.”

The panelists said that changing the current system will take an enormous amount of collaboration. The Dallas area has plenty of resources to effect change, said Meek, the manager of the South Dallas Cultural Center. But they aren’t talking to each other. The panel said real change will take local governments, schools, parents, and private enterprises working together.

“We can no longer afford the notions of silos,” said Meek, manager, South Dallas Cultural Center. “There’s a much bigger world out there.”

The biggest challenge, they agreed, was getting adults engaged in the process. Meek cited low voter turnout for school board elections as evidence of an electorate that doesn’t seem to care.

“A culturally literate city is a civically engaged city,” added Valentín, the director of Ignite Arts Dallas at Southern Methodist University (SMU).

The panel challenged the audience to start with themselves. “I do feel very hopeful,” Meek said. “But we all have to be engaged. We can’t wait around for the next person to do it.”

The Healthy City track tackled the question of what a healthy city looks like. This topic was headlined by Dr. Jennifer Gardy of the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control. She was joined by Dallas area experts in public health: Dr. Eric Bing, Dr. Seema Yasmin, Regina Montoya, and John Siburt. Gardy opened the discussion with the idea that Dallas could transform into a healthy city using data to identify areas of communities that would benefit from positive changes. Major themes of the morning were education and outreach improvements.

Gardy cited the Ebola and Zika outbreaks as examples of what can go wrong when data is not easily accessible by the public. Bing echoed her comments and proposed “using data to help make the decisions we want to make.”

Bing, professor of Global Health and director of SMU’s Institute for Leadership Impact, put forth specific ways to “be preventative rather than reactive” by using the leaders in our communities and households as ambassadors of health. He also stressed that Dallas’ best data comes from the police department and could help us map and understand behavioral health more completely.

Yasmin, staff writer for The Dallas Morning News and professor of public health at the University of Texas-Dallas, pointed out that just looking at an individual’s ZIP code is a good indicator of a person’s health and what kinds of diseases a community is facing. Yasmin went on to stress that Dallas is “a divided city in terms of health” and that privacy concerns could be a major hurdle to overcome in achieving greater access to large public health data sets.

Gardy offered a plan towards community behavioral change. According to her, the first step is awareness, then an inspiration to action and the acquisition of the necessary tools, and ultimately the conclusion that the action plan is sustainable and manageable. She placed key importance on developing a community assessment process to “find the needle of where people need the most help making change.”

Montoya and Siburt highlighted the health challenges Dallas faces due to its large concentric rings of urban poor. Siburt, president and COO of CitySquare, spoke about phenomena of “broken sidewalks and stray dogs,” corresponding to “no access to grocery stores.” He continued: “Dallas does not have a platform where public health officials have the authority to be part of the conversation.” Bing and Yasmin agreed that that is their biggest obstacle in addressing public policy improvements.

Montoya, chair of Mayor Mike Rawlings’ Task Force on Poverty, placed importance on continuing “the idea of a narrative” that Gardy spoke about in that there is a story specific to Dallas so that we begin to move beyond data and statistics towards actually improving people's lives. The panelists presented several nimble approaches which could be implemented in communities across DFW.

The Literary City panel expanded on ideas about literacy and exploring the richness of our city to ignite book culture. Keynote speaker and noted Hispanic author Alma Guillermoprieto spoke about libraries in Central America highlighting Medellin and Bogota as two examples in which public access to literature has proven to be transformative in their respective communities. “Libraries should be a magnet, almost a glamorous center,” she said. Guillermoprieto was joined by Will Evans, Dr. Darryl Dickson Carr, Lisa Hembry, and Merritt Tierce.

Guillermoprieto spoke about the potential of sending Dallas youth into communities to interview residents and how that would help us learn about things happening in our own backyard. Carr, SMU professor and chair of English, expanded on this idea and encouraged the city to “start collecting an oral history of Dallas” and “expose Dallas’ richness to the rest of the world through stories.” Hembry also supported this idea of generating a local narrative. “Collaboration is a transformative experience for everyone, just to get to know others as human beings,” said Hembry, president and CEO of Literacy Instruction for Texas.

Tierce, a professional writer, said she “loves the idea of a literary city being a walking city” and talked about improving our walkability. Tierce placed importance on our sidewalks and put it bluntly: “Dallas can't have haphazard or missing sidewalks.” Evans, publisher and executive director of Deep Vellum Publishing, expanded on Tierce’s themes and talked about small business literary culture and the necessity of local publishers, as well as bringing live readings into neighborhoods.

Guillermoprieto energized the panel once again saying, “Books are where the fun is, books are where the glamour is” and how “the word is the way to understanding.” She put forth a call to action—for Dallas to invest in its libraries.

Festival Closing and Action Steps

As in 2015, the 2016 Festival of Ideas closed with remarks by Bishop T.D. Jakes. Jakes challenged Dallas’ citizens to unify our city by following these guidelines:

Collective Creativity—we can achieve more working together than apart.
Courage—the deeper our personal commitment, the more we achieve.
Comfort—we must abandon our personal comfort to achieve unified goals.
Changed Culture—break down the unspoken rules that divide us.

Attendees and any other Dallas residents who want to improve North Texas were encouraged to become involved in the post-festival action phase. Social Venture Partners (SVP) Dallas, a network of social entrepreneurs, will collect the ideas from each panel and organize interested volunteers into action committees. SVP will work with the committees to guide them into turning the ideas into projects.

“Ordinary citizens don’t have access to organized money, organized people and organized ideas unless we allow them opportunities,” said Tony Fleo, Social Venture Partners’ CEO. “So if we want to have systematic change, we have to give ideas a place to flourish.”

Columns readers who want to be involved in this process can contact Donovan Ervin at SVP Dallas and indicate which of the five cities’ action teams they want to join.

Columns' coverage of the Dallas Festival of Ideas expands with the article "Making Fair Park Work."

Nate Eudaly, Hon. AIA Dallas is the executive director of the Dallas Architecture Forum.

Monica Friday contributed the Healthy and Literary Cities recaps, and Cindy Smith, AIA covered the Entrepreneurial and Educated Cities discussions. 

Photography by Liane Swanson