Blackness, Religion, and Angry Republicans, at Uncharted, The Berkeley Ideas Festival

Founder Lance Knobel and co-curator Helena Brantley note dryly that organizers for similar events simply Google "most interesting speakers for your festival.”

Helena Brantley and Lance Knobel (Kelly Sullivan)

Christian Picciolini, the founder of peace advocacy group Life After Hate, on his former life as a white supremacist. Author Mychal Denzel Smith on Black masculinity. Rick Wilson, a Republican political operative who repeatedly tweets his mantra of #ETTD (Everything Trump Touches Dies). These are some of the speakers you can hear in the two days of Uncharted, The Berkeley Festival of Ideas.

Founder Lance Knobel and co-curator Helena Brantley worked hard to get speakers for the festival. They found them in some unusual places — like in an Uber and at a baby shower. A few months ago, Knobel, the founder of the online news site, Berkeleyside, went to a conference for editors and reporters in Arizona. There were lots of interesting speakers and panels, but the most fascinating conversation he had in his three days there was with his Uber driver, a refugee from South Sudan. The man, Bandak Lul, will be talking with Knobel at Uncharted.

Brantley, who’d done publicity for the ideas festival before joining as a co-curator, says a conversation titled The Ultimate Migration with Dr. Ralina Joseph and Stanford history professor and New Yorker writer Allyson Hobbs, also happened through atypical channels.  

“I met Ralina at a baby shower, and we ended up talking about Blackness, and she knew Allyson Hodges’ work,” Brantley says. “I came back to Lance, and said, ‘I’m thinking these two people would be great together.’ ”

Knobel says they go beyond Googling “most interesting speakers for your festival.” He knows his way around an ideas festival, having worked at several as well as starting  Uncharted five years ago. He says uninspired speaker lists happen more than you’d think.

“There are plenty of people in a discussion of ‘Oh, I wonder who could talk about innovation,’ and they send you an email with what seems like six random names,” he says. “You do a little Googling, and they found a website that said, ‘Six great speakers for your conference!’ and they  just cut-and-pasted.’”

Working with Brantley made the festival lineup stronger and more diverse, Knobel says.

“Great minds don’t think alike — I’m male, white, old. Helena is female, Black, young in my terms,” he says. “There are a lot of things where we share a perspective and a sentiment, but we have two very different life experiences, and a different lens, and I think that really strengthens the program selection and process.”

Brantley says an example of how they work differently is she thinks about putting people together first — not just who is a great speaker on a subject like free speech or criminal justice.

“Because of the way my mind works, I think about who will have a great conversation together,” she said. “ We’ve had a couple exchanges where Lance says, ‘We have to have this person, they’d be great,’ and I say, ‘Well, who are they going to talk to?’”

One example of this is the conversation about religion, which the festival hasn’t previously touched on.

“Helena latched onto Martin Luther King’s quote that 11 a.m. on Sunday is the most segregated hour in American life, which is an incredibly powerful image since we have a lot of segregated hours in American life,” Knobel said. “That sent us on a hunt for two people who could have that discussion.”

They found two local clerics to talk about the impact of that segregation and how to change it — Pam Kurtz, the pastor of Lake Merritt Methodist Church in Oakland and Mauricio Wilson, the rector of Oakland’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

Brantley has been involved in online conversations between female Trump voters in Alabama and women in the Bay Area who voted for Clinton, and that dialogue with people who don’t have a lot in common is very much on her mind planning the program, she says.

They want to have different views at Uncharted — but not try to shock people or just make them angry. They are also trying to steer away from it being “all Trump, all the time,” and the topics of conversations include end-of-life issues, the history of Silicon Valley, and women in Hollywood.

Knobel says the most important for him — and something that has happened the last four years — is that people who came to hear the linguist and author George Lakoff talk about politics and language, for example, end up blown away by someone  they’d never heard of before.

“I want people to make discoveries,” Knobel said.

Uncharted, The Berkeley Ideas Festival, Friday and Saturday, Oct. 27-28, 9 a.m. – 4:45 p.m, Berkeley Repertory Theater, 2025 Addison St., and the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse, 2020 Addison St., $120-$220; berkeleyideas.com

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