BRAIN GAINS

Written By: Robert Cocuzzo | Photography By: Illustration by Albian Gagica

The Nantucket Project’s speaker lineup will have attendees flexing their mental muscles this September.

Another mental marathon kicks off this September with the seventh annual Nantucket Project (TNP). Over the course of four days at the White Elephant, TNP attendees will be exposed to a radical range of topics designed to stretch their understanding of the world. “Each speaker lights up a different part of your brain,” says Kate Brosnan, who co-founded the Project with Tom Scott in 2010. “My brain is most alive when it’s exposed to perspectives that are unfamiliar.” With that in mind, this year’s TNP speaker lineup covers the gamut from foreign presidents to Hollywood stars, radical environmentalists to cutting-edge economists. “Our program is both head and heart,” says Tom Scott. “Generally, we feel the world calls for us to intelligently mix the two. So we’ve worked hard to find a combo of the human and the more scientific. Four days separated from the noise to hopefully step back into it with a stronger center.”

Arguably the most recognizable face in the TNP speaker lineup this year is that of actress Jennifer Garner. While audiences might be familiar with Garner’s parts in Hollywood blockbusters, fewer are aware of her role as an advocate for childhood poverty initiatives in her home state of West Virginia. “A child who is not touched, who is not spoken to, who is not read to or sung to in the first five years of his or her life will not fully recover,” Garner testified before Congress earlier this spring. “Poverty dulls the senses, it saps hope, it destroys the will.” Undoubtedly, this message will be particularly poignant for audiences on Nantucket.

At a time when the news cycle is dominated almost entirely by President Trump, TNP will welcome two foreign presidents to the stage, one of which has had some choice words for the commander in chief. Vicente Fox, the former president of Mexico, has been a vocal opponent of President Trump’s pledge to build a wall on the southern border that he will make Mexico pay for. “We’re not paying for that f—–g wall,” has become President Fox’s now-famous refrain. As a presenter at the Nantucket Project, Fox will explore how there can be some form of reconciliation on the southern border.

Meanwhile, Rwandan President Paul Kagame will be discussing a different form of reconciliation. President Kagame led his country from one of the worst genocides in history to a period of sustained peace and prosperity. He has accomplished this by making forgiveness a national priority. The science of forgiveness tells us that resolving anger is associated with the same parts of the brain that regulate empathy and emotions.

Forgiveness is also a theme relevant to TNP presenter Marcia Clark, the legendary prosecutor from the OJ Simpson murder trial. Earlier this summer, Simpson was granted parole after serving nine years in prison for armed burglary and kidnapping. This capped a year of renewed public fascination around the former football star that was spurred by a hit television series, American Crime Story: The People v. OJ Simpson, and an Oscar-nominated three-part documentary, OJ: Made in America. Few people witnessed this case closer than Marcia Clark, who will be sharing her thoughts about the Juice being loose…again.

“One of the most powerful things we can do at TNP is change your mind,” says Brosnan. “And so we look for presenters who have undergone a transformation that they have learned from.” This is where Glenn Beck fits in. The former loudmouth TV and radio host has found a new calling as a voice for healing through listening and open conversation. Beck will hardly be the only controversial voice heard at the Project. Paul Watson, the polarizing captain of the environmental group Sea Shepherd, will also be present. Watson’s radical exploits thwarting Japanese whaling vessels were dramatically captured in the television docuseries Whale Wars, which holds unique relevance here on Nantucket.

These and many other speakers will be accompanied by world-class entertainers such as the guitar virtuoso Kevin Eubanks, who led the Tonight Show Band with Jay Leno. The visual artist Shantell Martin will invite the audience to play a role in the process of creating her stream-of-consciousness drawings. TNP will also produce a special live performance of the NPR (WBUR) podcast Modern Love featuring Emmy Award winner Cynthia Nixon, known for her portrayal of Miranda Hobbes in the HBO series Sex and the City.

So where is this all headed? Over the years, TNP has produced a series of short films that were inspired by the onstage talks. “Our films have been in the most prestigious film festivals in the country,” says Scott. “They’ve won awards and been viewed by millions.” Now Scott, Brosnan, and their TNP team want to take their work a step further by engaging audiences in person. Starting this fall, TNP will host a conversation series in living rooms around the country. “We recently came to the realization that the best result of all our work should be great conversations,” Scott says. So even after the tent is broken down at the White Elephant and all the speakers board the ferry and planes home, the impact of the Nantucket Project will continue to carry out by word of mouth.