The year 2020 was historic in many ways. A global pandemic still rages, simmering racial injustice is boiling over, and there is political instability and a climate crisis with impacts to linger for years to come.
Distinguished speakers throughout the political spectrum and with unique backgrounds and experiences will try to make sense of this turmoil at the 2021 St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs. The conference will convene diplomats, military officials, academic experts, journalists and thousands of community members to provide a global perspective on some of the most pressing and consequential issues facing our world from February 23-26.
For the first time in its nine-year history, the conference will be virtual due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. As always, it will be free and open to the public.
“Our great strength has been putting together people from disparate worlds, as there is a synergy that happens when you put a panel together that features a journalist, a military officer and someone from an African NGO,” said Thomas Smith, co-founder of the conference and a professor of political science at USF’s St. Petersburg campus. “Out of that synergy comes original ideas, greater trust and greater appreciation for one another.”
Panel talks at the 2021 conference have been organized under six thematic pillars, including health, humanity, culture, economics, environment and international relations. Three overarching issues will permeate the discussions, and include:
- Covid-19 and its impacts touching on everything from health and the economy to education and sports.
- Policing, racism and social protests, featuring an in-depth look at the history of truth and reconciliation commissions, one of which occurred in South Africa after apartheid. A similar commission has been called for by Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) to address the legacy of systematic racism in America (Rep. Lee will give a video introduction about the commission she is proposing during the conference.)
- American foreign policy, with a focus on the impact of America’s disengagement from the world during the Trump administration and potential re-engagement under the Biden administration.
“For each of these talks, we hope to provide both global and historical context that will give our community a deeper sense of the issue from all sides,” said Diane Seligsohn, president of the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs.
Though the virtual nature of the conference has provided organizers with new challenges they haven’t dealt with before, such as setting up video conferencing technology for thousands, it also provided the opportunity to expand its audience and get speakers from across the world to participate.
The conference will kick off with a conversation on the global view of the pandemic with Paul Farmer, a renowned medical anthropologist and physician who received the $1 million Berggruen Prize in 2020 for profoundly shaping human understanding. Other speakers during the four-day conference include Lee Weiner, one of the original members of the Chicago 7 who was charged with conspiracy to riot by the federal government related to anti-Vietnam War protests in 1968 and was the focus of a recent Netflix film, and a panel consisting of Africans from across the continent, speaking about their vision for their homeland and the role America can play in achieving that vision.
“We really embraced the idea of the conference being virtual and were able to get speakers that would normally not come or would be really difficult to get them,” said Smith. “The panel on Africa from Africans is the type of discussion we would have had a hard time mounting in normal times but are able to pull it off in this format.”
Several USF classes will take advantage of the virtual format to stream panels directly into the classroom. An Honors College medical humanities class will participate in the keynote conversation with Farmer. Political science students will attend panels on protest and the police, human rights and truth and reconciliation commissions.
Around 2,000 people have already signed up for the virtual conference. Organized by the St. Petersburg Group and supported by a donation from philanthropist Jim Aresty, attendees in Tampa Bay and around the world will be able to tune in via vMix, a live production and streaming platform that looks more like a television-produced news show than a conference call. The virtual conference will include both live talks and pre-recorded videos, with the ability for closed captioning, providing a seamless viewing experience for the audience.
Those who cannot make a specific session or the conference altogether can watch recordings of all the panel discussions afterward on the conference’s website.
“Being able to record all these sessions of the conference is going to be an unbelievable resource, allowing us to grow our audience exponentially,” said Seligsohn. “Also, for students working on research in various topics covered at the conference, or professors teaching those topics, we will have a wealth of material for them to use.”
When asked how such a conference composed of panel discussions on world affairs can lead to changes to some of the world’s most intractable problems, Seligsohn said knowledge is key to moving forward.
“I think before you take action, you need to have information and knowledge of what is going on, especially from different perspectives,” she said. “Hopefully our audience takes away something that spurs them to act.”
For more information about the conference and to register, visit: