Profs fundraise to save speech contest
By David Struett
Professor Sunny Serres modestly denies she is rescuing a 30-year-old Harold Washington tradition, but her recent fundraising might be the only hope to spare the Sydney R. Daniels Oratorical Festival from extinction.
Serres hopes to kickstart the fest back into its annual tradition by collecting individual donations and then building a list of corporate sponsors who can take over funding for next year.
The Oratorical Fest means a lot to the speech department and for the memory of the late professor Daniels, for whom the competition is named.
“Not only do we do it for the advantages of the students, but we do it for Daniels because he was such an incredible professor,” Serres said. “We don’t want to see the festival go because that means a small part of us is going with it as well.”
In the annual festival, students speak on inspiring African American figures in honor of Black History Month. They compete for scholarships worth several hundred dollars.
Budget cuts forced the speech department to cancel the festival last year. Faculty were left with four weeks to raise cash for the $500 first prize scholarship award, which was not enough time, Serres said.
This year, school administration skipped out on funding the festival once again, leaving the faculty with job of raising the funds, she said.
With a head start, faculty want to double the prize values.
In two weeks, Serres raised $1,300 for the scholarship prizes on a “Gofundme” webpage. She needs $3,000 total for the festival, scheduled for February 27, 2018.
This festival’s first prize scholarship is planned to be $1,000.
As funds from the administration disappear and arts programs get cut, faculty walk a fine line of playing the squeaky wheel, but not overstepping themselves, to keep important programs running.
“You just have to work within the system and do the best you can to preserve a lot of these things,” she said.
The new scholarship fund will be part of the “CCC Foundation” of school scholarships, and will be named the “Dorothy J. Clark Oratorical Scholarship,” after one of Daniels’ friends who recently died, Serres said.
People can now donate to the fest on the CCC Foundation’s “Ways to Give” page by marking their donations for the “Dorothy J. Clark Oratorical Scholarship.”
Serres got the idea for the foundation scholarship from VP Armen Sarrafian, who told her the school-based scholarship had the advantages of being tax-free and applied directly to student tuition.
The Sydney R. Daniels Oratorical Festival celebrates Black History Month with around six student-composed and performed speeches about important black figures.
Past topics have included Tupac Shakur, Barack Obama, and Michael Jackson. But it is not limited to famous icons. Some speeches are on less obvious figures, such as Octavia Butler, the first prominent African American science fiction writer.
“The main goal is to inspire,” said professor Deher-Lessant, who was a student and then colleague of the professor Sydney R. Daniels.
Professor Daniels was a long-serving speech professor and theater director who touched the lives of many people at Harold Washington. Daniels had run the festival for many years before he initially retired in 2009.
Daniels’ legacy is far-reaching. His closest colleague might have been Deher-LeSaint, whose life was dramatically changed by encountering Daniels..
Deher-LeSaint immigrated from the West French Indies in 1995 and he had a very thick accent when took Daniels’ class “Training of the speaking voice.” That class changed his life forever, he said.
“If it wasn’t for this class, nobody would be able to understand anything I say,” he said. “He gave me my voice. I owe that to him entirely.”
The Oratorical Fest was recently renamed in Daniels’ honor.
“Daniels was retired by then,” when we named the fest after him, Deher-LeSaint said. “I could tell he was embarrassed. But we were like, ‘Come on! You have this amazing legacy.’”
The performances of the Oratorical Fest are written and memorized by students. The participants are coached by faculty to hone their speeches.
“It’s so interesting to watch all of the work, all of this coaching, come to fruition,” Deher-LeSaint said. “It’s really wonderful to see the delivery finally.”
Serres sees the value of the festival in the speaking experience it gives students. Students are often surprised when they graduate to find out how often they are called to give speeches, she said. Real-world speeches are different that class-speeches too, she said.
“Students, a lot of times, don’t understand how it will translate later,” Serres said. “This activity gives them the confidence, the polish to be able to do those things on a routine basis. And it’s really about the confidence.”
The defunding of the Oratorical Fest is part of a bigger movement of across-the-board cuts at the school.
Since the Illinois house failed to pass a budget for over two years, City Colleges lost tens of millions of state-funding dollars. Along with lower enrollment, the colleges have been in a pinch and have laid off administration and sold off property by the acre--along with cutting arts and student government programs.
Within all of the mess of school politics, Serres’ fight for a school’s speech competition might seem small. But to her, working at the ground-level to save the festival shows administration how much the programs means to faculty and students.
“Arts funding is always one of the things cut first,” she said. “It trickles down into the oratorical festival. It’s a big deal.”