Looking for a way to flex your writing muscles in a supportive, casual space? Join us on 10/5 for the inaugural meeting of our new On Topic Writing Club! Facilitated by local writer and theatre artist Miriam Tobin ofSCRiB LAB, writers will focus on themes of recognition and belonging inspired by Michèle Lamont’s Seeing Others. No preparation is needed — just bring your own writing tools of choice and get ready to flow!
Check out upcoming community programs (including On Topic: Writing Club) at our Community Programs page!
As we celebrate Town Hall Seattle’s 25th season – our silver anniversary – we invite our community to step up to the “Silver Soapbox” and celebrate with us!
Around the turn of the 19th century, public orators made use of overturned, wooden soap crates to elevate their voices. Today, someone might be told to “get off their soapbox” when delivering a particularly passionate, loud message. But to Town Hall, the soapbox signifies a space for sharing ideas, listening, and finding inspiration – a space to be part of, not a space to step down from. It’s exactly the kind of space that we strive to create at Town Hall.
From civics talks to vibrant musical performances, Town Hall is a platform for a multitude of opinions, ideas, and forms of expression – just like the century-old soapboxes that preceded us. As we head into our 25th season, we hope you’ll step up on the Silver Soapbox with us and celebrate Town Hall’s past, present, and future!
Town Hall is pleased to announce our new Venue Access Program (VAP) partner, Orquesta Northwest! Part of 4Culture’s Building for Equity program, our VAP was launched last season to build a long-term partnership with a small-scale, BIPOC-led nonprofit and offer free access to Town Hall’s stages throughout the season. We couldn’t be more excited for Orquesta Northwest to join us in the program’s inaugural year to fill our spaces with vibrant music and community.
Under the guidance of acclaimed conductor Paula Nava Madrigal, Orquesta Northwest serves as the umbrella organization for three incredible initiatives in the Puget Sound area: The Ballard Civic Orchestra, a prominent hub for Latinx musicians performing under Maestra Paula’s leadership; Cascade Conducting, an annual week-long conducting masterclass; and World Youth Orchestra, which provides free instruction and instruments to underrepresented students, with a focus on empowering Latinx youth.
Orquesta Northwest kicks things off with an El Grito celebration (9/17) in collaboration with the Consulate of Mexico. In honor of Mexican Independence Day, join us for performances by CeAtl Tonalli Aztec Dancers, Ballard Civic Orchestra, Trío Guadalevín, Mariachi Guadalajara, Bailadores de Bronce, and more! Admission is free, and the festivities begin at 1PM.
P.S. Orquesta is looking for musicians! Visit their website to learn more and get involved.
Part One in an Occasional Series About How You “Do” Town Hall
For the last 15 years, I’ve visited Munich annually with Barbara and the girls to see their grandparents. This rhythm means I miss a bunch of stuff at Town Hall every summer — and this time, that includes an event that I’m really drawn to, personally.
First, a little backstory. Questions about technology and its social implications have been woven throughout our calendar for years, as far back as 2006 when Ray Kurzweil gave me the chills at a packed Great Hall conversation about his book The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Who wants or needs anything like “a singularity,” I asked? (Note: I have subsequently asked the same thing about NFTs and blockchain, but I remain optimistic that I need not fret about the answers to those questions.)
Artificial Intelligence, or AI, is different. In its implementation, we’re asking and answering questions about what (and eventually, who) constitutes humanity, at lightning speed. And when I say “we” I mean the comparatively small group of scientists, researchers, and schemers motivated by altruism, curiosity, or commercial opportunity — or maybe a little of each.
And so this Thursday, July 14, we have the latest stitch in the weave, a powerhouse discussion at what feels like AI’s rubicon moment. Honestly, that moment was probably years ago, maybe even when Ray released that scary book. But I’m talking about last month’s reporting of a Google engineer’s contention that the Google AI chatbot LaMDA has been “consistent in its communications about what it wants and what it believes its rights are as a person.”
Fortunately, some of the brilliant, well-meaning folks building the building are coming over on July 14 to talk me down off the ledge. Blaise Aguera y Arcas is a VP and Fellow at Google Research, and an active participant in big-picture considerations around AI and ethics, fairness, bias, and risk. Melanie Mitchell is a professor at Santa Fe Institute, a student of Douglas Hofstadter, and a leading forecaster and translator of the implications of AI to the general public. And just announced — the event will be moderated by Lili Cheng, Corporate VP for Microsoft’s AI and Research. It will be a spirited discussion featuring three visionaries staring into the world of AI. We couldn’t have asked for more perceptive observers or more respectfully divergent perspectives, and you should come if you can (you can get tickets here)!
