This Year’s Spirit And Place Festival May Be Virtual, But Its Focus Is Very Real

Illustration by Todd Urban, Getty Images

The 25th-anniversary fest is a mostly online, but still full-fledged, affair. It has 25 virtual and in-person events lined up from November 5 to 15 (the full schedule  is on the website). “This could’ve been the year people took off,” says program director Erin Kelley. “But they doubled down.”

The events were proposed in early May. But many presenters adjusted their programming to keep it relevant in light of the Black Lives Matter protests and the pandemic. “You can’t talk about what’s going on in the world today without discussing those two issues,” says Kelley.

This year’s theme: “origins.” On both an individual and national level—and their bearing on people’s understanding of race, class, and gender.

The centerpiece is a simulated Thanksgiving dinner. Initial plans for a family-style meal had to be scrapped, but a virtual Dinner Table Democracy community conversation is slated for November 10. Participants will swap perspectives with others in a role-playing game as they’re asked to try on origin stories and character attributes unfamiliar to them.

Leaders hope the conversations will continue. The pandemic may have pushed the dinner online, just as many families won’t get to gather in person this Thanksgiving. But festival organizers say we should broach tough subjects with our loved ones this year, whether over turkey and mashed potatoes, or over Zoom.

First up: Individual rights. “Is it fair to say each person’s individual freedom ends where someone else’s begins?” asks Barbara Shoup, the writer-in-residence at the Indiana Writers Center. “And what does that tell us in a time when we are all at risk from a highly contagious, potentially fatal virus?” Dancers from Dance Kaleidoscope and others will perform a dozen routines in a virtual event based on reflections about COVID-19 submitted by everyday Hoosiers.

Now look around your neighborhood. “Many parts of Indianapolis are segregated, which is a direct impact of housing policies that started long before most of us were born,” says Callie McCune, an Indiana Historical Society coordinator who is leading a virtual event on housing equity. “How do we ensure that the choices we make today create a more equitable future for our city?”

Step into an immigrant’s shoes. In a virtual event, Immigrant Welcome Center ambassadors from around the world will share their stories of coming to America. Kelley suggests people consider not only the demographics of their community, but how multiculturalism can be an asset.  “How is Indianapolis strengthened by its diversity?” she asks.

Consider the environment. A virtual discussion among faith leaders organized by Keep Indianapolis Beautiful and the Center for Interfaith Cooperation asks everyone to consider how their faith may prompt them to be responsible caretakers of the natural world.

End with reconciliation. Manon Voice, a local writer and poet, cohosts a public conversation on that topic on the festival’s final night. “Do you see reconciliation as a work within oneself?” she asks. “Or do you see it as a work that requires another party—be it a person, a group of people, an institution, or a system?”

Finally, act. “We hope people will go out and work for the positive changes they discuss,” Kelley says. “We have to reconcile with those who disagree with us, both in joyful and painful moments.”