Symposium Looks to Cityscapes to Address World Issues

The College’s third annual Global Issues Symposium, The Global City, has begun its series of talks, discussions, and screenings that will run until April 27. The symposium will address daily life, politics, environmental issues, human rights, art, sports, and culture in a variety of cities in the Global South. The series is funded by an Isenberg Family Charitable Foundation grant and Oberlin alums and is organized by the Oberlin College International Studies Concentration.

The International Studies Chair and Associate Professor of History Zeinab Abul-Magd is the primary organizer of the symposium. She said that the global presence of the U.S. calls for Americans to learn about the societies the U.S. occupies and interacts with.

“The United States is not just the United States; it is everywhere, and making money everywhere,” Abul-Magd said. “Therefore, it has a responsibility to learn about all these places and understand the peoples and the cultures that it employs as cheap labor and sells products to.”

Professors of the International Studies concentration decided to use the grant money for this year’s symposium on global cities in particular, because the world’s population is increasingly moving towards cities, making them the political, economic, cultural, and social hubs of the present and future.

“In 2007, the world became more than 50 percent urban for the first time, so the urban world is where the future is at for humanity: for confronting environmental problems, social problems, and identity politics,” said Karl Offen, an Environmental Studies professor. “Urban areas are going to shape the way the world works. I think some urban areas are going to become more powerful than nation-states; particularly the smaller nation-states will be surpassed by some of the big metropolitan areas that are emerging from within their countries.”

Chris Gaffney, a speaker in the symposium and an urban geographer working in Argentina and Brazil, said that the symposium would create a broad -based analysis of global urban trends.

In February, the series focused on African cities, and in the coming weeks will feature Latin American, Middle Eastern, and South Asian cities.

“The opportunity to talk with scholars and practitioners provides critical insights into the complex dynamics in the global-local nexus that are frequently glossed over in media reports and even in armchair-academics’ presentations of ‘reality’,” Gaffney said.

The symposium is open to students of all majors.

“We are trying to bring people from across academic disciplines,” Abul-Magd said. “The speakers are not just political scientists; they’re urban geographers and more. The keynote speaker is a sociologist coming from University of Illinois. We have a cinema studies professor from Bombay talking about how the Bollywood industry is intertwined with urban spaces, and an Indian graphic novelist. It’s very diverse.”

Abul-Magd added that the variety of events will allow students and faculty to compare the way different societies tackle challenges of poverty, climate change, and urban and economic change.

The first talk in the symposium was on women’s rights in Lusaka, Zambia, by Sara Longwe, a prominent Zambian activist. The Latin American city talks will be hosted by journalist Juliana Barbassa and Gaffney on Thursday, March 8, and Friday, March 9, respectively. Barbassa will discuss Brazil’s urban landscape.

“Brazil is under-represented on campus,” Offen said. “We lost our Portuguese program a couple years ago, and as far as I know, Brazil is not a common theme or topic at all. Brazil was a gap that could be filled in this symposium.”

Gaffney’s talk, “Rendering the Games: The Essence of the Mega-Event Accumulation Regime,” will take on a large-scale analysis of sports culture and its effects on urban economies and politics.

“From my talk, you can expect a macro-analysis of the political economy of sports mega-events and the ways in which they transform cities in particular instances,” Gaffney said. “Now that we have just finished another destructive Olympic Games, it is good to reflect on the global spectacle in the abstract and concrete.”

After Latin America, the symposium will discuss the Middle Eastern and the South Asian cities. The talks include the role of the Egyptian press in Cairo and others titled “Rebel Cities: A View from the Middle East” and “Climate Smart Cities in Bangladesh.” All events, including film screenings at the Apollo Theatre, are free and open to the public. Specific information about events can be found on the symposium poster around campus and online.