And now, here’s the favor — I’ve got a question I’m hoping you can ask during Q&A:
As we invite technology to support/supplant human decision-making across so many fronts, I’ve started to believe that maybe making mistakes and valuing imperfection is essential to humanity. And that we should resist efforts to use technology to eliminate the fallibility of our incomplete knowledge or poor judgment, or to avoid choices that might fail to fulfill expectations and lead to disappointment. As we begin to invite AI into so many dimensions of life, how can we protect space for fallibility?
It’s time to level with you. For some, Q&A has long been a controversial part of our programs where people make windy speeches (like the one you just read from me — sorry) before a question that feels like an afterthought. Q&A is central to what makes Town Hall special: bring an open mind, and you get a chance to grapple with a deeply informed perspective on a topic, followed by the honor of an opportunity to interrogate a presenter’s conclusions through a direct question.
Being present for Q&A means you showed up, no matter the weather; you stayed engaged to the end and actively collaborated in the meaning of the event. Great questions help us pick up pieces we missed and help our speakers understand new things about their arguments; great questioners help make meaning for all of us. It’s one of the best ways to “do” Town Hall.
We believe that our programs can be more than infotainment; they help us understand issues and decide how we want to live our lives. Not to mention how we express our desires, especially as our daily lives are yoked to intuitions formulated, data gathered, and decisions made by computers that think.
In the end, AI is poised to change a lot about the society we share, and we all have a right to formulate our own perspectives on how we feel about it. This program will undoubtedly offer a rich conversation, and I hope you will be there to join it — and to tell me how it went!
P.S. We’ve also just announced that the event will feature an appearance by another unintended inevitability of AI: a chatbot evangelist called The Word of the Future. The interactive exhibit by Jacob Peter Fennell and Reilly Donovan was first presented at the Museum of Museums on First Hill last summer. Come early/stay late to be moved by the spirit of a full-on Digital Deity.
Shin Yu Pai is no stranger to Town Hall Seattle. She began her relationship with us back in 2018 as an Inside/Out Artist in Residence for the Phinney/Greenwood neighborhood, curating programs that brought new local voices like author Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma, Kathleen Alcalá, Rex Hohlbein of Facing Homelessness, and artist Susan Robb to the Town Hall Stage. In 2020, she wrote the vital blog piece, Town Hall Land Acknowledgement: Beyond Gestures, and pitched the concept to produce what would eventually become Lyric World, her podcast series centering on poets and poetry by BIPOC writers, with an emphasis on AAPI authors.
Over the years, Shin Yu’s presence at Town Hall has brought intention and community focus to our programming; it only seems natural that she became our Program Director earlier this year. Town Hall is thrilled to have Shin Yu onboard— read on to learn about what she looks forward to the most this season.
Season notes from Program Director, Shin Yu Pai
In many ways, 2021 feels brand new. As we begin to safely host in-person events, I am honored to develop programs that reflect new relationships with community partners, center conversations on racial equity, and increase the visibility of work done by BIPOC creators. (Learn more about our racial equity statement and commitments here.) Below is a small preview of what the season holds:
Our Arts & Culture series elevates the work of local artists and brings world-renowned cultural icons to Seattle audiences. This fall is no exception as we welcome national luminaries like Pixar cofounder Alvy Ray Smith and Guggenheim Fellow Dr. Farah Jasmine Griffin, along with South Seattle Emerald founder Marcus Harrison Green and illustrator Susanna Ryan of Seattle Walk Reportin conversationwith Crosscut‘s Knute “Mossback” Berger.
The new season also offers more musical opportunities than ever before. Our five-concert Global Rhythms series (tickets on sale soon!) begins in October with Quetzal, a Los Angeles-based rock group founded by Chicano Artivista and guitarist Quetzal Flores. Further into the series, we’ll hear from master of the rubâb Homayoun Sakhi, Korean shamanic folk-pop band Ak Dan Gwang Chil (ADG7), and other exciting artists.
Bridging the realms of literature and music, The Bushwick Book Club Seattle will present their entire 9-concert series in The Forum, including songs inspired by Michele Zauner’sCrying in H Mart and a tribute to children’s author Beverly Cleary.
