Leeds International Festival of Ideas: Inclusive, inspiring, unbounded. This is ideas at their best.

It’s 2021, and more than ever, we are questing for answers. The past two years have been earth-shattering. The future of our planet looks ever more uncertain, and news headlines abound with more things to worry about each day.

Add to this the incessant chime of social media – and our constant proximity to myriad opinions, assertions, perspectives and seemingly perfect lives – and we have a recipe for the kind of soul searching that leaves us in desperate need of newness, realness and ideas that push us forward.

Offering up a gleaming line-up of panel talks, keynote speakers and opportunities for immersive discovery, Leeds International Festival of Ideas’ evolution into a different kind of event this year was a move to satiate the growing societal appetite for something that means something. I was lucky enough to attend two events on the LIFI programme, both of which brought to the fore a range of insights, perspectives and indeed, ideas.

Katherine Ryan

The first was headline speaker, Katherine Ryan’s Q&A session at the Corn Exchange – which I have to say, was looking glorious in its pink-light-bedecked evening state. Katherine was interviewed by radio host supreme, Stephanie Hirst, who guided us on a gentle journey through the comedian’s biography – from her time working at Hooters in Canada to marrying her childhood sweetheart and reaching widespread acclaim on the UK scene.

Katherine brought her signature combination of debonair charm and pure sass to every answer, and the audience was soon chuckling along, firmly on her side. Themes of motherhood, mental health and coping with life in a post-covid age appeared strongly throughout, as Katherine spoke with genuine honesty around her knack for eschewing anxiety; her experiences raising her daughter as a single mother and her newborn while in a long-term relationship; and her constant awareness and gratitude for what she has right here, right now.

With a strong rapport between Stephanie and Katherine clear from the start, it really felt like watching a natural discussion evolve on stage. When questions arose, they traversed new-mum guilt, how to be subtle in one’s attempts to dismantle the patriarchy, and what Katherine misses most about her native Canada (not much, apparently). It was a feel-good evening that left me – and others too, I hope – with a warm glow of self-reflection and a reminder to live a little more in the moment, and remember that not a lot matters at all, and even less matters very little.

Can we ever be who we want to be?

The next evening, I made my way to the Town Hall for event number two, namely, ‘Can we ever be who we want to be?’ a discursive panel session on the topic of identity and inclusivity in the modern world. 

Hosted by author and scriptwriter, Amrou Al-Kadhi, the panel featured activist, Gina Martin, barrister and writer, Hashi Mohammed, computer scientist and social entrepreneur, Anne-Marie Imafidon, and another appearance from broadcaster, Stephanie Hirst.

Together, the panel created a fascinating range of perspectives, with each speaker bringing contrasting experiences and expertise to a conversation that covered everything from social media activism to how we can make tech more inclusive.

Amrou’s authentic presence and naturally witty hosting style curated the discussion to touch on various aspects of the question at the event’s core. Anne-Marie spoke of the need to recognise the makers of non-inclusive technology and address it where we see it, calling out the inadequacy of period tracking software developed only by men as a key example.

Hashi’s experience of growing up as an immigrant in a working class family before moving into the elite echelons of society as a qualified barrister was particularly interesting, and brought into focus the false meritocracy being pedalled by the government in order to deflect from the very real culture wars and issues currently at play.

Gina’s empowering story of changing a law in the UK to make upskirting illegal touched on the inadequacy of education and social mobility, and how those keen to make a difference are all too often rejected or made to feel uncomfortable in the places where they really need to be. Her reframing of imposter syndrome as the signal that you’re in the right place was particularly powerful.

Stephanie spoke of her conscious choice to continue a career in the public eye after her transition, calling out her perceived importance of always having the right and the confidence to be your ‘authentic’ self.

But what does it really mean to be ‘yourself’? It wasn’t until the first of the audience’s questions echoed around the room that the panel was forced to address the title of the event more directly. The ensuing discussion led to an interesting extrapolation of the multiplicity of the self, and how encouraging the next generation to simply be genuine is a gravely reductionistic way to look at things.

Because the truth is, we’re all multiple. Each of us embodies many different identities, moods, manners and versions of ourselves every single day. The discussion of the pitfalls, possibilities and potential dangers of this necessity of modern society could have continued for a good few hours, but unfortunately, time was up, and as Amrou themselves said, we all needed to eat.

Two incredible evenings, two thought-provoking conversations, two more reasons to be grateful to live in a City that channels so much energy and space into sparking conversation, listening to diverse viewpoints and fuelling new ideas. Thanks, LIFI. It was a blast.

Photography by Tom Martin.

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