Why Sheffield’s Festival of Debate is proof that it’s good to talk

ournalist and bestselling author Reni Eddo-Lodge is one of the headliners at the Festival of Debate.
ournalist and bestselling author Reni Eddo-Lodge is one of the headliners at the Festival of Debate.
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In these turbulent, divisive times, dialogue has never been more important. Yvette Huddleston reports on the return of Sheffield’s Festival of Debate.

It’s probably a bit of an understatement to say we are living through interesting times.

Wherever you look, nationally and globally, there appears to be division and polarisation. Politicians are in danger of alienating the people they are supposed to serve, while the rise of populism in the US and across Europe is ringing alarm bells.

Let’s just say that human relations are going through a pretty rough patch at the moment, to say the least. And that’s precisely why, now more than ever, we need Sheffield’s Festival of Debate which returns next month.

Set up in 2015 by Opus Independents, a not-for-profit organisation working in culture, politics and the arts, in the run- up the General Election that year, the festival’s aim was to encourage engagement with the issues facing the country as it went to the polls.

“At Opus we are broadly interested in activism and politics with a small ‘p’ and we found watching the commentary in the media that issues were being side-stepped by the celebrity nature of politics,” says fesival founder James Lock. “So we thought, ‘let’s see if we can engage people with the issues’ and we wanted to be involved in shaping the future. We felt that the festival had a place in that it would be issue-led rather than party political-led and also we were interested in trying to engage an increasingly apathetic population with politics.”

Working with grassroots activist organisations across the city and partners such as Museums Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Sheffield, Lock and his team launched the festival. That first year was so successful, it was clear there was a demand for a forum in which to have the kind of discussions that were not happening anywhere else. “There seemed to be an appetite for it so we thought let’s continue,” says Lock, who stresses the need to remain optimistic despite the turbulent nature of today’s politics. “I think it is really important to be hopeful,” he says. “The only way we are going to get out of the mess we are in is to listen to each other. Part of the problem is that we are not informed. We are overrun by information much of which is hard to verify or to trust. So there is something to be said for a public event that provides a safe space for conversation.” It is an opportunity to emerge from our own individual social media echo chambers, a crucial step in moving away from entrenched positions. “If you are not talking to people you disagree with you are not getting the whole picture but I think talking to anyone is better than talking to no-one,” says Lock. “It’s becoming increasingly important to find space for that kind of debate.”

This year’s line-up includes ex-Labour leader Ed Milliband, former Green Party leader Natalie Bennett, journalist and best-selling author of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race Reni Eddo-Lodge and women’s suffrage activist and writer Helen Pankhurst. “I’m hoping people will get engaged with the topics,” says Lock. “And some working groups have grown out of last year’s events, so it feels like we are really having an impact which is great.”

The Festival of Debate, April 18 -June 29 at various venues around Sheffield. www.festivalofdebate.com

FESTIVAL HIGHLIGHTS

Three years on from the first festival in 2015, the world has changed several times over.

Post Brexit and Trump, politics has taken a disturbing turn – with misogyny, racism and anti-European sentiment on the rise. The fact that the festival has grown significantly since last year reflects the state we are in; the need for measured debate is more important than ever. Alongside the impressive line-up of big names such as Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis, Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, award-winning stand-up Francesca Martinez and video mash-up duo Cassetteboy, there are theatre, music and poetry performances plus key contributions from local activist organisations.

“While we have increased the number of keynote speakers this year, we are also keen to advocate for groups campaigning on issues that specifically relate to Sheffield,” says Lock. “There are several of these such as City of Sanctuary Group, the Save Our NHS Group and the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign.”

Sheffield has a long, proud history of protest and activism; the festival is playing its part in continuing that tradition and it has been programmed with inclusivity and accessibilty in mind. “There is something for everyone, even those who might think politics is not for them,” says Lock. “We want to engage with as many people as possible.”