Gage Academy of Arts founder Gary Faigin returns to host a series of conversations with visual artists, including Annie Han andDaniel Mihalyo of Lead Pencil Studioand critically-acclaimed portraitist Rose Frantzen. Later in the season, our Short Stories Live series makes a grand return.
Town Hall’s Community Partnerships start the season strong witha mayoral candidate forum presented by Inspire Washington. Later this fall, look for several free, interactive racial equity workshops, the first of which will be led by Seattle-based MIT author and speaker Ruchika Tulshyan.
Our Civics series brings New York Times best-selling author Keisha N. Blain, journalist and former White House aide Keith Boykin, youth literacy advocate Tracy Swinton Bailey, radio host Thom Hartmann, and many more thought leaders to our stages for thought-provoking discussions on social and political issues.
Last but not least, our Science series explores topics like longevity with Dr. Nir Barzilai and Dr. Nathan Price of the Institute for Systems Biology,the response of plants and animals to climate change with natural historian Thor Hanson, and a lifetime of musings on animals with author Susan Orlean. Town Hall and Grist will also present Dr. Rupa Marya and Raj Patel as they explore systemic racism and its impact on the human body.
So much more awaits us as the season progresses and I’m excited to bring even more diverse events to Town Hall this year. You can see the full list of upcoming events and purchase tickets on our website; new events are being added every day so check back often. And if you have ideas for events you would love to see on our stages, let us know!
“To tell a story of Seattle.” “A looooong discussion about the kind of city we want to share.” These phrases don’t appear in Town Hall’s mission statement but they’ve become a shorthand for the goal of our perpetual, expansive calendar. It’s inevitable and appropriate that Town Hall should ultimately be described by what we do, and not how we do it—but it’s at odds with our DNA.
Underneath our busy calendar is an essential passivity. Town Hall was founded as a collective resource to support other non-profits. While we program some of our own events, we are at heart a tool, waiting to be picked up by other people, and other organizations. This makes us different from most cultural producers; even the events we program ourselves are designed to complement the work of our community partners.
To be maximally useful Town Hall has long prided itself on what we’ve called “an architecture of inclusivity”, designed to encourage participation and help people feel at home. Low ticket prices would mean low barriers to attendance in the pews. Low rental rates would mean low barriers to presenting from our stages. A program philosophy of saying “yes to the good ideas of others” would mean the community itself determines the defining events of the Town Hall calendar. An intentional informality would help us feel welcoming, even while high production standards elevate professional and community-based presenters alike.
It’s a great system and we’ve been justifiably proud of what we’ve created. But a system is only as good as its inputs—and if those inputs are limited, the output is inherently limited. (This is officially the end of the tech metaphors.)
Our system hasn’t created a deeply inclusive place—owing to that passivity at our heart. Town Hall itself is the product of a network of people and institutions who call it home, and that network is overwhelmingly white. Despite our desire to be welcoming, historically not enough BIPOC artists or BIPOC-led non-profits have seen Town Hall as the right place to express their ideas or creativity. Many people don’t know about Town Hall (we’ve been around for 22 years, but we’re still pretty small). Still others know about it, but don’t see themselves or their concerns represented in our calendar. Whatever the reason, if we embrace the goal of a calendar that truly reflects the full breadth and diversity of our community we have a long way to travel. And that journey begins by rejecting our passivity and embracing a more active approach to the community we want to support beyond our walls, and foster within them.
And so our four years of equity work—four years and still just beginning—is a declaration that a mere architecture of inclusion is no longer good enough. And though it might have felt sufficient, it never was. If you read the Equity Commitments accompanying this post, you can understand the concrete steps we plan to take in the coming year, and you can even hold us to account.
Town Hall isn’t a social justice organization, but we are vested in modeling a more just society; our equity journey is toward a “more perfect version of ourselves.” Becoming a place where as many as possible feel truly welcome is essential to delivering our mission; it’s essential to our vision of a story of this city told through many voices; and it’s essential to any meaningful discussion—looooong or short—about the kind of city we want to share.
