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To Speak, and Be Heard

The Springfield Public Forum Enters Its 72nd Year with a Call to Action
Patricia Canavan

Patricia Canavan, executive director of the Springfield Public Forum, says attendance and awareness are the organization’s most pressing issues.

Patricia Canavan, executive director of the Springfield Public Forum, said one of the primary objectives of the long-running lecture series is to underscore the power of words.

“Words make a difference,” she said, “when people are there to listen.”

Opening ears, and minds, has become a top priority for Canavan and the public forum’s executive committee and directors, largely volunteer, and supporters. Despite a list of past speakers that includes then-former President Richard M. Nixon, Ralph Nader, Maya Angelou, Ken Burns, and many others, the non-profit organization and the presentations it offers the region at no cost, have for many years now remained a well-kept secret.

But the tide is turning, albeit slowly. Canavan, who assumed the executive director’s position at the public forum just over a year ago, said the task now is not merely to continuously improve the roster of speakers, but to also fill seats with audiences that reflect the diversity of this region and create a dialogue on the global issues impacting everyone.

One Man’s Voice

One man seems to be leading that charge, though he may not know it.

This year’s lineup includes Paul Rusesabagina, former manager of the Hotel Rwanda and now an author, humanitarian, and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He’ll be at Symphony Hall Oct. 18 to discuss the effects of genocide on his home country of Rwanda, and the lessons, as he says, that are “yet to be learned” from those events.

It seems that Rusesabagina’s appearance, perhaps made more notable by the Academy award-winning film based on his experiences, Hotel Rwanda starring Don Cheadle, has generated excitement in Western Mass. Canavan said phones are already ringing, and that’s momentum the forum will work tirelessly to maintain throughout the coming months.

“We’re seeing a groundswell of anticipation for Paul Rusesabagina’s talk, and that’s something we really haven’t seen for a long time,” she said.

The Springfield Public Forum has presented internationally known personalities ranging from authors to politicians to activists and beyond for nearly three-quarters of a century.

It’s one of the oldest lecture programs in the country, and also one of only a few remaining that still present offerings to the public for free. Speakers are paid through the forum’s operating budget, infused by membership drives, corporate sponsorships, and foundation support, as well as some advertising dollars generated by its seasonal program booklets.

Jonathan Goldsmith, President of the Springfield Public Forum, and an attorney, said the primary challenge the forum faces today is gleaning that support; a number of corporate sponsors and active individual members have remained loyal to the organization through the years, but attracting new blood has been difficult.

“The challenges that the forum has encountered over the last several years are probably no different than other nonprofits,” he said, “and we’ve been very fortunate to have the sponsors who help us, but the pool of potential sponsors has definitely decreased. We have to work that much harder to pull in sponsors, and grants.”

Goldsmith added that while the forum does rely on corporate sponsorships to bring in high-quality speakers, membership is still an intrinsic aspect of its business model.

“Individual support is the bedrock of our organization, and we rely heavily on our members,” he said, noting that to attract new members, the forum must first attract new audiences.

“We’re very much focusing on expanding our audience, and we’ve made inroads this year in particular. We want to fill Symphony Hall, and we can — when Maya Angelou came, there were people on standing on the steps, and we put speakers outside. We’ve had others like that over the years, and now we’re looking to do it again.”

Canavan said that in addition to presenting internationally renowned speakers, preserving free access to the lectures for the public is another important focus for the group.

“To present speakers of our caliber for free is unusual,” said Canavan. “In addition to being free, I think the other greatest asset of the public forum is that, in an age of electronic communication and media, it offers residents of our region the opportunity to discuss important issues of our day, live and in person, with fellow citizens and notable experts.”  

Still, attendance and awareness are ongoing challenges, she said.

“In many ways, the public forum is underappreciated. One challenge we have is readying new audiences; we have a dedicated core, but we need to increase awareness that we do in fact offer something for everyone.”

This year, four speakers will visit the City of Homes, and each reflects the level of quality the forum has become known for.

The season will begin on Sept. 26 with Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian, Emmy Award-winner, and author of eight books, including Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789-1989.

