“The youth are our future… the new agents of change…In peacebuilding and promoting human rights, they should be an active stakeholder.” So says Tawakkol Karman, Yemeni journalist, politician and Nobel prize winner, who will be in St Andrews this Monday to deliver an update on the Yemeni crisis.
She was enticed here by the opportunity to speak, unbridled by any specific request for a slant or topic, about her work and the issues it encompasses – and her stay and speech are facilitated by two students, parents of The LaFayette Club. It’s a fairly new presence on the St Andrean stage of societies and events, but it’s remarkable that such a platform wasn’t devised sooner.
The function of the LaFayette Club is to bring top-of-their field speakers to St Andrews to discuss topical issues: something you’d expect at any London or other capital-city university, but was really lacking in St Andrews. The club provides a “very varied curriculum of talks” that are open to one and all to attend, and are priced as low as they can go at £5.
I met Ben Thrasher, a Spanish and Management major, and Dan Rey, an Arabic and History major – both fourth year year-abroad returners, who explained the conception – rooted in the lack of such a platform for speakers in St Andrews – and the exciting growth of the club as it evolves and adds more and more speakers to its programme. But it was the speakers themselves who Thrasher and Rey spoke most ebulliently about: they are both very excited about the talks they have lined up (25-30 already planned over this academic year). Not in a self-congratulatory way, but with the kind of intellectual excitement you can quite easily, and ironically, mislay while you’re studying. The speakers we have coming to St Andrews will deliver the kind of compelling and socio-politically relevant talks needed to educate, inspire and stimulate our student body, a body which Thrasher called, echoing Karman’s sentiment, “the next generation of leaders.” This sort of at-the-forefront engagement is what engenders discussion and activity among people.
The pair highlighted what separates their concept from similar events already held in St Andrews – debates, symposiums, and speakers brought in by the schools and societies of economics, foreign affairs etc, which can cater to a fairly niche market or feel exclusive to students of those subjects. Ben Thrasher explained: “we approach someone who we really respect in their field, and we say that we would like to offer you a platform to speak about something which you feel is relevant.” These speakers are often called upon to comment on issues within their field, but are rarely given the stage to divulge their views and experiences and to talk about something they are currently engaged in. The LaFayette club is unaffiliated with any other society or with the university and therefore unbridled in subject matter. They’re held in Hotel du Vin – which might sound fancy, but actually offers the cheapest venue hiring-out prices, especially when compared to university-owned venues: £175 for Hotel du Vin compared to £600 for the Buchanan and £700 for Lower College Hall – extortionate prices seeing as these spaces almost always sit empty in the evenings – bizarrely staggering and plan-thwarting prices that hint at a potential attitude of ruthless money-making from the university – more to follow on that in another, more exposé style, article perhaps.
The format of the speeches is flexible but tends to be a 20-minute long speech followed by 45 minutes to an hour of Q&A. So, it is interactive and dynamic and makes the most of these speakers gracing our town with all the stimulus they bring us. This means that the precise content or the speakers’ approach can’t be predicted and therefore is exciting – for the audience and for the speaker – and the discussions are on subjects that are interesting to everyone, and available to everyone.
This Friday’s upcoming talk on Islamic Enlightenment by Christopher de Bellaigue – who’ll undoubtedly offer sagacious personal insights and scene-setting genius – costs only £5. All speeches will be just five pounds, because it was very clear that it’s important to Rey and Thrasher that the talks are as accessible and affordable as can be – their goal is that all St Andrews students go to at least one talk during their time here – but it seems to be of great importance also so as not to undermine the conception of the LaFayette club. The pair have created a clean-cut, no frills, unambiguous approach: get good speakers in, give them free reign to talk about their experiences and about issues they perceive to be pertinent, and give them an audience to interact with. Rey and Thrasher are keen for the club to retain this spruceness; jokingly adamant that no such thing as a LaFayette ball should ever rise up out of what they’re creating.
Moreover, there’s no riding on coattails or using connections here; the pair simply contact the people they’d love to have come to talk with an explanation of the LaFayette concept, and hope to get a response. The speakers who come are a fan of this concept and its flexibility – in fact, Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister of Australia, told them he’d like to organise a round-table discussion with twenty or so students on China-US relations. So the pulling power of the LaFayette club so far has been impressive: they’ve even got some personally penned rejection letters to treasure too; one from Theresa May, no less. Some who logistically could not come were hopeful for an alternative way of being engaged in discussion, sparking the creation of The LaFayette Club podcasts, available on their website (link at the bottom) and on iTunes. A very exciting venture.
Dan Rey said that over this summer they’ve developed an overarching theme, a concept, which hones in on “a response to what’s going on in the world – it’s becoming increasingly disarrayed – so we’re seeking to get people who are sort of solution-focussed, who are analysing and addressing what we consider to be some major problems in the world.”
They also said that they did not want these talks to be over-political or to cater to a niche view or subject, but to be topical and interdisciplinary above all. Coming up, they have the chairman of Nestle, Peter Brabeck, who is going to talk about water shortages in sub-saharan Africa, they’ve got Amnesty’s director of research Anna Neistat and they have The Economist’s Adrian Wooldridge coming to discuss British Politics. Thrasher and Rey have managed to engage some brilliant people, many trekking trans-nationally, internationally and across the pond to come and speak with us. It’s a fantastic opportunity for the student and town body to get to hear high profile people speak on issues, to engage with them and ask them questions. It’s a sequestered little world here, but the St Andrews oyster is made richer by the world coming to us, and Rey and Thrasher have succeeded in starting what seems to be a snowball of a project.
You can in the loop and make sure you don’t let a good talk escape by following https://m.facebook.com/lafayetteclub/ on Facebook and by going to their website: http://www.thelafayetteclub.com – scroll down their list of upcoming events; they’ll all strike you as exciting and well worth attending.