October 07, 2020 | Matt Kucinski

The January Series logo in white text on a black background

In early February 2020, Kristi Potter was taking a deep breath.

It’s the time when Potter, the director of the January Series, is wrapping up details and putting the previous month’s lecture series to rest and getting some well-deserved rest herself.

This stretch was routine for Potter. But the next couple of weeks were anything but.

Pandemic causes pause

In early March, as she began her research and planning for the 2021 world-class lineup of speakers … “Everything froze,” said Potter. “I only had two or three invites out when the pandemic hit and we (Calvin employees) were sent home. Everything seemed to stop.”

“The whole speaker world stopped, agents didn’t know what was going on, so everyone paused. Everyone was trying to figure out what next week or month would look like, certainly not knowing what [next] January would look like,” said Potter.

The January Series is an award-winning lecture series that draws in more than 70,000 attendees each year. For 15 weekdays in January, about 800 attendees pack the Covenant Fine Arts Center Auditorium on campus each day to listen to a world-renowned speaker. And thousands more gather at 60-plus remote sites across North America to watch the series. Many others are able to listen in online.

The uncertainty in early 2020 seemed to put the series, considered to be a free three-week liberal arts education, in jeopardy for 2021.

Potter wondered, “Would speakers be able to travel to Calvin? Would we be able to gather an audience? Even if we could gather in person, is it socially responsible to do so? Could we do it all virtually? And does this option open up access to speakers that otherwise would turn us down?”

Supporters restart the series

It wasn’t long before Potter received a boon of confidence from both Calvin University and long-time supporters of the series.

“From the beginning of the pandemic, leaders at Calvin were saying we have to figure this out,” said Potter, “and because of the fact that we have really dedicated underwriters that support the January Series and were already recommitting during this time for the 2021 series, we knew we had the financial support to carry on.”

It was now just figuring out what it would look like.

Unprecedented access to conversations

So, she continued her homework, which typically involves a lot of reading, listening, and watching speakers—all things she was now doing from her home. In most years she would attend multiple conferences around the country to check out speakers in-person. But the pandemic and the limitations it placed on in-person gatherings and travel ironically opened up more opportunities for Potter. She was able to virtually attend more conferences at a much lower cost (some free), making access to speakers easier than ever.

So, she watched a lot. And read a lot. And throughout the spring and summer, amidst the pandemic, she started seeing themes emerge in what she was seeing and hearing: economic uncertainty, racial tensions, and the breakdown of meaningful dialogue, were a few that rose to the top.

“So, I was able to focus my thoughts on figuring out how we work through these conversations and look forward to seeing the future beyond the pandemic. Where are our hopes, and where do we want to be moving forward?” asked Potter.

These and other key questions and themes informed her deciding which speakers to invite to present at the 2021 January Series.

An impressive docket of speakers and topics

The result? A lineup as impressive and relevant as any other year in the series’ history. The roster features multiple New York Times’ best-selling authors, two of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential Leaders, and the 2020 winner of the Kluge Humanities Prize—considered the equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize for the humanities.

A few of the world-renowned speakers on the 2021 docket, include: Tara Westover, author of Educated, a book that stayed on the NY Times best-seller list for a couple of years; Jemar Tisby, author of The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, which received the 2019 honors for Book of the Year from the Englewood Review of Books; Bruce Feiler, author of six consecutive New York Times bestsellers, the presenter of two primetime series on PBS, and the inspiration for the drama series Council of Dads on NBC

The presenters will look ahead to the future of: the Supreme Court, democracy, artificial intelligence, climate change, global trade, and civil discourse. They will also explore many other topics.

Potter says the series aligns with the mission of the university that offers it each year. While the speakers will dig deeply into their areas of expertise, their talks are not just about helping attendees gain understanding around an issue, but also helping them learn how that understanding can inspire action.

“We need to invest ourselves in these topics and pay attention. Every one of us needs to do our part to make the world a better place; a kinder, more inspiring world that fixes its problems,” said Potter. “I want people to be smarter about what’s going on, so that they can speak into these areas and make our country and our world a better place. These conversations we have in January catalyze this work.”

Everyone’s invited!

This year, due to the realities of COVID-19, the January Series will have a completely virtual audience. Attendees will be able to watch the 15 daily noontime presentations on their own personal devices, in their own locations, or gather at small remote sites available across the continent. Details on how to register for these 15 presentations and where to find local remote sites will be available later this Fall on the January Series website.

“We value our audience and are working to make it as easy as possible for anyone to join from where they are, whether at home, church, in an office, on a couch, or at the kitchen table. These conversations are so important, and we think by providing easy access to these timely and important conversations, we will reach a record number of people in 2021.”

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