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FOLLOW THIS: RISK Assessment Part II

What the hell are you waiting for?!

If I had to choose one line to sum up this year’s TEDxColumbus—aptly titled RISK—it would be this one. Though when you think TED, you think Talks, this line was not actually spoken from the stage, it was sung.


Written by Stefan Farrenkopf almost in real-time, this song about the event was composed during the event. Performed at the conclusion of the 17 talks and performances, it was a “risky” bit for Farrenkopf to pull off. But he did it, evoking laughter, some misty-eyes and a standing O from the audience. This was one of five standing ovations during the day. Though it was an eclectic group of 17, the talks that evoked the strongest response had something in common—they all used elements of art and spoke to a pressing political or social issue.

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“If we only talk about young, black men when they’re dead, what exactly are they living for?”

When, at the end of his talk, Donte Woods-Spikes spoke this final line, the audience was momentarily speechless, before erupting in applause. Dressed in dreadlocks and white pants, Woods-Spikes had walked on stage with a hoodie covering his face. The audience clearly not knowing what to expect. Within minutes, his hoodie was down and the audience was engrossed by his story of coming of age in a rough neighborhood, challenging authority, and eventually going to college.


Woods-Spikes took a risk walking into a classroom of all white people, he said, and it ended up being a risk that paid off. He now works in those same neighborhoods he hailed from, helping lift young, black men up and out of what can be a sobering reality.


Woods-Spikes is his own example of how real encouragement and mentors can help young, black men gain footing in this world.

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The Arts and Collegiate Preparatory Academy (ACPA) performed an outstanding musical and theatrical piece, written after the lead’s cousin was wrongfully shot and killed in Cincinnati. It combined voice, drums, and dance to raise the question of “Why does nothing ever change?” for African Americans.

“Nothing great comes without enormous risk.”

Sile Singleton, co-founder and visionary of 1990’s nationally and internationally acclaimed drag king troupe, H.I.S. KINGS and IDKE (The International Drag King Extravaganza), shared her story lyrically and musically, with a rhythm only she could conjure. She talked about being a female bodied person with a transmasculine gender presentation, and how her great grandmother, “Big Momma,” was a constant presence in her life, even after death. Prompting her to be herself—a powerful, black, human being, who travels the world encouraging each and every person to be authentically him- or her-self.


“Nothing great comes without enormous risk,” said Singleton, the accomplished gender performer best known as Lustivious Dela Virgion and the savvy Luster Dela Vlyrically.


Amit Majmudar, appointed Ohio’s first Poet Laureate, read three poems, the most moving of which was “Def-Con 1,” an ode to the anger felt by those Americans repressed because of their race or culture. His delivery was powerful and visionary, very much like Singleton’s.

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Jennifer Kempton brought her very personal and devastating story of human trafficking to the audience with her presentation, “I am Human, not Cattle.” Kempton took a great deal of risk when she finally escaped the world that had inked her skin with a brand, designating whom she belonged to. She started Survivor’s Ink to help cover up the branding tattoos of other trafficking survivors.


Angie Plummer of the Community Refugee and Immigration Services (CRIS) group has heard her share of escape and survival stories from the work she does every day. Plummer and four of her group’s refugees shared a unique video presentation. Each told their story of taking a great risk to escape their war-torn countries for a life in America.


One of the four drew a laugh amidst tears when he recounted how he was handed a plane ticket at the airport as he prepared to leave Iraq. Not knowing where he was going, he looked at the ticket and saw, “Columbus, Ohio.” He paused for a second and said, “I thought to myself . . . I never heard of Columbus, Ohio, before.”

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Lito Ramirez, the son of an immigrant, also brought us to tears with his story of risk for the love of his son. He began by prompting the audience with the same question he asked himself when his unborn child was diagnosed with Down Syndrome: “Can I love this child?”


After his son was born, Ramirez left his work in politics to found the nonprofit Down Syndrome Achieves. Research is underfunded, says Ramirez: “Although Down syndrome affects approximately 250,000 Americans, it is one of the least funded research areas at the National Institutes of Health. It ranks in the bottom 20 percent of funding categories — much lower than cystic fibrosis, cancer and other genetic disorders.”


Now partnering with Nationwide Children’s Hospital to create the first-ever Down Syndrome biobank, Ramirez showed us a picture of his adorable son, saying with pride, “This was exactly the child we were supposed to have.”

Health was a hot topic at RISK.

Debbie Goff discussed the overuse of antibiotics and encouraged audience members to decrease risk by avoiding meat from animals that have been fed antibiotics and by asking doctors to not reflexively prescribe antibiotics. She told us to simply say, “I’m an antibiotic steward. And I’m concerned about the overuse of antibiotics.”


Marc Levitt, playing on the book title, “Everyone Poops,” offered a different book that he would call, “Pooh Gets Stuck.” The audience had a hearty laugh at the bathroom humor, but not at Levitt, who took a risk in the medical world by encouraging patient-driven change for those kids who need gastrointestinal, gynecological, and/or urinary work. He is working to build a system that offers all those parts as one continuum of care, versus separate entities.


Stephanie Domas works for Battelle as a hacker—an “ethical” hacker, she says. She helps reduce risk by testing the security of medical devices, which, you might be surprised to learn, get big money on the black market. Why? Because hackers can crack into your wireless medical devices and steal your social security number to use for opening loans or credit cards.

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“Find out what scares you and conquer it.”

Chris Volpe, a 35-year-old gamer, continued the ode to risk and technology by discussing how gaming is the future, and asking how we can incorporate it into our lives. To his point, the music industry pulls in $15 billion a year. The box office scores $40 billion. Gaming…? $91.8 billion.


Mark Kvamme started out in technology and high-risk businesses while in Silicon Valley, but then left it all for something a little riskier: Motocross racing. A broken face from the handlebars led him to what he deemed safer: Off-road trucks. But then he saw TV footage of himself actually being dead for a minute when his truck crashed, so he switched to something he thought more safe: Race car driving.


We have a choice, he said, about how we define F.E.A.R: “Forget Everything And Run or Face Everything And Rise. What are you going to do?”


For Kvamme, there is only one right answer: “Find out what scares you and conquer it.”

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Marshall Shorts and Andy Boy faced their fears while still schoolkids. Shorts, wearing a “Creatives Hustle Harder” T-shirt, said he understood the fear of being the only black person in a white classroom, where he was told to not “put so much culture,” in his work. But he persevered, as did Boy, who was told by his high school guidance counselor that college “wasn’t for him.” Boy struggled, but earned his master’s degree and now runs a top-ranked charter school.


Talks by Boy and Short fed right into Rob Brisk’s presentation on how he and his staff at the Wellington School are taking risks to best educate their students. Brisk, who runs the school, has been working on a large study that measures study engagement versus standardized testing. The results show that teaching students to love learning gets higher student engagement, particularly when teachers challenge their students and provide connection, mobility, and autonomy.

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Of course, as humans, we often avoid risk—especially risk that could equal death. Cathe Kobacker walked on stage and conquered that right away: “If you haven’t noticed,” she said, “I’m not dead.” After the audience stopped chuckling, she went on to say that the best way to feel good about risk, to really live your life, is to prepare for the worst. She also said, leave your death plan in a desk drawer and tell your family where to find it.


And that, Eric Zimmer would say, is all part of building your Army—like you do in the game of “Risk.” Making change, becoming a different person, challenging authority or the status quo in your life, starts with building an Army of people who support you and can help you take that next step, said Zimmer, host of The One You Feed podcast.


Taking risks in life isn’t easy, as this incredible slate of speakers attested, but it is, most certainly, worth it.