As Sheffield’s Festival of Debate returns for a fourth year Joe Kriss talks about the importance of open discussion

Radio presenter James O'Brien is among those appearing at Sheffield's Festival of Debate this year.
Radio presenter James O'Brien is among those appearing at Sheffield's Festival of Debate this year.
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Tensions are running high. As the tone of the national conversation becomes ever more heated, Sheffield’s Festival of Debate, returning for its fourth year, feels more necessary than ever.

Kicking off later this month, the festival runs for six weeks with an extensive programme of talks, film screenings, performances, workshops and panel discussions all exploring the key political and social issues of today.

Given the array of current concerns, there is certainly plenty to discuss. The three main strands this year are Our Democracy, Our Planet and Living Together. Among the headliners appearing are radio presenter James O’Brien, economist Paul Mason, environmental activist George Monbiot, broadcaster Afua Hirsh and podcaster The Guilty Feminist.

Launched in 2015, in the run-up to that year’s General Election, by Opus Independents – a not-for-profit independent social enterprise organisation working in culture, politics and the arts –the festival’s aim was to counter political apathy and engage people in discussion.

“It has built a lot of traction year on year,” says festival programmer Joe Kriss. “The response has been so positive and I think that’s because it feels like we are able to create a programme that allows the whole city to have a conversation about the issues we are facing. The festival might not change the world but we have to start somewhere.”

Part of the festival’s success can be attributed to the reach it has, thanks to the number and diversity of partner organisations involved. There are more than 60 of them including the University of Sheffield, Museums Sheffield and Sheffield Theatres as well as voluntary organisations, local campaign groups, and committed, passionate individuals. The festival offers a much-needed non party political, issues-led forum to air opinions, share ideas and even come up with possible solutions. “By being issue-focussed we acknowledge that maybe a consensus isn’t possible but we should at least try to create dialogue,” says Kriss.

And at a time when disillusionment with mainstream politics and distrust of politicians is rife, looking at the bigger picture beyond Westminster is both refreshing and constructive. Previous festivals have led to the creation of new voluntary and activist groups in the city.

“Hope is important,” says Kriss. “We have to have the faith that we can achieve something.” Empathy is also crucial and giving people the chance to put themselves in someone else’s shoes is undoubtedly one of the festival’s major achievements. “We need to connect with each other,” says Kriss. “Talking – and listening – to each other is so important; it is how humans absorb new opinions and then we can begin to look outside our own viewpoint. There is now widespread acceptance that the only possible solution to urgent issues like climate change is for there to be systemic change from every section of society. And we can only do that by working together.”

Festival of Debate April 19-June 1, venues around Sheffield. Details