Chicago Ideas Week first debuted in 2011, when the organization (led by founder and chairman Brad Keywell) invited David Gregory, host of NBC’s Meet the Press, to broadcast a live show from the Windy City. On Oct. 14, 2019, Keywell took to the stage ahead of yet another live conversation to reflect on that story and Chicago Ideas’ roots. The idea behind it was “to create something extraordinary—to create one of our country’s greatest, deepest and most substantial ideas platforms” that is “inclusive [and] affordable,” he said, later adding, “we believe that ideas themselves have great power.”
And if the lineup of the ninth annual Chicago Ideas Week was any indication, he’s certainly right. This year’s festival once again brought together a diverse group of change-makers to talk about everything from climate change and creativity to wellness and more. Missed it? Worry not: We took notes. Below, read are some of the most inspiring and memorable things we heard.
Cleo Wade, Poet, Activist, and Author of Where to Begin
“I think that when you understand that hope is not wishing for the best, but working toward the best with a mindset that allows for what is possible—or what even seems impossible—to be possible; then I think that we start to understand that hope is not this kind of delusional headspace, but is actually a headspace and a heart space that is necessary for our survival. [...] What is our day like when we don’t have hope? What does it feel like to not even have hope for ourselves, and our own journey, or our children, or our family members, or our friends? What kind of lives are we building when we’re not putting forward that type of optimistic work ethic toward the communities that surround us? That doesn’t even feel like a life worth living.”
Shannon Watts, Founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America
On helping enact change...
“It really is about getting off the sidelines and using your voices and your votes—particularly women. We only hold about 17 percent of the 500,000 elected positions in this country; and as the proverbial saying goes, ‘If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu.’ [...] Everyone needs to get involved and use their voice and their vote.”
Demetrius Harmon, Influencer and Mental Health Advocate
On the importance of talking about mental health...
“I started realizing that, through me speaking about it, I was allowing other people to. Because for me, it’s normal to be vulnerable and open and honest because that’s the household I grew up in; but then you realize in life, not everyone has the same upbringing I had. But the message is to always make people feel human, regardless of what you do. [...] We all go through things...no one is greater than anyone.”
Hillary Clinton, Former United States Secretary of State and Co-Author of The Book of Gutsy Women: Favorite Stories of Courage and Resilience
On finding inspiration in “gutsy women”
“[We were] looking for not only stories, but lessons. What kept these women going? Women from the past, contemporary women, even fictional women who we’d come across and we wanted to highlight; women who were not by any means perfect—they had their traumas and their travails and their disappointments—but they were being gutsy, not just for themselves but on behalf of others. They wanted to make a positive difference, and they kept going despite some unbelievably terrible obstacles in many of their instances.”
Chelsea Clinton, Vice Chair of the Clinton Foundation and Co-Author of The Book of Gutsy Women: Favorite Stories of Courage and Resilience
On finding optimism in “gutsy women”
“We draw hope and optimism from these women’s stories. [...] I find such fundamental optimism in these women’s lives; in their persistence; and their commitment to their purpose; and their belief that what they were doing wasn’t just important for themselves, but for others. Sometimes ‘others’ was their community [or] their family, and sometimes it was the whole world.”
Taraji P. Henson, Actor, Writer, Producer; Co-Star of Empire
On being yourself and facing your fears…
“When you know who you are, no one can use that against you. [...] When you hide in fear, that thing will control you for the rest of your life. We are always welcoming, and we always applaud people who can stand in their truth and say, ‘This is me,’ because no one is perfect. My therapist told me that perfection is the perfect lie. [...] I’m not going to say I’m not afraid. I’m good at facing my fears. [...] Because when you tremble or shake, something’s trying to control you. I don’t want to ever be controlled like that. I need to be free; so if something is rattling me, I deal with it head-on. That’s the only way to deal with it. It’s not easy, but that’s life.”
On the importance of having compassion…
“Human connection is so important. It’s so easy to feel slighted—you get bumped or cut off in traffic. You take it so personally, but if you have compassion for the person—what if they just got a phone call, and they just learned that they lost a loved one, and they cut you off. Hey, [their] mind wasn’t there. But we’re so ready to take it personally; that’s why we need to talk more. [...] This is something that I, as a human, work on constantly: listening. [...] We need to listen to each other more; and when you ask someone, ‘How are you?’ mean it.”
Brian Grazer, Film and Television Producer Behind Empire and More
On the power of looking people in the eyes…
“By looking at people in the eyes, just that micro-step of doing that, you can reach into their heart. And if you can do that and connect to people like that, you can learn so much. I’ve used that as a way to meet people, initially, [and] a way to disrupt my comfort zone, and a way to learn and to gain very valuable insights that comprise most of those movies and television shows [I’ve made] as ingredients—and hopefully I give back equally to those people that I’ve met along the way.”
On being an influencer and public figure...
“At the core of my being, I’m a big sister, and I’ve always taken being a public figure to be a responsibility. I am not the gift—I’m the keeper of the gift; I’m the presenter of the gift. [...] My Drunk Kitchen to me has been this incredible gift that I carry, so the influence that comes with that gift is something I hope and pray I continue to be very mindful with.”
Photography by: Photos courtesy of Chicago Ideas