Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Patti Smith, George R.R. Martin Credit: courtesy chicago humanities festival

Nothing says “power” quite like a trained flock of ravens. That’s probably why the Chicago Humanities Festival used the birds to deliver invitations to this year’s “power”-themed programming. That and when author George R.R. Martin is on the lineup, never pass up an opportunity to bring Game of Thrones to life.

“Even if you haven’t read his book, you know him, you know the theme song, you know the series,” says Chicago Humanities Festival artistic director Alison Cuddy. “I think it’s always interesting to tap into those people who represent the zeitgeist in their given moment, and I think that he does.”

As with past years, this season of CHF isn’t just about star power—though there’s plenty to go around with guests like Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Patti Smith, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Rachel Maddow. It’s about exploring the different ways in which power is used to create change. The programming includes several sessions with journalists examining wide-ranging topics such as the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault case, corruption in the Mexican government, and the legacy of the Chicago Defender. Through a partnership with the Chicago Architecture Biennial there are programs discussing spatial justice and public housing, in one instance looking specifically at the events that inspired the soon-to-be-remade film Candyman. And this year the fest welcomes its youngest-ever presenter, 13-year-old boxer Jesslyn Silva.

“Young people are really coming into the spotlight with their activism, and they’re concerned about climate change and all that,” Cuddy says. “It’s really thrilling to have someone who really represents that power view.”

While we’re likely thinking about power more than ever in the year before a major election, the fest’s lineup shows that there’s more to the theme beyond politics and traditional power structures. It’s about recognizing the strength that already exists in everyone, and harnessing that to create change—or at the very least, train a raven.

“We live in a moment when it feels like human power is unprecedented thanks to technology,” Cuddy says. “We’re seeing people disrupting different kinds of business models or organizing thanks to social media or influencing culture, also thanks to social media, so individuals have a lot of power to influence the course of events, either individually and collectively.”   v