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Bay Area Book Festival Presents Renowned Speakers on Today’s Issues

Despite its virtual format, the festival remained a platform for open dialogue on prominent leaders' visions for a better future.


In a normal year, the Bay Area Book Festival (BABF) takes place amid the first sunny days of May. Crowds of tens of thousands circulate among booths lining the streets and authors from around the world speak in auditoriums about their newest works. Today, a gathering of this size would be a disaster waiting to happen. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the BABF took place under a very different setting this year: online. 

When the possibility of holding the BABF in person was deemed unlikely, Cherilyn Parsons, the festival’s founder and executive director, redirected her team to create a virtual program. In the meantime, she struggled to raise money to keep staff on board. “I had to go into super overdrive,” said Parsons. “It was a really busy time for everyone while we were also dealing with the grief of having to cancel this wonderful festival that we had planned.” 

On May 1, when the new BABF premiered as BABF #UNBOUND, things looked very different. “We decided to keep it pretty simple,” explained Parsons. Instead of taking place in an auditorium filled by readers, author interviews were recorded through Zoom and published on YouTube for easy retrieval. Parsons and her team continued to publish new videos daily until August, when they decided to mix things up and host a “mini festival” that would be a direct response to the current topics in today’s political heat.

The new series of BABF #UNBOUND addressed the whirlwind of issues that are prevalent now more than ever in today’s society. Over twenty speakers convened to create separate talks surrounding these problems. Speakers included Steve Kerr, Head Coach of the Golden State Warriors, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, chef and founder of Chez Panisse, Alice Waters, and W. Kamau Bell, Emmy Award-winning comedian and activist. 

With only a month before the election, Parsons thought there was no better time to gather local business and social service leaders to hold space for thoughtful and grounded conversations around some of the nation’s most pressing controversies. “It’s this whole community effort to come together and create a sense of hope,” said Parsons.

In the first talk, psychologist Dacher Keltner interviewed Steve Kerr and W. Kamau Bell on the matter of “Politics, Race, and the State of Play in Our Nation.” The three of them touched on multiple topics relating to democracy and the role of race in basketball. Bell pointed out the change in today’s use of social media and how that can be used to normalize political knowledge in pop culture. Kerr commented saying, “What gives me hope is that the younger generation is starting to understand their economic power.”

Bell and Kerr also discussed race and white privilege. Bell voiced, “The one thing that people of white privilege have to do is understand that they have to open the door for people who do not look like them.” With the Black Lives Matter movement gaining more traction, Kerr said that white people must become more aware of the obstacles that black people face. In regards to this, Kerr described how he tries to nurture a joyful environment with his team while also supporting and acknowledging the way recent events might be affecting his players. 

Bell underlined how crucial the next generation will be to bettering America’s future — not only in terms of racial equity, but also in terms of having more informed opinions. “We’re not afraid to teach kids how hot fire is,” Bell said. “There’s an over-indexing on protecting kids, when really those are the kids who grow up into adults who don’t understand that the world is not just what they can smell through their nose or see through their eyes.” 

The talk “Food is Fundamental” was moderated by NPR radio producer, Davia Nelson, and discussed the food industry’s weaknesses with Alice Waters and labor activist Saru Jayaraman. Waters emphasized that the fast food industry has created an unhealthy approach to food and should be countered by an increase in customer-to-farmer relations. She iterated that the connection people have to food is dangerously thinning. “It’s really a moment that we need to pay attention to what we’re eating and how we’re eating,” Waters emphasized. 

Jayaraman remarked that the food industry has revealed its flaws during the pandemic. She noted that before the pandemic, many food workers were already fighting to make a living off of a feeble pay of $2.15 per hour. Now, with COVID-19, workers have no choice but to continue to work because they do not qualify for unemployment insurance. The idea of essential workers has become widely recognized due to the pandemic, and Jayaraman hopes that people begin to realize their importance outside the context of a pandemic context as well. “We couldn’t live without them. I think it’s really time to push on that awareness,” she said. 

This year’s BABF #UNBOUND provided a renewed outlook on our nation’s current issues, underlining the importance of this year’s election. For now, Parsons is planning on continuing to host virtual events in the months to come. She hopes that #UNBOUND serves as a reminder to everyone of a message of unity. “We are in this together, and there are people envisioning a better future.”

UPDATE: this article was updated to specify that the online format of the BABF #UNBOUND began in May 2020.