As with most happenings in 2020, this year’s Engaging Minds looked a little different than usual. But its impact was just as great. The annual initiative, hosted by Penn Alumni and typically held in New York City, was moved online this past Saturday. As tradition goes, it featured three stellar faculty members who discussed their most timely research and work, as well as remarks from President Amy Gutmann and Provost Wendell Pritchett.
Calling it a “master class” for Penn’s broad alumni base, Gutmann noted the silver lining in moving the always-inspiring event to a virtual format this year: “Our Engaging Minds program is yours to enjoy, no flights required. From anywhere, from everywhere.”
Folks tuned in from all over the world, and many stayed on to network virtually afterward, too. At one point during the presentations, more than 1,500 households were logged in to the BlueJeans event.
Kicking off the program was Daniel Gillion, who discussed his award-winning research on the influential role of protest in America. Amy Castro Baker then gave an overview of her groundbreaking studies into the impact of a guaranteed income. Closing the virtual stage was Ezekiel Emanuel—recently named a member of President-elect Joe Biden’s Transition COVID-19 advisory board—who detailed the different options for distributing the newly developed COVID-19 vaccines. Although their respective presentations were pre-recorded, they were each live after to answer a wide variety of on-the-spot questions from an engaged Penn audience.
“So much has changed since our last Engaging Minds, but one thing has not, and that’s the preeminence of our faculty,” Gutmann said.
Gillion, the Julie Beren Platt and Marc E. Platt Presidential Distinguished Professor of Political Science in the School of Arts & Sciences, recently published his book: “The Loud Minority: Why Protests Matter in American Democracy.” Particularly timely this year, he explained the critical role—based on his own team’s analytical research—that protests, especially those addressing racial injustices, play in driving voter turnout, shaping public policy, and increasing engagement.
“Righteous, nonviolent demonstrations are a hallmark of a functioning democracy,” Gillion said. “They provide impetus for participants to show the nation that something is wrong with our society.”
During a Q&A with the audience, which Pritchett moderated, Gillion discussed the use of videos, pictures, and social media—for instance, the publicized brutal police killing of George Floyd in May—and how such access affects a wider audience that can no longer ignore the situation at hand. He also noted how even if a political leader is in office who has an affinity for some aspects of a protest movement, in order to not become complacent, it’s still important for activists to put forth concerns and issues.
“I will say if Biden does not address notions of policing, he will not be able to escape activism and protest and movements,” Gillion said. “They will continue to take place because this is an important issue for the American public, specifically the Black community.”
One of the many wonderful aspects of Gillion’s work, said Pritchett, is that “it is literally never done.” He told Gillion: “These are things we’re going to be coming back to ask you more about very soon.”
The protests of 2020 not only focused on injustice but also economic disparities, which forms the basis of Castro Baker’s recent research. Castro Baker, an assistant professor at the School of Social Policy and Practice and an affiliated faculty member at the Alice Paul Center for Research on Gender, Sexuality, & Women, set the stage for listeners on why guaranteed income, or universal basic income, paired with other policy changes, can create real, structural change—and why these initiatives are more important now than ever before. As co-principal of the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration, Castro Baker and her team are already beginning to see positive results of such ideas. And with the recent opening of Penn’s Center for Guaranteed Income Research and the launch of Mayors for Guaranteed Income, it’s evident that challenging the narrative of how things have always been done is the only way to move forward.
“Our goal is to use empirical data that moves us from pilot to policy,” Castro Baker said. “While generating a public conversation about deservedness and reimagining the social contract.”
In response to questions from the audience, Castro Baker theorized about how the benefits of guaranteed income can affect public education for schoolchildren; outlined the difference between income and wealth; discussed how even in such a polarized society we are beginning to see bipartisan support for ideas that used to be considered “fringe”; and explained how guaranteed income interacts with immigration. She also shared what excites her most about her work right now.
“At a moment when we have incredible divisiveness on the federal level and just in public discourse, what we see in Mayors for Guaranteed Income, is cities are leading the way,” she said. “Mayors don’t have the luxury of time. They can’t sit there and wait for the perfect opportunity to come along. They are responsible for their people.”
The program ended with a dive into a difficult—and particularly timely—question raised by COVID-19, which is allocation of vaccinations, an incredibly scarce resource. Indeed, Penn is leading the way in creating frameworks that are being considered across the world on this topic. Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor Emanuel, also Penn Global’s vice provost for global initiatives and chair of the Perelman School of Medicine’s Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy, contrasted a model the World Health Organization came up with, which is based upon distributing vaccines by population size, with a model he and a team of 18 other global health experts landed on: the fair priority model.
The fair priority model is based upon three principles, which include limiting harm, prioritizing the disadvantaged, and giving people equal moral concern and respect. These principles lead to three phases of vaccine distribution that first would work to reduce premature deaths, then help struggling economies, and, finally, attempt to reduce community transition at large, Emanuel explained. Not only is the fair priority model more ethical, Emanuel also said preliminary data show it will save more lives than the WHO model.
“The WHO model has one big advantage: It’s simple,” Emanuel said. “Simplicity should not take priority over being more ethical and saving more lives in our opinion.”
With no surprise, as Engaging Minds took place the day after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued emergency use authorization for a COVID-19 vaccine, a flurry of detailed questions came in for Emanuel. Just grazing the surface, he discussed how immunization is the best bet toward herd immunity, why he doesn’t think the fair priority model inadvertently rewards countries that have had a poor response to the pandemic, and the controversy surrounding who within the U.S. should receive the vaccine after health care workers on the front lines.
As the event came to a close, Gutmann noted the incredible theme of each speaker “bringing theory to practice.”
“The new normal hasn’t slowed Penn down in the least,” Gutmann said. “The same goes for our extraordinary alumni, family, and friends.”
Chatting afterward, Elise Pi, a 2016 College of Arts & Sciences alumna, said she was thrilled to participate in Engaging Minds again this year. She sees such events as an opportunity to gain more understanding of a topic she perhaps didn’t have time to explore while an undergrad. She also found this year’s speakers extremely inspirational.
“It’s encouraging to know that there are incredibly accomplished, intellectual academics thinking about current events at a time when it seems like there are so many issues and everything seems so messy,” said Pi, who majored in economics and minored in English and math. “And I think that brings a certain sense of assurance, which for me is a win, win, win all around. I get to hear from cool professors who are talking about things that are super relevant to my life and that makes me feel hopeful.”
To find a link to the whole Engaging Minds 2020 program, visit Penn’s Alumni Relations website.