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On the way to the forum

For ten years, Library Speakers Forum Coordinator Susan Bray (left) and Bainbridge Public Library Branch Manager Cindy Harrison have shepherded an eclectic series of Sunday afternoon talks.   - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
For ten years, Library Speakers Forum Coordinator Susan Bray (left) and Bainbridge Public Library Branch Manager Cindy Harrison have shepherded an eclectic series of Sunday afternoon talks.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

The Bainbridge Library Speakers Forum marks its first decade.

From physicists explaining fusion theory to trial attorneys dissertating on social justice, the Bainbridge Library Speakers Forum has infused fall Sundays with a flavor of the Renaissance.

“It really stimulates one to ask more questions about life,” Susan Bray said.

Last weekend’s talk by Vikram Prakash of the University of Washington architecture department began the forum’s 10th anniversary.

The topic, Hindu temples of Khajuraho, India, exemplified the mission that Bray has carried through since she originally devised the series: to expose islanders to ideas they never thought they could possibly connect to.

When Bray moved to the island from Wenatchee 15 years ago, she brought a masters in teaching English as a second language along with experience as a gifted program instructor in the elementary school setting.

“I was always setting up programs,” she said. “And I’ve always been like a magnet, always drawn toward learning experiences.”

Looking around at opportunities for community edification outside the realm of culture and entertainment, Bray decided to try to launch a speakers forum, with a goal of bringing in subject-matter experts from a wide range of disciplines including politics, the sciences, art, mathematics, architecture, ethics and international relations.

The Arts and Humanities Council passed after hearing her pitch, but Bainbridge Library branch manager Cindy Harrison happened to be at the same meeting and told Bray she’d love to host the series there.

“There was very little going on in the way of humanities when (Susan) started,” Harrison said.

Harrison and Bray formed a speakers forum committee, and Bray began her search for the first round of presenters.

“What I was interested in were changing paradigms,” Bray said. “In the fields of the sciences, for instance, research really informs paradigms.

“We really want to know what’s going on in the field of genetics, or the field of nano-technology, or brain reseach.”

Similarly, Bray points out that in the field of literature, “situational attitudes” toward analysis are always in flux, whether it’s post-modern criticism or a feminist reading of Shakespeare.

In art museums – she has worked as a docent at Seattle’s Henry Art Gallery – it used to be that visitors were admonished not to touch. Now, she says, instead of telling people about a work of art, you ask them what they see.

“It’s kind of informing us of the changing cultural attitudes toward different areas,” Bray said. “That’s what the speakers series was designed to do...(show) paradigm changes in different areas of the arts and sciences, but also to bring aspects of knowledge that we’d never have the opportunity to learn unless someone came to talk to us about it.”

Big names

Notable speakers and topics over the years have included former Seattle mayor Norm Rice giving the inaugural talk; trial attorney John Henry Browne speaking on justice in the U.S. prison system; Seattle Art Museum director Mimi Gates on ceramics; Egil Krogh on Watergate and the Nixon administration; UW international studies professor Joel Migdal on Iraq; and popular “sexpert” and UW sociology professor Pepper Schwartz.

Migdal and Schwartz were probably the best-attended talks ever.

The key, Bray believes, has been to target the individual first.

“I try to feature...a fascinating person who has accomplished quite a bit in any area,” she said. “We pick the speakers according to how well spoken they are. I need a topic that is interesting, but always (from) a great speaker.”

Harrison remembers the time a woman dragged her disgruntled husband away from his football game to a lecture by Seattle Opera education director Perry Lorenzo. As the man left the building, Harrison asked him what he thought about the talk – and he said he didn’t think opera could be so fascinating.

“I think that’s the clue,” Harrison said. “If you can make a subject exciting and show how interesting things can be that they never dreamed were interesting, then you have a success.”

Coaxing speakers to come to the island hasn’t been a problem, and Bray says that in 10 years, she’s never had a speaker cancel.

For one thing, their $300-$500 honorarium is a pretty good deal for a scenic ferry ride, lunch on the island and a chance to share their expertise with a lively and receptive audience.

“And they all have friends here,” Bray said. “Everybody’s got connections on Bainbridge Island.”

Harrison lauds Bray’s knack for tracking down luminaries, whether it’s talking to department secretaries at UW about which faculty members have the most shining personalities, or taking suggestions from hooked-in islanders.

This is one of the things she’ll miss most when Bray steps down from her organizational post at the end of this season.

Bray, something a Renaissance woman herself, said that running the speakers forum has “enlarged her world” but that she’s ready to take more time to immerse herself in her interests including biking, singing, playing piano and possibly, getting back into teaching.

“Every ten years, you have to re-pot,” Bray said.

Harrison says the library is “casting about” for interested individuals to take the reins, with Bray being part of the transition conversation.

Harrison also points out that the speakers’ forum is one of several library outreach offerings, including its travelers and opera preview series. She has every hope that the forum will continue as part of that larger context.

“That’s what we’re always trying to do, is make the library a vibrant place...a forum for sharing ideas,” Harrison said. “And I hope it will always be so.”

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Leading voices

The Library Speakers Forum is held at 4 p.m. Sundays at the Bainbridge Public Library. Judge William A. Fletcher will speak Sept. 23 on human rights protections by American courts; subsequent speakers are Stephen E. Hanson on Russian elections, Ronald Moore on aesthetics, Bernard Jacobson on being a music critic and Duane Pasco on his creative world. Tickets are $10 at the door. All proceeds benefit the library. Call 842-4162.

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