1619 Project creator Hannah-Jones to address Walnut Creek audience
By Lou Fancher
Scheduling the Newsmakers Lesher Speaker Series in Walnut Creek during COVID-19 restrictions on large indoor events that have changed back and forth since March 2020 was a no-brainer.
“We just didn’t do it,” said Steve Lesher, who continues to be one of the masterminds behind the annual series presented in the downtown Lesher Center for the Arts. Launched with $1 million in 2004 by the Dean & Margaret Lesher Foundation, the subscription series showcases thought leaders and change-makers from around the world with something vital to say in categories such as politics; sports; arts and entertainment; environmental and social justice; the news and entertainment media; science and more.
Each speaker is paired with a local nonprofit that receives visibility and donations drawn from ticket sales and contributions. Past seasons have included Bob Dole, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Ken Burns, Maya Angelou, Jay Leno, the late Gen. Colin Powell, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Laura Bush, Tom Brokaw, Joe Montana, Martin Luther King III, Billie Jean King, Julius Erving and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
“We rescheduled one program from 2020 and did nothing in 2021,” Lesher said. “It was a challenge even this year, especially getting that first program in January in the bank. It was David Axelrod and Karl Rove and their willingness to come and their satisfaction with our safety protocols. They were troopers. If they hadn’t come, well, canceling can be contagious. We might not have had a program at all.”
But come they did, followed this year by NBA all-time leading scorer Abdul-Jabbar, humorist and actor Mo Rocca, health policy and management professor Dr. Leana Wen, NASA engineer Adam Steltzner, and writer Ruben Navarrette. Her Majesty Queen Noor Al-Hussein was to be the last speaker of the 2022 series on Oct. 19 but later canceled.
The current final speaker in this year’s series, New York Times staff writer and MacArthur genius grant recipient Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning creator of the 1619 Project, will appear Aug. 30 in a program moderated by Meg Honey, a history teacher and academic lecturer at Walnut Creek’s Northgate High School.
Honey said her research and investment in the “trail-blazing, vitally important work” of Hannah-Jones included pouring over the New York Times Magazine spread that introduced the 1619 Project with her students the morning it was first published and for months afterward repeatedly reading the 1619 Project book and actively following Hannah-Jones’s investigative reporting, writing and activism in the news and social media related to race, class, school resegregation, social justice and equity.
The 1619 Project placed slavery at the center of U.S. history and, not without controversy, introduced a reimagined national narrative. As an educator, Honey said access to resources that detail the experiences and perspectives of enslaved people is “a powerful and important tool.”
In her high school classrooms, Honey said she finds students are incredibly savvy about how and where news stories appear and are “absolutely engaged, connected and passionate about issues of justice.” She said they can increasingly detect media biases, articles “spun” for specific target audiences and are keenly aware of curricular erasures or mandates that restrict their access to information.
“They have agency,” Honey said. “They’re connected to protest movements in our community and around the world and interested in elevating people of marginalized groups.”
Honey said for the broader community and Newsmaker audiences, hearing from Hannah-Jones at this time in history is crucial.
“Americans for many generations became accustomed to and comfortable with an American-exceptionalism narrative. It’s been taught in schools and celebrated in communities,” she said.
“To be presented with a contrasting narrative with this groundbreaking work with slavery as the origin of our country’s story and slavery not in a pre-Civil War paradigm but reaching into our contemporary times, makes people feel uncomfortable. It disrupts narratives. It’s important to engage with the elements of the 1619 Project, to consider a nuanced history, multiple perspectives that have been silenced and marginalized. That is why I am tremendously humbled and excited to have this opportunity to speak with her.”
Among other topics, Honey said she is most eager to hear from a Black woman she considers “one of our country’s most famous public intellectuals” about how racial justice and the country’s long history with slavery are taught and the lessons consumed.
“I’m also eager to have a conversation about the widely misunderstood Critical Race Theory. I am interested in talking about what it means when students receive different educations in history and social studies when it comes to race and racial justice.”
Speaker series organizer Lesher said he considers himself an “audience consumer” first and foremost.
“I always want to hear and learn more. If there’s one thing I lament about a speaker series it is that people have tendencies to want to hear only what we already believe.”
He said speakers “from both sides of the aisle” who have “something that’s worthy of being heard” are the primary rubrics for selecting each season’s roster. A mix of weighty and laugh-at-ourselves presentations makes for a successful season, as does serendipity, he said.
On his “most memorable list” are Maya Angelou, for her “unforgettable radiance and spirit” and Doris Kearns Goodwin, a favorite who he said is an “incredible speaker, brilliant writer and so well-read.”
Also, though, are Woodward and Bernstein, who answered a question from the audience and dropped a bombshell — that they had that very morning met the real Watergate informant Deep Throat (Mark Felt), the first such meeting for Bernstein. The story made national headlines. “It was a pin-drop moment,” Lesher recalled. The same “lucky catch” idea applies to next season’s just-finalized list that includes U.S. Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire, and Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, in August 2023.
“They both have judicial backgrounds, and we booked them a long time in advance because 2024 is an election year. Now we think there’ll be a lot of unforeseen issues around Supreme Court decisions. Boy, I think we underestimated that last factor.”