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Follow This, Speakers, TEDxColumbus

[by Kendra Hovey]

You won’t find the village of Piol on Google Earth. You’ll find it by dirt road. That is, if the weather is dry. If not, you’ll wait in Bor a day, maybe more, until the road is clear. Then, it’s another sixty miles across South Sudan’s Jonglei state, but you will find Piol and, there, you’ll find something oddly familiar: The iconic Block O; a building called Buckeye Clinic; perhaps even a few villagers wearing their scarlet and gray.

If you happen to recognize Piol as the home village of TEDxColumbus speaker Bol Aweng, you already have some idea of just how much he has accomplished since his 2010 talk. Back then a working medical clinic in his South Sudan village was just an idea. Three years and a little more than $200,000 later, the Buckeye Clinic is a functioning healthcare facility with a vaccination program, maternity ward and staff of five.

It’s a huge change: Previous healthcare in Piol amounted to a table under a tree and one man with enough fluency in English to read labels and hand out medicine. And, it’s made a huge difference: According to the latest count (2009), in this part of the world only 1 in 5 children survives past the age of five. But in Piol, the clinic has inoculated over 500 children from potentially fatal but preventable diseases. “Now 5 out of 5 children may live to age 5,” says Aweng, and parents who before did not dare to dream because, as he says, “my child may be taken away,” now have hopes for their children and are even making plans for their future.

While there’s more to do and more money to raise, clearly Bol Aweng has achieved the goal he shared in 2010 to help his family, his village and south Sudan.

Since then, he’s accomplished one or two other things as well:

  • He illustrated a children’s book Maluak’s Cows written by his late cousin Maluak Chol
  • He makes and sells his art
  • He speaks and is a guest artist at various schools, churches and organizations

And all of this he does while holding down a full-time job (second shift) at a Walmart distribution center, and also managing all the demands and joys of life as a new husband and father.

That’s another change since taking the stage at TEDxColumbus: Bol Aweng is married and he has a young daughter named Kiki. He and his wife Ajiel first met as youths in the Kenyan refugee camps. Though it took a year-plus, immigration-induced wait before Ajiel and Kiki could join him in the US, the family of three is together in Columbus. Very soon they will be a family of four—a baby boy is due any day now.

To those familiar with his story, this will all come as particularly welcome news. Bol Aweng, like his friend Jok Dau, is one of the 35,000 Lost Boys of Sudan and one of less than half that number to survive. To hear his story (best told by him, here) is to wish for him not just success, but the most basic personal happiness; to wish, in fact, for every kind of happiness there is—for him, his family and for all the lost boys and girls of Sudan.

Though we don’t hear as much about them, girls were also traumatized, displaced, killed or orphaned during the long civil war. After 20 years of separation, Bol Aweng was able to reunite with his family, but his younger sister Nyankiir remained missing. She had been abducted in 1991 when she was only four years old. “We feared she was not alive, but held out hope,” says Aweng.

In the spring of this year, word spread to Piol of a woman in the far eastern part of Jonglei who was believed to look like Nyankiir. When travel was possible—and the limitations on this cannot be overstated: there are only 80 miles of paved road in the country; zero in Jonglei state; rains can quickly make dirt roads impassable; and bandits can make any road unsafe—Bol Aweng’s father, accompanied by the village chief, went to meet her.

“My father knows my sister has certain marks on her body,” recounts Bol, “ ‘if you have these marks’ he says to her ‘then I know you are my daughter’ and she has them and shows them to him and they both cannot talk to one another anymore and just cried.”

Nyankiir has a husband and two children. She no longer speaks her native Dinka, so the family must communicate through an interpreter. Bol was able to talk to her on the phone, and she is expected to visit Piol at Christmas this year and reunite with the rest of the family. What she remembers and what she experienced is still a story to unfold. But whatever the past or the future, the happiness to have found her, says Bol, is beyond words.

When Nyankiir does come to Piol she will see the Buckeye Clinic, perhaps even her children will benefit from its inoculation program, as the children of her and Bol’s other siblings have. Along with vaccinations, the clinic also offers health education and basic primary health care services. Birth services, and a maternity ward for those experiencing complications, as well as, emergency transportation and medical training are planned for the near future. Funding for these services, as well as construction, utilities and personnel, comes almost entirely from the people of Columbus, Ohio. You may not know this, but there is a blue lion in Piol. Also a golden bear and a wolf with a blue paw print. You’ll find them in and around the clinic and on the catchment system providing clean water to the village, each one marking the fundraising efforts of Columbus-area schools.

From large-scale fundraising projects to each individual donation, the support, says Aweng, has been wonderful: “This was something I needed to do, but lack of funds can dismantle the idea. Then the community of Columbus joined me and now we see the day of a clinic in my village. I really feel proud about the people of Columbus.”

Steve Walker, long-time friend and mentor to both Bol Aweng and Jok Dau and also a major force behind the clinic project, reports that the next crucial steps are to hire a full-time midwife and nurse, and to raise more money for operating costs. The project is about $80,000 shy of the $300,000 goal that will fund the clinic for three years, after which it is expected to be sustained by the primary health care plan developed by the new—as well as the first and the only—government of South Sudan.

On July 9, 2011, after a nearly unanimous vote (98.9%), The Republic of South Sudan officially became an independent state. It is an exciting and much-welcome development, says Aweng, but the world’s youngest country is “still struggling a lot,” he says. While there is no shortage of outside interest in oil, Aweng also welcomes investment in agriculture, business, transportation, healthcare, security and, more than anything, education.

Building the clinic at the same time the country is building itself brings with it a unique set of challenges. Imagine that between interviewing and hiring, the country enacts a social security plan. Suddenly there are more rules, regulations and costs to figure out. But, quite unexpectedly, the project now has more help on the ground.

Last April, Steve Walker travelled to Piol with Jok Dau, who, as a lost boy also from Piol, has, in broad strokes, a story similar to Bol Aweng’s. Dau, in fact, was scheduled to speak with Aweng at TEDxColumbus, but was unable to get the day off work. In April, when he and Walker flew to Africa, Dau was in a much better job at the US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) and, just one year earlier, had travelled to South Sudan to marry Abol, his fiancé. This time, after two weeks working with the community in Piol and meeting with various government officials, Walker flew home, while Dau was to stay on three more weeks to help expedite his wife’s visa application and to visit with his new in-laws.

Three weeks passed, but Dau did not return. He made the mistake of skipping his pills and contracted malaria. As he began to recover, his wife who had been caring for him contracted not only malaria, but typhoid fever as well. Dau did not feel he could leave. He resigned from the USCIS. At the time, Walker was concerned for Dau’s future, but “Jok reassured me,” Walker recounts, “he told me ‘I will just start over’ and, well, I thought, that is one thing he certainly does know how to do.”

Recovery took months, but today both are healthy. Dau recently took a job training government staff in taxation and capacity building, and he continues to assist with the Buckeye Clinic. Turns out that having him “on the ground” has been an invaluable resource, says Walker.

Bol Aweng fully expects Dau will find a way to return with his wife to the US. Looking at Dau’s life now, as well as his own, I asked Bol Aweng what it feels like today, as a man, artist, employee, husband, father, philanthropist, to hear himself called a Lost Boy of Sudan. To answer, he began by talking about those 20 years: “Totally crazy,” he says, “no sense to them…and how I was able to cope…I can only say God is great. The Lost Boys of Sudan is about the history, but those 20 years are a big part of my life, and though, yes, I am a man, I have a happy life…the name ‘The Lost Boys of Sudan’… it is a reality.”

 

UPDATE: 12-8-13: Baby Aweng has arrived! At 8 pounds, baby is in good health. So is mom.

UPDATE 1-3-14: On December 15th, a political dispute escalated into an open conflict that has killed 1,000 people and displaced nearly 200,000. Fighting first erupted in Juba, then on December 25th rebels attacked Bor, the majority-Dinka capitol of Jonglei State that is about 60 miles south of Piol.

Steve Walker was able to talk to Jok Dau by phone on December 27th. He reports that Jok was evacuated to Nairobi by air by the US State Dept. His wife Adol, who had been in Juba for a medical appointment, fled by car to Kampala, Uganda. She made it to the border town Nimule, but for unknown reasons was unable to cross into Uganda. Jok says she is safe there with many other refugees also fleeing Juba. Adol was seeking medical care in Juba because, in news Jok was happy to share, she is pregnant.

When Bor was attacked, civilians either sought safety at the UN headquarters (as Bol Aweng’s sister did) or fled to their home villages. Bol says that over 1,000 fled to Piol, where they are without food or shelter. There is no food in the village and everything in the nearest towns has been looted by the rebels. Both Steve and Bol have been trying to get in touch with the staff at the clinic, but the phone network has been down for weeks.

Today (1-3-14) the US government announced a further reduction in embassy staff. So far one American death has been reported (though not officially confirmed): a former “Lost Boy” who had returned to prepare for his wedding. Also today, official talks between the government and rebel forces (led by former Vice President Machar) begin in Ethiopia. Previously, the African Union has said it would “take further measures if hostilities did not cease” in four days from today. It remains unclear what those measures might be.

UPDATE 3-10-14: After two months with no word from his home village, Bol was finally able to talk to a Buckeye Clinic staff member on February 12. He learned that most families in Piol had fled to the swampy land on the Nile, including Bol’s family. The Buckeye Clinic remained and remains open. The village chief and clinic staff stayed behind.

A cease-fire agreement was signed on January 23, 2014. Though there is still insecurity in the country. There were reports of renewed fighting in late February in Malakal in the Upper Nile region, north of Piol and close to the Sudan border, and a brief clash in Juba on March 5th. The UN, which publishes a weekly update on the crisis, reports that since Dec 15th over 900,000 have been displaced from their homes. 

Photos courtesy of southsudanclinic.org, except independence celebration courtesy os Reuters. 

Kendra Hovey is editor and head writer at Follow This. On Twitter @KendraHovey, she blogs at kendrahovey.com

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It’s our fifth year.  How did THAT happen?

And while we aren’t going to have someone jump out of plane to celebrate, we are proud to announce what might be our most ambitious line up in the short history of TEDxColumbus.  Join us on October 11 from 9-4 (with happy hour until 5) at COSI to witness this collection of thinkers, researchers, provocateurs, rainmakers, entertainers and game-changers, all of whom, in their own right, are doing things truly OUT THERE. Come join a dynamic crowd of curious folks to be collectively provoked, challenged and inspired, while connecting, conversing and processing it all together.

A few changes from past year’s events:  We have selected more speakers  — but to speak for shorter times, upon audience request.  We’ve curated two special groups to join our expected, provocative talks.  Here is the complete lineup (access their bios and abstracts through the speaker home page here).

For being OUT THERE in their investigations, solutions, ideas, courage or reach.  Talks include:

  • On rebuilding cities, Mohamed Ali.
  • On global warming, David Bromwich .
  • On gender fluidity, Gabrielle Burton.
  • On revolutionizing hacking, Chris Domas.
  • On finding new planets, Scott Gaudi.
  • On giving back out there, when you are in there, Jim Fussell
  • On a basic unmet human need, Nancy Kramer.
  • On the courage to change, Decker Moss.
  • On reaching deep inside the brain, Ali Rezai.
  • On new rules for systems, Joe Simkins.
  • On entertaining us,  Tobin-Wilcox and The Castros.

Five in five.  (Okay, we did want to celebrate being five.)

For being OUT THERE in their passions –  in five minutes each.

  • On writing through logic, Miriam Bowers Abbott.
  • On paying attention, Chris Fraser.
  • On exploring within, Josh Hara.
  • On coming out of the valley, Stephanie Hughes.
  • On a dynamic bike city, Jess Mathews.

