Pull Up a Chair
Frank Sinatra Chair and sociopolitical comedian W. Kamau Bell wants to hear what the world has to say.
W. Kamau Bell is an expert in understanding, Debbie Tahmassebi says. On his Emmy Award winning CNN documentary series United Shades of America, Bell offers little in lectures or dogma. Instead, he visits communities around the country and observes—asking questions and most importantly, listening.
Tahmasebbi, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Santa Clara University, loves this about Bell. In a national climate transfixed with labeling people and hot takes, Bell is a student of the world. That approach has an impact, Tahmasebbi says.
“We say our goal is to educate students to go out into the world and do good,” Tahmasebbi says. “How do you do good if you don’t take the time to stop and understand the community in which you live? To learn how to think, how to accept, how to understand other people. Through his art, I think he teaches ways to do that.”
Bell, the 2017 Frank Sinatra Chair in the Performing Arts, comes to campus Nov. 7 where he’ll host a conversation with students in the Locatelli Student Activity Center in the afternoon. Later that evening, he’ll perform “Private School Negro” to a sold-out crowd in the Mayer Theatre.
During the Winter quarter, he’ll return to campus to work with students on projects, participate in class discussions, and host a salon with special guests.
The choice of Sinatra Chair is always an entertainer, but the idea isn’t for them to simply perform. Each chair is tasked with starting conversations, bringing students experiences outside the standard curriculum. Bell will help students tackle a variety of difficult topics through a cross-sectional lens, including race relations.
“It’s timely to our work on the Blue Ribbon Commission on campus but it’s also connected to our goals of students,” Tahmassebi says. “Also it helps our students understand how a variety of tools can be used to express one’s self or engage in activism. I think perhaps using comedy or theatre may not be a way that people readily think of.”
Placing Bell into just one category can be difficult. He’s a comedian, author, podcaster, social critic—not to mention father and self-professed nerd. In addition to his ability to connect with people, he has a deep authenticity, Tahmassebi says.
“He’s just Kamau. That’s just who he is,” Tahmassebi says. “I don’t think he’s in the moment thinking about, what is exactly my brand? Or what is it that Kamau should be standing for? He just speaks from the heart.”
Tahmassebi says the most encouraging aspect of Bell’s residency thus far is his thoughtfulness with plans for the Winter semester. During his visit Nov. 7, Bell will meet with SCU leadership to lay out activities that can be most impactful for students—from student projects to podcasting on campus to workshops.
“He’s not bringing some canned type of experience and plunking it down on our campus” Tahmassebi says. “It’s going to be a very unique and also kind of organically developed experience.”