Dear ESU members, alumni and supporters,
As Christmas approaches, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for your continued and loyal support in what has been a most challenging year.
In January, as you may recall, we were looking forward to celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Public Speaking Competition, we were thrilled to be holding the finals of the Performing Shakespeare competition at the Swan Theatre in Stratford, and we were making plans to build on the success of last year’s Thanksgiving fundraising event. Personally, I was also looking forward to visiting branch events, meeting members in different parts of the country, hosting fund-raising dinners and events, and inviting you all to Magdalene College, Cambridge, for a summer party and afternoon tea.
In March, after a memorable visit to the Devon and Exeter branch and only a day after I welcomed 160 primary school children to a wonderful ESU-Lindemann science and debate outreach event in my own college, Covid-19 locked us down and put paid to almost everything planned – but it didn’t stop us entirely. With schools closed and gatherings forbidden, our competitions and in-school programmes could clearly not continue, but thanks to swift action on the part of our staff, the online ESU Festival of Speaking was up and running within a few weeks, providing a platform for young people to continue to practise their oracy skills. This attracted support from teachers, MPs, actors, professional speakers and many others and, most importantly, drew entries from across the world and engaged schools with whom we had never before worked.
Likewise, video conferencing platforms have enabled many members to meet up in ways that would never otherwise have been possible. Our first online event in early April brought members and their friends together across the globe, from Trinidad to Singapore, to hear from author Ingrid Persaud while just a few weeks later, representatives from International ESUs around the world and across several time zones came together for a live reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 26 as part of a fundraising challenge.
This willingness to embrace new technologies has continued, with Dartmouth House and many ESU branches, Lincolnshire, South Wales, Colchester, and Bristol among them, now successfully offering Zoom events as an alternative to in-person meetings. The same technologies have also made it possible for us to draw our speakers from a wider geographic area than would normally be possible. I was delighted, with the expert technical help of Anthony Harris and staff and volunteers, to initiate and chair a series of online events focusing on civility in public speaking – most appropriate in this year which saw discourse around issues of racial equality and the US election sink to new lows. These panels attracted contributors from Australia and North America – including Hannah Critchlow, a brilliant young neuroscientist interested in the science of polite speech, and fresh from the campaign trail, Christopher L. Peterson, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate for the state of Utah.
This year’s International Council Meeting in November was to be held in New York in tandem with celebrations for the centenary of the foundation of the ESU of the United States. Again, all were replaced by a virtual meeting and events, but these attracted an attendance via small screens from many more national ESUs and more geographically dispersed representatives than can normally travel to the ICM. Our President, HRH the Princess Royal, who was to be guest of honour in New York also zoomed in with stimulating and much appreciated addresses to both the AGM and a celebratory gala for ESU USA. We are very fortunate to have our President’s continuing and active support.
This use of technology offers us something positive from this year’s disappointments, and even when, possibly in the spring, we return to something like normal and can return to our normal venues – including, for special events, Dartmouth House – a hybridity of in-person meetings together with digital technology might allow greater and more diverse attendance. After all, that is the basis of our Royal Charter and our vision to enable a transformative global exchange of ideas through the English language, and our mission to empower young people from all backgrounds worldwide, particularly the more disadvantaged, through the promotion of oracy, public speaking, and debating programmes.
In furthering that profile, I was especially thrilled that Baroness Hale of Richmond, former President of the Supreme Court, was able to deliver, virtually, this year’s Evelyn Wrench Lecture, which also raised over £3,500. Looking ahead, we are delighted that our Wrench Lecturer in 2021 will be Professor Mary McAleese, former President of Ireland.
The monies raised from the Wrench Lectures will, of course, go towards our educational work, much of which will be delivered online next year. As I write, we are on course to deliver our three national competitions, for which we have had 440 school entries and for which many of you have signed up as judges. As I know from my own participation, both speakers and judges have to adjust to the new conditions but it presents new opportunities as well as challenges in effective and persuasive communication!
And so, a special thanks to you all. Your time, support and expertise are invaluable and make a very real difference to young people’s lives. The International Oracy Teacher Award is open for applications, as is the Lindemann Fellowship and the Secondary School Exchange. Inevitably, other parts of our work will have to change and adapt to new conditions and challenges and there is much work to be done in this regard. I look forward to seeing you at our AGM, to be held virtually on 22 February 2021, and beyond and to going forward with renewed vigour and purpose in what is now a very different educational landscape.
In the meantime, I wish you all a happy festive period, however you are spending it, and send sincerest wishes for a happy, healthy and peaceful New Year in which, I hope, we will soon be able to meet again.
With warmest regards,
Professor James Raven
Chair, ESU Board of Governors