Sensory Talks. Playing on the five theme (last time, promise!), we’ve invited a group of speakers to share an incredible range of thinking on our five main senses.

  • On smells in a city, Dax Blake.
  • On our scent and taste memory, Tom Knotek.
  • On saving sight, Kaweh Mansouri.
  • On the power of touch, Lori Guth Moffett.
  • On challenging the ability to listen, Susan Nittrouer.

And we encourage you to move quickly if you’d like to attend.  We expect, as always, tickets to sell out. Tickets can be purchased here.

TEDxColumbus 2013 is made possible with support of the following partners:

Lead Sponsor, resource.

Event Partners, The Columbus Foundation, The Doug and Monica Kridler Fund of the Columbus Foundation, Limited Brands Foundation, Cardinal Health and The Ohio State University.

Presenting Sponsors, GSW Worldwide, Ologie, Crane Group, Glimcher, IntoGreat, Alliance Data, Crimson Cup,

Media Partner, WOSU

Host Partner, COSI and Host Supporter, Susan Leohner Events.

Creative Support is provided by Base Art Co., Spacejunk Media, and BonFire Red.

 

 

 

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Events, Follow This, TEDxColumbus, TEDxMarionCorrectional

The first ever TEDx in an adult prison held its second TEDx on April 21, 2013. To tell the story of this uncommon event we decided to share perspectives from both sides of the prison walls. Our editor and first-time TEDxMarionCorrectional attendee, Kendra Hovey, shared her experience in our May post “From Outside In.” Now we hear about the event “From Inside Out.” Below is our interview (questions submitted, answers returned, all in writing) with five guys on the inside: Dan and Wayne (co-founders and co-curators, and identified as such with an asterick*) as well as attendees Dave, John, and William. But before we begin, a few facts:

  • TEDxMarionCorrectional is hosted by the institution (medium security) and held within its walls.
  • It was founded by inmates Dan and Wayne, who also curate along with Jo Dee Davis (director of Healing Broken Circles) and Jordan Edelheit (student and founder of TEDxOhioStateUniversity).
  • Both Dan and Wayne were introduced to TED while incarcerated at Marion Correctional Institution.   
  • The inaugural event, A Life Worth Living? (9.16.12), was highlighted at TED 2013 and on the TED blog.
  • The curators have been asked to consult on other prison events including the upcoming TEDxSanQuentin (9.20.13).
  • The audience at the second event, titled What’s Next?, was split down the middle: 149 inmates (chosen through an application process), 152 outsiders (registered after entering their name on a sign-up form). Outsiders were a mix. Our editor met a college student, a foundation president, a software guy and a yoga instructor. The event is also live streamed throughout the prison so the entire inmate population (approx: 2,500) has the option to watch.
  • Inmates are identified by first name only in accordance with rules guarding victims’ rights.


TEDxMarionCorrectional: From Inside Out
An interview with Dan, Dave, John, Wayne & William
  

FT: Many inmates were curious about how those from the outside felt about the experience of coming into a prison, what did it feel like for you to have the general public inside?

Wayne*: It is nice to be a host. I don’t often (ever) get the opportunity to have company over, in a social setting…

FT: …And did you have concerns or preconceptions about us?

Dave: I figured there would be some who had issues about coming inside these walls . . . but I was sure we could change their perception.

John: I felt very excited about meeting people from the general public. I know from TV and newspapers that the public is tough on crime. So when the conversation is about inmates the majority of people put up a wall and close their minds. Being able to share with people with an open mind was very enlightening and a new experience. I was very happy with the care that the public showed us.


FT: …So as far as your actual experience interacting with the general public…?

Dan*: I love it! The rapidity that we as a group move past small talk into substantive conversation is somewhat incredible and maybe impossible anywhere else. I am blown away by the organic nature of the day.

Dave: The entire experience for me was awesome. I spoke at the last one so I got to experience this one without the nerves and pressure of performing.

William: [People] seemed genuinely impressed and maybe even a little relieved to learn that something of substance was taking place within these walls.


