Our Favorite Events of 2020

Zócalo Went Virtual—But Managed to Stay Grounded in the Big Issues of the Moment

Our Favorite Events of 2020 | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Illustration by Be Boggs.

Connecting people to ideas and to each other—Zócalo’s mission for over 17 years now—was never going to be simple in 2020. Well before January, we knew that this year would bring a historically divisive election to America. And we saw how deep our inequalities and fundamental disagreements ran.

But we didn’t anticipate that the act of bringing people together in person for smart, thought-provoking discussions wouldn’t even be possible for most of 2020.

Since 2003, we’ve hosted live events in Los Angeles and beyond. This year, Zócalo—thanks to staff, partners, collaborators, and Zoom—rapidly shifted to hosting our events online, at a time when we felt our audience needed it most. On March 20, 2020, we hosted our first virtual event—thinking and hoping that it would be a temporary state of affairs. Instead, the ongoing pandemic has led us to spend nine-plus months rethinking what makes Zócalo events special. And we’ve begun to see what might be accomplished when we bring people together in a virtual public square to which everyone in the world is invited.

We’re proud of the robust, civil audience chatrooms we’ve hosted, of the thoughtful speakers we brought to you (entirely free, as always), and of a new, Twitter-only live interview format we piloted. We put our heart and soul into all our events, but we do have our favorites—the ones that, this year, drew most deeply on imagination, art, and scholarship to address the toughest problems in our communities and our world.

Thinking back over 2020, it was difficult to choose just a few of our favorites to highlight. But these half-dozen Zócalo events (and the clips we’ve shared here) stood out to us.


How Are Native American Artists Envisioning the Future?

Our final in-person event of 2020 featured three Native American scholars and artists delving into the concept of “Indigenous Futurism”—as a counter to erasure, as a method of solving problems like climate change, and as a way of challenging the status quo. One of the evening’s most memorable moments was when Oglala Lakota artist Kite explained how we might create an ethical relationship with artificial intelligence through the lens of contemporary Lakota epistemologies.

What Can Poetry Offer Us in Distressing Times?

When you bring a group of poets together, the only guarantee is that you will get some unexpected insights into yourself and the larger world around you. That’s exactly what happened when we invited United States Poet Laureate emeritus Juan Felipe Herrera, poet and author Inez Tan, and Arizona Poet Laureate Alberto Ríos to talk about what their art has to offer in very difficult moments like spring 2020. In this highlight clip Tan talked about asking her poetry students to consider the central emotion from which they write—in her case, that has meant embracing the power of writing from fear.

Why Don’t Women’s Votes Put More Women in Power?

To mark the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, we put together three events this year in partnership with the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Titled When Women Vote, the series has investigated the past, present, and future of politics, power, and gender in L.A. and around the world. A powerhouse panel led this lively discussion on gender inequities in politics—which have become even more stark amid the pandemic. During it, Rosa “Rosie” Rios, the 43rd Treasurer of the United States, spoke passionately about why American women lag behind men in almost every major economic and political indicator, and the structural change that’s needed to close this gap.

Does a New Wave of Anti-Asian American Racism Require New Ways of Fighting Back?

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a spike in incidents of anti-Asian American racism that began in early spring—and that was encouraged by President Trump and other politicians. What are the best ways—old and new—to combat this wave of violence? Zócalo and the Daniel K. Inouye Institute brought together scholars and leaders, including United States Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaiʻi, who spoke about how to channel outrage into action and change.

What Would Society Look Like Without Police?

Our final event of 2020 addressed one of the most urgent questions of the year: What should a new, equitable criminal justice system look like? Kicking off our The World We Want series in partnership with the University of Toronto, a panel of scholars compared their visions of a society without police—or rather, a society where the police have vastly different duties than they do in communities currently. University of Toronto Faculty of Social Work Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work dean Dexter Voisin, Harvard University professor of criminal justice Sandra Susan Smith, and Rachel Harmon, director of the Center for Criminal Justice at University of Virginia Law, offered several specific ideas for “de-tasking” the police and reassigning their work in areas from mental health to traffic enforcement.

The 10th Annual Zócalo Book Prize: How Do Oppressed People Build Community?

The Zócalo Book Prize event—where we honor the author of the best nonfiction book that explores community and social cohesion—is always an annual highlight for us. But this year’s lecture and interview with the winner, University of North Carolina historian William Sturkey, author of Hattiesburg: An American City in Black and White, stood out for its urgent and timely exploration of how communities create social movements. Sturkey, in a fast-paced conversation with Yale University historian David W. Blight, wove the surprising story of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, from its founding in 1882 as a place of opportunity for whites and Blacks alike, to how it helped birth the Civil Rights Movement. Sturkey’s recounting of the first day of Freedom School—July 2, 1964, also the day Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act—was particularly inspiring to an audience that tuned in everywhere from Hattiesburg to Los Angeles, and across the Western Hemisphere.


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