Following Beschloss, on Oct. 3, is Robert Shrum, political strategist and author of No Excuses: Confessions of a Serial Campaigner, released this year. Shrum was also senior adviser for the Kerry-Edwards 2004 presidential campaign and the Gore-Leiberman campaign in 2000.

On Oct. 18, Rusesabagina will appear, and finally, on Oct. 24, Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Studies and author of Among the Righteous: Lost Stories of the Holocaust’s Long Reach into Arab Lands, will speak to the Holocaust’s influence on Arab countries.

Canavan said speakers are often chosen to reflect current events around the globe, and this year is no exception. Beschloss and Shrum offer insight into the already-hotly contested 2008 presidential election, while Satloff examines the complexities of the war-torn Middle East.

This is a trend that has grown with the forum since its inception. It was initially created to address a general ‘need to know’ in the midst of the Great Depression, Canavan explained.

It provided an opportunity for area residents to better understand the political, social, and economic issues confronting the nation and the world, while at the same time promoting free speech and open debate — question-and-answer periods close each lecture, and have since the forum’s inception.

“Our mission, initially, was to provide adult education,” said Canavan. “What’s great about that now is the mission has endured, but become so broad. It allows me to do creative things.”

To Think, Perchance to Dream

That creativity helps to keep the forum fresh and relevant in today’s world, but it also helps bolster audience numbers and cultivate new fans.

Rusesabagina and the interest already expressed in his lecture became the kernel of an idea based on this premise, that crowds could be drawn to the forum through a set of new, innovative programs and collaborations.

One of the largest of these is a new initiative titled The City Thinks, a 10-day, citywide program the forum has instituted along with the Springfield Public Library, with grant assistance from the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation.

The City Thinks will focus on the issue of genocide in Africa this year, with Rusesabagina’s appearance and his book, An Ordinary Man, as a centerpiece.

Rusesabagina’s experiences mirror the mass murders now occurring in Darfur in many ways, and Canavan said comparisons will be drawn between the two countries as part of the event.

A kick-off reception will be held at the Museum of Fine Arts, for example, featuring Darfur activist and Smith College professor Eric Reeves, on Oct. 7.

In addition, screenings of Hotel Rwanda will be held at the central library and at the Renaissance School on Carew Street, and the documentary Ghosts of Rwanda will be shown at Elms College.

Medical volunteer Sam Grodofsky will lead a discussion at the central library regarding Rwanda’s current situation, as it slowly rebuilds, and book discussions of An Ordinary Man will also be held across the Greater Springfield area.

In keeping with the goal of recruiting lifelong audiences to the forum, children’s programming is also a part of The City Thinks; peace-oriented art projects will be staged, and an essay contest, charging students ages 12 to 21 to pen their thoughts on the patterns of genocide, is now welcoming entries.

Falling on Young Ears

“Symphony Hall should be filled with students,” said Canavan, noting that in the future, the forum’s directors are mulling the addition of more family-appropriate speakers and topics, in order to attract parents and their children.

“Many of the topics we cover are quite serious,” she said. “We want to pick speakers who appeal to different audiences, and it would be great to have at least one lecture a year that is appropriate for younger audiences as well as grown-ups.”

The forum is also targeting college students and young professionals as part of this endeavor to attract new age groups, and that’s an area where Canavan is already seeing promise.

“We’ve started a lot of outreach to area colleges and high schools, and as we strengthen our partnerships with colleges and schools, we’d love to further integrate ourselves into their curriculum.”

She added that ongoing book discussion groups centering on other works of public forum speakers have begun to crop up on area campuses, including Elms College, Western New England College, and American International College, a good sign for future collaborations. The forum is also reaching out to churches, synagogues, and specific ethnic populations in hopes of creating similar partnerships.

“We continue to research what topics will resonate within this population, and we do solicit recommendations,” she said. “It’s important to know who is out there and who is relevant.”

Closing Remarks

The stage is set and ready for those speakers, ready to engage in the “Great Discourse” that the Springfield Public Forum promises each year. It’s a formidable task to bring weighty issues to Symphony Hall, and to fill its seats with people ready to listen.

But Canavan said that, increasingly, the call to action is being answered, and she’ll keep one ear close to the ground until the power of words has created an army.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]

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