FT: Turning for a moment to curatorial guidelines—and this is directed to Dan and Wayne—what criteria did you use to choose your speakers? 

Wayne*: Wait! There are curatorial guidelines???

Dan*: Auditions are open to the general population of the prison…

Wayne*: We ask for a rough guideline of their idea. Then anything worth looking at, we tape a five-minute version of their talk and, from there, we choose to work with the guys that had a “something.”

Dan*: Those in the disciplinary housing units were excluded from the audition process by the Warden’s guidelines, as were any men with disciplinary problems in the last 12 months. Other than that, our talkers could be from any socio-economic background and have any educational level. We don’t exclude anyone due to the crime they committed or their criminal history.


FT: In most of the inmate talks this year, both the life experiences that led to crime and the crime itself are acknowledged, but deemphasized—at least as compared to last year’s talks. Was this a curatorial choice? Also, do victim rights limit what inmates can tell about their story?

Dan*: This was a curatorial choice for the most part. After the first event, a lot of the feedback from guys in here was that they could go to any self-help group or AA meeting and hear personal testimonies. This year we kept an eye out for those with an idea or theory that, while not a testimony, was still unique to an inmate’s point of view and true to our theme…

Wayne*: We wanted to move towards a more normal TEDx event. However, having only ever seen two events, we worked towards what we thought a normal event would be like…

Dan*: We still tried to get our talkers to use their personal stories as a vehicle to carry their idea to the audience.

Wayne*: I don’t really know if there are any guidelines on this issue [victim rights]. We assumed there were and made decisions we felt were appropriate. We didn’t censor, we just tried to be sensitive.

Dan*: Not sure if there is a legal limit, however I think there is a limit to what guys are willing to share. Especially in a video that everyone will be able to see forever. Personally, I don’t think fondly of the kid I was at age 21 and I can’t expect anyone else to. So how do I reveal myself enough to show my authenticity without losing my standing in their eyes? Is that, or should that be a factor?


FT: Directed to everyone now, which talks were your favorites?

Dan*: Might as well ask me which of my kids is my favorite! I did have a lot of guys commenting on how awesome the b-boy/b-girl dance piece was [Deryk]. Nothing like that had hit our prison stage before.

Dave: Frank & Company just because that shit was funny.

John: Jim’s “Domino Deeds” was my favorite talk. I’ve known him for 30+ years. Most of the men that are “old-law” and in for capital crimes are very remorseful for their crime and just want to do some good in this world. They’re tired of hating and being hated. I love his idea of paying it forward and helping someone, somehow.

Wayne*: On the day of the event, I truly enjoyed Deryk and Jim—for the inside information I had. In prison, Deryk has had no opportunities to practice his art and the little practice time he got with the outside dancers on Saturday and Sunday was great for him. Jim has been incarcerated for a very long time and never spoke to a group larger than could sit at a picnic table. The courage he displayed in taking the stage was incredible. It helped that both performances were flat out amazing.


FT: Did any talk particularly resonate with your own experience?

Dan*: I think each of the talks affected me in some way, just as every conversation I had during the day did. But I really connected to Diego’s talk. I also had this fantastic conviction that I wouldn’t be like my dad. I would be there, I would keep my promises, I wouldn’t be violent and I wouldn’t make them Browns fans . . .. But then I also abandoned them with my terrible life decisions.

William: Yes, Diego’s talk really touched me. I’m not afraid to admit that I openly wept. The loss of the relationship with my son has been the hardest thing to deal with during my near ten years of incarceration. I’ve missed so much and have no one to blame but myself…

Wayne*: Ben’s thought that I may have to leave the country to be a citizen again really resonated with me. I’ll always face the Google problem.

Dave: Jim’s talk grabbed me. I mentor people, and to see them do something they couldn’t before or to see them get a better understanding of life, or to watch them mature and build a deeper connection. It [mentoring] is like Jim’s paintings—the one life I took I’m trying to give back through it.


FT: Did you learn something new from any of the talks?