In a typical year, June marks the end of our season. Same thing in 2021— but truly nothing else about the past year+ has been typical. Since last March we’ve produced over 250 events, only a -handful in our actual home; over 100,000 viewers tuned in to our digital stage, from Ballard and Boston, from London and Lake City. Some of the coolest events were only possible because of this remote approach, like dream discussions pairing authors from across the country with interviewers around the world (Elizabeth Lesser and Jane Fonda, Steve Davis and Chelsea Clinton, Kehinde Andrews and Russell Brand, J Mascis and Richard Thompson). Amid the darkness of the pandemic it felt like a small gift simply to do (a version of) what we do: connecting authors, ideas, artists and activists with curious, engaged Seattleites.
Last year also allowed for exciting growth close to home, through new relationships, initiatives and clear focus on our equity goals. We fostered deeper collaborations with partners like Northwest African American Museum and Urban Native Education Alliance, found new partnerships with organizations like Young Women Empowered and YouthShallLead, launched a brand new ticketing and donation system called my.THS, and hosted three remote artist residencies, with Hailey Tayathy, Joshua Roman, and Timothy White Eagle.
All good—even great—stuff. But all that gratitude aside, we also confess we’re weary of screens, and eager for the chance to be our truest Town Hall self, by offering shoulder to shoulder, face to face experiences in our building. (Remember that place?)
It’ll take a while to tidy up and air out the joint so plan on a customarily light summer, and a return to new normalcy in September. As we finalize work on our building flow, safety modifications, and “front-of-house” protocols, we’re aligning our approach with the latest guidance from King County Public Health and our colleagues in the regional cultural sector.
Meanwhile, in nearly every conversation we’re asked, “How is Town Hall doing financially?” Like most organizations the pandemic required creativity, and difficult choices. To survive the last 14 months, we weathered two separate staff-wide furloughs, cut three full-time positions, enacted significant pay and hour cuts on leadership, and laid off nearly all of our event staff. Together these measures reduced the budget by about 35%—but they kept the majority of our administrative staff intact. Combine this strategy with humbling generosity from our individual, foundation and corporate supporters, and sustaining commitments from our membership, and we’re in a strong position to ramp up to full operations in September.
It was emotional to have only six months back in the renovated building before shutting our doors. Soon, just over two months, we’ll throw them wide and welcome you back into Town Hall. You can expect a blended program this fall, featuring in-person and livestream attendance at a mixed calendar of programs originating from both 8th and Seneca and the world beyond. Until then, revisit the media library to catch something extraordinary you might have missed—and take five minutes to create your account on our new ticketing system my.THS.
Town Hall belongs to all of us, and we can’t wait to invite you back home…
PS: We’re Taking a Summer Break! The Town Hall administrative offices will be closed from July 2 – July 11.
Shankar Vedantam and Brian Greene will be the keynote speakers for Town Hall’s annual gala fundraiser taking place on April 9 at 7PM PDT. They’ll be discussing the meaning in an evolving universe. The event will be a real-time virtual celebration. Tickets start at just $75, and donations directly support our radically accessible ticket prices. More information can be found HERE.
Our brains are mysterious. There are as many neurons in the brain as there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy. That’s a lot of neurons. There’s much we don’t know about what goes on inside our noggins. How do neurons talk to each other? How does the brain compute? Heck, we don’t even quite know what the brain is actually made up of.
Knowing how much we don’t know, it’s no surprise there’s plenty in our brains that remain hidden. Shankar Vedantam is doing his part to shine a light on that. He joins us twice this month; first as a special guest at our virtual gala on 4/9 and then alongside KUOW’s Ross Reynolds on 4/13 for a talk about the power & paradox of the self-deceiving brain. Vedantam is a writer and correspondent who uses journalism and research to inform the public on social science issues. A lecturer at Harvard University and Columbia University, he’s most known for his Hidden Brain book published in 2010 and the subsequent podcast and radio program. It’s been on NPR since 2015. Shankar likes to focus on the effects of unconscious bias in everyday life.
Whether it be the rituals of how we eat pizza, the relative happiness of winning the bronze medal, or eating cupcakes after working out, Vedantam showcases how our mundane day-to-day activities might not be so mundane after all. Indeed, our unconscious patterns drive our human behavior and those biases shape our choices, and those choices trigger actions that change the course of our relationships with others. This is to say, Vedantam teaches a lot about our brains by using his.
Brian Greene and Shankar Vedantam will be the keynote speakers for Town Hall’s annual gala fundraiser taking place on April 9 at 7 pm PDT. They’ll be discussing the meaning in an evolving universe. The event will be a real-time virtual celebration. Tickets start at just $75, and donations directly support our accessible ticketing strategies. More information can be found HERE.
