DURING A RECENT talk playfully titled “Vax Museum,” epidemiologist René F. Najera focused on unsung heroes behind the development of vaccines, the kind of people he likes to highlight in his History of Vaccines blog. Along with Jonas Salk and Edward Jenner, he introduced Onesimus, an enslaved man who brought the idea of smallpox inoculation to Boston in the 1700s, and the three female scientists behind the whooping cough vaccine.
Najera, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico, said it’s important that people of different backgrounds see themselves in accounts of heroic events.
“We need to find those voices that are going to speak our language and tell us how to get there,” he told us as he wrapped up his talk from his house in Virginia, and we watched from ours around the country. “It’s very important for you to have those people you look up to.”
Introducing new people is part of the idea behind the Lecture Bar, an online series of talks by experts with entertaining new takes on topics like history, science and popular culture. “The person who shapes the narrative is not always the person who knows the whole story,” founder Kalela Williams told me.
Williams, a Philadelphia-based arts administrator, runs the Lecture Bar, along with Black History Maven social media pages, under the Encyclopedia Go umbrella (named for her childhood habit of reading encyclopedias). She initially had the idea of hosting programs in casual spots like bars — including in Seattle, where acquaintances encouraged her to visit.
When the pandemic hit, she decided to do a virtual version instead, launching last July. Though she’s not meeting in bars as originally intended, she hopes the virtual Lecture Bar conveys that laid-back feel.
Now she invites people everywhere to join her, spreading the word via Meetup groups. The Seattle group was one of the first, because she had planned to host events here and because of Seattle’s educated and curious population.
Deb, a West Seattle resident who attended the vaccine history talk, fits that bill. She’s gone to a couple Lecture Bar events and said that compared to some of the more one-directional talks she’s watched online, “This generates a lot more questions.”
That’s intentional. A constant stream of comments typically fills the chat window, with Williams moderating and encouraging. “I try to really kick up a discussion when I’m on,” Williams told me.
About 30 to 50 people typically attend. A small fee goes mostly toward paying presenters and running the technology.
Williams chooses topics based on her interests and what people are talking about. In October, she hosted a “Lovecraft Country Virtual Road Trip,” for example. I was sad that I didn’t find out about Lecture Bar until after “Weird Cat Behavior Decoded” in September.
Williams is confident that someday she will do in-person events again. But now she’s hoping to also stream them. “Digital programs are not going away,” she said, partly because they have specific benefits, including real-time transcription and the chat — not to mention the fact that people can attend from home.
I watched the vaccine presentation in a comfy chair, with my feet up. “Here’s this guy who’s an expert in epidemiology and has this incredible background on the history of vaccines, and we get to sit around and ask him questions,” Deb told me afterward. “It’s pretty amazing.”