Wayne*: I gained something from each person that hit our stage, but the one that jumps out is Sam Grisham. For a chief of security of a prison to share his story like that is quite unique. The perspective he shared of his job was insightful.

Dan*: Another voice that needed to be heard was Rickey’s [“Intelligence is the New Swagger”]. We need to counter the culture of failure that our kids are bombarded with and Rickey’s talk might reach those that Glee won’t.

John: I know that it will be hard to adjust back into society, but after hearing Naj speak… his talents and qualifications should have outweighed his past, not to mention the number of years he served in here. If society was against him, how will they react to me after serving 40 years? Should I not even try to fit in, sparing society the embarrassment and me the heartache?


FT: Did this TEDx event have a positive effect on you? On other prisoners? In what ways?

Dan*: The inside guys got to see that they are still human beings, that prison hadn’t dehumanized them as much as they feared, and that society, albeit a small section of it, will still converse and interact with them.

John: If this event changed one person’s perception of life, that people change, and deserve a second chance, it could not help but have a positive effect on me and on all prisoners.

Dan*: And to have been able to somehow encourage a man to step out of his peer group and put his identity on the line to spread an idea or more importantly share his story is a positive effect if ever I’ve seen one.


FT: What do you see as the positive effects for those outside of prison?

William: To see first-hand that incarceration can in fact cause someone to re-evaluate themselves and their decision-making process, and begin anew.

John: A chance to look at people differently.

Dave: It allows us to connect with the public and allow them to see we still have something to offer the world.

Dan*: The 6 o’clock news mentions on a daily basis that someone has been sentenced to x amount of time. But what happens while they’re in prison? How are they treated? What program is offered and also facilitated successfully? And x implies that person will be returning to the community. How do you want us to return to your community? The not very good human I was when I came into these walls? Or as the human being who has lived up to his potential, lives each day wholeheartedly and with communal self-awareness? These are questions that those outside of prison need to ask. These are the conversations that need to happen more often than the tougher on crime conversations. It will take many more events before we as a society start to question whether we need to, or can, come up with a better way to lower crime and rehabilitate those that we incarcerate.

Wayne*: And it offers insight into a part of society that they had no idea was so large. With the number of people being incarcerated and released each year, aspects of prison culture have already seeped into mainstream culture. And you may not realize how many felons there are in every neighborhood in America. How a society chooses to deal with criminals impacts the overall health of society.


FT: What kinds of responses did you get, if any, from inmates who watched the event on the live stream?

Dave: That we are rock stars!—no, seriously, I am.

John: They all want to be part of TEDxMarionCorrectional. The two doormen were bombarded with guys wanting to enter into the event for session two.

Wayne*: Many were proud to know that such an event was taking place in “their” institution…

Dan*: Inspired. Inspired is the word I heard the most from guys. Inspired by the fact that a TEDx event could take place in prison. Inspired that they weren’t the only ones who thought the way our talkers (inside and outside) did. Inspired to hear that CEOs recognize the stark reality of social acceptance for ex-offenders and are working towards a remedy. Inspired…wow! Isn’t that what every TED talk aims to do? Not only inform its audience, but inspire action from its audience too?

FT: Thank you.

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Events, Follow This, TEDTalks, TEDxColumbus, TEDxMarionCorrectional

The first ever TEDx in an adult prison held its second TEDx on April 21. To tell the story of this uncommon event we’ll hear, first, from our editor Kendra Hovey, attending TEDxMarionCorrectional for the first time. Second, pending approval of the institution, we’ll also hear from Marion inmates, both those involved and those attending. Kendra’s story begins below, but first, a few facts:

  • TEDxMarionCorrectional is hosted by the institution (medium security) and held within its walls.
  • It was founded by inmates Dan and Wayne, who also curate along with Jo Dee Davis (director of Healing Broken Circles ) and Jordan Edelheit (student and founder of TEDxOhioStateUniversity).
  • Both Dan and Wayne were introduced to TED while incarcerated at Marion Correctional Institution.   
  • The inaugural event, A Life Worth Living? (9.16.12), was highlighted at TED 2013 and on the TED blog.
  • The curators have been asked to consult on other prison events including the upcoming TEDxSanQuentin (9.20.13).
  • The audience at the second event, titled What’s Next?, was split down the middle: 149 inmates (chosen through an application process), 152 outsiders (registered after entering their name on a sign-up form). Outsiders were a mix. Our editor met a college student, a foundation president, a software guy and a yoga instructor. The event is also live streamed throughout the prison so the entire inmate population (approx: 2,500) has the option to watch.
  • Inmates are identified by first name only in accordance with rules guarding victims’ rights.
  • Any questions for inmates about the event can be left in comments. We will forward to Marion Correctional.


TEDxMarionCorrectional: From Outside In

by Kendra Hovey

The TED format stresses substance over status, yet the TED stage is status, making this meritocratic aspiration a bit harder to pull off. Nonetheless, I like the attempt and it’s why I purposely go into each event knowing as little about each speaker as possible. This should explain why I didn’t think about TEDxMarionCorrectional until the night before, and why even then it was only logistics (can I take in a pen? paper?) and cracking-wise (“last night before I go to prison tomorrow, honey”). But it doesn’t.

When I arrive at the prison the next morning I enter through a small building. With chairs in even rows, a wall of lockers, manned desk, security gate and waiting room, it feels vaguely like a rural airport. After locking up my stuff, I sign-in, get my nametag, complimentary gift—a pen—pass through security and then, with a group of about 20, I’m led across the courtyard into a larger building. Passing in and out of locked enclosures, we walk by the visiting room, a barbershop, small holding cells, a photo display of wardens, and eventually down a narrow hallway and through a set of double doors, spilling us into a large, open room humming with conversation.

I’m barely in when, to my right, an inmate welcomes me, followed by another and another. One says hello, another nods, more smile, many extend a hand; a greeting is followed by an exchange of names and we’re talking, and then that conversation blends into another conversation and another and, just like that, I’m engaged in the most seamless mingling between 300 strangers I have ever encountered.

At one point, Wayne interrupts. The co-founder and co-curator (with fellow inmate Dan) is at the mic to tell us what we are already doing: This is the casual meet-and-greet section of the day, he says. It will last one hour, and at 12:30 sharp the first session will begin. Rules. They are at least one thing TED and prison have in common.

Returning to our conversations, an inmate asks if I’d been inside a prison before. The answer is easy: no. Yet, my head fills with images of prisons, ones I’ve toured or explored, and prisons in movies and TV . . . but had I been in a prison with prisoners? No. But that didn’t stop me from believing I had.

Then he asks, “What were you thinking before you came in?” and I am stumped. Nothing. Because my mind is open, I’d like to say, but my mind is closed—lights out, door locked, closed-for-business closed. If I had let myself think, I realize just then, I might not be here.

TEDxMarionCorrectional is on a Sunday, it’s an hour away, it’s all-day, and when you’re in, you’re in; no coming and going, no cell phones (good lord!), and no outside food. With so many easy-outs, even a standard issue fear of the unknown could make me chicken-out, let alone all the assumptions that this man’s question just let loose. If I had let myself think, would I have been fearful? Apprehensive? Suspicious? Cautious? Guarded? Worried? Contemptuous, even? Was I? I don’t know. I don’t think so. But that could be because, now that I’m here, they all sound pretty nutty. What I am feeling is relaxed, comfortable, interested, at-ease—I’m having fun.

At 12:30 (on the dot) Wayne starts things off with the usual reminders—no flash photography; phones off. This, of course, gets a big laugh, as we’ve all just sacrificed our devices for the day. “But,” says Wayne, throwing us a bone, “for those of you who really need your phones . . . at the break . . . we will have counselors available to help you.”

During the first session we hear stories about fatherhood, nerds, intelligence, change, reentry, Abe Lincoln, enemies, and the talent, abilities, and charity that can be found inside these prison walls.

