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From black lives matter to grassroots climate actions, Cambridge Festival asks the big questions

Have we made any real progress since Black Lives Matter? Should we be using climate change to animate new grassroots, bottom-up actions, rather than only seeking breakthrough solutions? Who can fix the teacher recruitment and retention crisis?

These questions and more will be asked during this year’s Cambridge Festival, which begins next week on Wednesday 13th and runs until Thursday 28th March. The festival is run by the University of Cambridge and is one of the largest of its kind in the country with over 45,000 in person visits each year and hundreds of thousands of viewers online from across the world.

The programme features a wide-ranging series of more than 350 mostly free events on everything from climate change and AI to politics and health. There is also an extensive line up for children and families to enjoy.

A series of discussions from leading thinkers headline a bumper series of talks and debates during the two-week festival:

Race and society: Have we made any real progress since Black Lives Matter? (27 March, Cambridge Union Society) explores where we are now, where progress has been made and how much further there is to go with Cambridge sociologist Professor Jason Arday and Dr Claire Hynes from the University of East Anglia. Chaired by Darren Lewis, Assistant editor and columnist at The Mirror. The panel focus on the achievements of black individuals across all fields – particularly black women. They explore the conscious reshaping of black identity that is happening, and how black people are finding ingenious ways to take up space and are being unapologetic about the fact that they belong in those spaces. They also look at how we continue to move forward against a backdrop of cuts to diversity and inclusion budgets.  

Cambridge Conversations: What climate change can do for you (20 March, Cambridge Union Society) sees PhD supervisor Professor Mike Hulme and supervisee Madeleine Ary Hahne look at other ways of framing the challenges and opportunities of climate change. Should we be using climate change to animate new grassroots, bottom-up actions, rather than only seeking ‘breakthrough solutions’ to emerge from the next cycle of international negotiations? They approach this question through a discussion of their mutual research interests, Mike’s recently published book – Climate Change Isn’t Everything: Liberating Climate Politics from Alarmism – and Madeleine’s new climate action platform, Rootd Earth.       

The panel discussion Creating a liveable future: positive action to avert climate catastrophe (28 March, St John's College Old Divinity School) is set to be a stimulating event for audiences, discussing how climate change activism is not just for scientists and demonstrating how writers and artists are also taking action.

The panel features playwright Steve Waters, Professor of Scriptwriting from the University of East Anglia, whose many plays include Limehouse (2017) and Temple (2015) for the Donmar. He is joined by Ari de Fauconberg, an award-winning researcher and PhD student at Cambridge Judge Business School. Also on the panel are critically acclaimed novelists, Guinevere Glasfurd, whose second novel, The Year Without Summer, is a story of climate crisis, and Farah Ali, author of The River, The Town and the short-story collection People Want to Live. The event is chaired by Emily Farnworth, the Director of the Centre for Climate Engagement at Hughes Hall, member of the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition Advisory Group, a member of the University of Cambridge Sustainability Committee and a Cambridge Zero Fellow.

Cambridge Conversations: Beyond the lecture theatre with George the Poet (26 March, Cambridge Union Society) sees the highly acclaimed spoken word poet return to Cambridge for what promises to be a fascinating conversation with Dr Sharath Srinivasan, Department of Politics and International Studies. They discuss education, life lessons and how George incorporates his sociology studies into his award-winning podcasts, spoken word performances and his research on the socio-economic potential of black music. Along the way, they cover political activism, the meaning of education, demographic change at Cambridge, and more. Dr Srinivasan taught George while he was at Cambridge; it is the first time the two men have come together for around six years.

George is currently doing a PhD at UCL'S Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose on the socio-economic potential of black music. He said it started as an exploration of innovation in black music and how it can contribute to the way diaspora communities are organised but has become more about politics than he anticipated. “I’ve come full circle,” he commented, referring to his time at Cambridge.