It’s not every man that can explain String Theory to Everyman. No, most people can’t put into simple terms what a Calabi-Yau manifold is. Nor what Ricci flatness is. Most folks can’t make much sense of the multiverse, even if they did watch Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Luckily, there are some talented people out there who can take huge mind-blowing questions and concepts and make them understandable to people like, well, us here at Town Hall. Enter Brian Greene.
Brian Greene is a theoretical physicist, mathematician, and string theorist. He is coming to Town Hall to help us understand, in part, the universe. It’s actually something of his forte, synthesizing expert-level ideas in easily digestible ways. Stephen Colbert now understands General Relativity better thanks to Greene. Talking about Einstein, the man who gave us that theory of gravitation, Green, as part of his “Your Daily Equation” video series with World Science Festival briefly highlights what the big deal is with E = MC2. Also, what is String Theory, actually? Greene can answer that with citrus fruit.
A professor at Columbia University, he’s done quite a bit of research on the Calabi-Yau manifolds mentioned above. Don’t know what that is? You’re not alone. You might not know him from theoretical physics circles, but you might from his award-winning books, such as The Elegant Universe, Icarus at the Edge of Time, The Fabric of the Cosmos, and the Hidden Reality. He’s also had PBS specials and, yes, he was indeed in an episode of The Big Bang Theory.
Greene is known for his pioneering work in superstring theory and has been frequently called one of the great “science communicators” of our time. He uses analogies and thought experiences to provide a means for laypeople to learn about String Theory and other heady topics. Can there be a unification of Albert Einstein’s theory of General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics? Greene thinks so. How many dimensions are there to the universe? More than ten? Green thinks so. What is reality? More specifically, what is spacetime? Greene can walk us through it. What are black holes? Did Disney get it right? Not really at all. Is space an entity? Why does time have a direction? Can we travel to the past? Is our universe the only universe?
The most important question, though, is what do the answers mean for us? How does an ever-expanding universe impact our humanity? Now, that’s a lot to unpack. Luckily, we have a premiere science communicator to help us along the way. Get Greene’s help with these big questions at Town Hall’s annual gala fundraiser. Join us!
January 23, 2021. This date was marked on my calendar for a couple of reasons, one being the kick off to Town Hall Seattle’s Global Rhythms Series. It wasn’t just that I was excited to see local musicians who carry the musical traditions of their homelands—but because it was my culture and homeland that was being represented.
While Mako and Munjuru performed traditional Okinawan music, dance, and storytelling that helps deepen our understanding of their community and culture, I had the very distinct pleasure to have a running commentary from my mom who provided an additional perspective on the traditions of the Okinawan culture. Breaking down the instruments, the different styles of Okinawan music, and the differences between Ryusou Fashion and how it differs from the traditional attire of the main Japanese island. This led us to what we call the “Okinawan Room” at my parents house. Here you can see a beautiful Hanagasa (traditional Okinawan Hat) hanging from the wall and a sanshin on display – just don’t ask any of us to play it.
Watching the performance also led us to some deeper conversations and stories that I had never known: from my mom being taught to hide in the sugar cane fields whenever she saw US military soldiers to using caves for shelter as air strikes were happening to the villages. As my mom told these stories, there was something about having Mako and Munjuru’s style of koten music playing in the background that provided a perfect score to my mom’s life.
I want to thank Town Hall Seattle for providing me the opportunity to openly connect with my culture through their Global Rhythm Series, and more importantly for igniting conversations with my (Okasan) mother about her truths and history of Okinawa. We are planning a trip to the homeland once we feel it is safe to travel again.
Masao Yamada is a community leader who has founded youth programs/organizations with a focus on career development, arts equity, civic engagement, social justice and more. Yamada has recently developed and guided youth in co-founding a youth-led/operated radio station, Ground Zero Radio, and is part of a city-wide Creative Advantage initiative to establish equitable access to arts education for every student in Seattle Public Schools. Yamada currently sits on the Board of Directors for WheelLab and the Intiman Theatre, and is an Board Member for the Melodic Caring Project and One Love Foundation. In summer 202, Yamada became an organizer for the Seattle Children’s March and is an adult advisor to the Youth Advocates for System Change Council. To learn more about Yamada, you can follow him on Instagram @y_masao .
If you missed Mako and Munjuru’s performance, you can still purchase a subscription to the series until March 10, which will grant you exclusive access to a replay of this impactful program.