Preserving our global health: Uniting against antibiotic resistance (15 March), is an enlightening and urgent exploration of a global health crisis that affects us all and touches every aspect of our lives: antibiotic resistance (AMR). This talk with Dr Harriet Bartlett from University of Oxford, Dr Lucy Weinert from University of Cambridge, and Dr Gemma Murray from University College London explores how the One Health approach – where we recognise that human, animal and environmental health are closely connected – can help to tackle this problem.

Who can fix the teacher recruitment and retention crisis? (20 March) is a panel discussion on the different aspects of school staffing problems. Speakers include Clare Brooks, Professor of Education at the University of Cambridge; Lord Jim Knight of Weymouth, former Minister of State for Employment and Welfare Reform in the Labour government in 2009-2010 and chief education and external officer at TES Global Ltd; Andy Love, Royal Society of Biology ‘Biology teacher of the year’ 2023; Stefanie Sullivan, Professor of Education at the University of Nottingham; and Cathy Tooze, Executive Headteacher at The Hertfordshire & Essex High School and Science College.

The festival is brimming with a variety of exhilarating events for all ages. Focussed across both weekends, families will be spoilt for choice between a range of events including storytelling, fun interactive games, compelling demos, hands-on activities, and much more. A small selection includes:

  • Bright New World (23 March, Babbage Lecture Theatre) – What kind of world do we want to live in? Children’s author Cindy Forde and Dr Irving Huerta take a space-time machine to re-imagine our future together during this interactive workshop.
  • Tuberculosis: A Fishy Tale about a Deadly Disease (24 March, Lecture Theatre A, New Museums Site) – Jonathan Shanahan, a postdoc from the Department of Medicine, talks about how his lab’s work with zebrafish is impacting disease treatment and what they are learning about why tuberculosis has been such a successful adversary. There is plenty of opportunity for audience participation via phone-based polls, quizzes and word clouds, and at one point, a barrage of ball pit balls. This a fun, visual, and interactive talk suitable for all ages.
  • The nomadic storyteller from the North (24 March, Babbage Lecture Theatre) – an enriching blend of history and pure fun with the enchanting Romani storyteller, renowned author and toymaker Richard O’Neill, often dubbed the ‘Romani Hans Christian Anderson’. He captivates audiences as he weaves spellbinding tales, offering a delightful array of original and authentic stories. From the whimsical adventures of a magical flying snow horse to spine-tingling encounters with terrifying monsters, arm-wrestling grandmas and mischievous parrots, O’Neill’s storytelling transports everyone to a world of wonder.       
  • The Ugly Animal Preservation Society - Weird Life Underwater (23 March, Babbage Lecture Theatre) – The Ugly Animal Preservation Society is dedicated to raising the profile of mother natures more aesthetically challenged children. From hagfish that see off predators using sickening slime to sea cucumbers that fight with their bum, our seas are full of some of the strangest animals in the world. But this environment is one that needs a good clean up if these creatures, and maybe the planet is to survive. In his beguiling talk, biologist and presenter Simon Watt explores the tremendous wildlife we can find on the shore and in the depths.
  • The canoe race: the art and science of creation myths (23 March, Lecture Theatre A, New Museums Site) – Digital live drawing meets the oral storytelling tradition in this hugely engaging and thought-provoking audio-visual performance about the challenges facing our planet, with storyteller Marion Leeper and illustrator Tonka Uzu.

David Cain, Cambridge Festival Manager, said: “Once again, hundreds of people involved in the Cambridge Festival have come together to create an outstanding programme for everyone, no matter what their age or interest.

“This festival is essentially about learning more; more about the world, more about our place in it, and more about ourselves. It opens up potential new ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling about everything around us.

“Our hope is that people will be inspired and involved in a whole range of activities and events over the two weeks. We look forward to seeing everyone very soon!”

To view the full programme online and book tickets visit the Festival website visit here

To download and print a copy of the PDF programme visit here.