At the break, I meet an inmate named Todd and find out he is the same Todd whose art was just featured in Najmuddeen Salaam’s talk. I also find out that when Naj said Todd had made a grandfather clock “by hand” he meant by hand. No power tools. No tools. To shape the molding Todd used a paper clip.

In the second session, we hear about gardening, laughter, inner demons, and, again, the earlier themes of family, inmate philanthropy, reentry, social acceptance, and the lack thereof.

What I can say about the talks is: watch them. I’d suggest in order, but if you’d prefer to start with some laughs, try FrankHerrington&Co or Ricky. If you’re ready to jump headlong into heart wrenching, it’s a toss-up, but I’ll suggest Diego. For a sound argument, there’s Juan. For inspiration, you could go with the inmate who figured out how to stock neighboring food banks or the one who’s an expert fundraiser for individuals in need. With either one, Ben or Jim, you’ll also get heart wrenching and hilarity—they do say that in prison humor is a matter of survival.

Of the eleven talks, six are by inmates, one by a former inmate, and four by not-ever inmates. The sessions also include two TED videos, one dance, and two musical performances. Without a doubt, the inmates are the most compelling speakers, though each of the other four share information worth hearing or a perspective necessary to the whole conversation.


I would like to say more about the talks themselves, but the truth is every time I try, I fail. I’ll start thinking about Diego’s talk, where he traces his downfall to the essential mistake of leaving his baby son and his redemption to renewing that relationship, and my mind spills over to the conversation I had with a “lifer” and his fiancé about their relationship, and also to the between-talks spontaneous hug between Dan and his daughter.

I’ll consider the talk by Ben, who asks, “Will I have to move to another country to be a citizen again?” and his question becomes utterly inseparable from everything I’ve experienced that day: talks; interactions; witnessing others interact; standing in line in the “chow hall;” the hoots and hollers from the audience; the fact that the first to hoot was Marion’s own warden; Jim’s Chinet-plate painting I walk out the door with and his hilariously wry and moving talk explaining it; and even later hearing myself say “I had dinner with two lifers” and knowing how weird that sounds and how not even close to weird it was.

TEDx was introduced as a democratization of TED and what better example than TEDxMarionCorrectional: The oft-called “elitist” TED brings us inside our most disparaged and ghettoized community. At the same time, I wish the TED rules might bend a bit for this event. Watching online you’ll see what happened on the red circle on the stage, but you won’t get to know Wayne, nor will you hear Rusty’s banter as emcee. You won’t see the Speed TEDxing sessions, or dinner in the “pollination station.” Watch anyway.

But as you do, understand that at TEDxMarionCorrectional, what is talked about on stage—life inside; life outside; the preparation, transition, connection, division between the two—is exactly what is happening off stage.

It is a powerful thing to experience and as can happen with powerful experiences, I walked out a different person than I walked in. It’s a cliché I won’t even try to avoid. But I will try to be more specific:

For starters, there’s how I think about the question: Would you ever hire an ex-prisoner?

Before: I would have entertained this theoretical question.
After: I realize it’s not a question. It’s the same as asking, “Would you hire a human?” To which the answer is: “Depends, which human?”

Before: I would have accepted “better safe than sorry” as an understandable response to this question.
After: I understand that there is no “better safe then sorry.” To reduce a person to one thing, and then use it to deny what is offered to others, is always dangerous.
It’s not as if I didn’t know this before—it’s Humanity 101—but I needed the inmates at Marion to help me practice it.

Before: I didn’t think about who was behind the walls at Marion.
After: I know there are some impressive people behind those walls. Many are doing more good for the world certainly than I am. I hold this knowledge right alongside an understanding and sensitivity to the reality that, to some, just to hear the name of these men is painful.

I left TEDxMarionCorrectional with a new and intensely sharp clarity on some things and perpetually unresolvable confusion on many others, including the discordant fact that the point of prison is to keep those inside separate from me, yet in breaking that separation my life is enriched.

Don’t misunderstand, no part of me is calling for those walls to come down and my inner skeptic remains alive and well: I get that I saw one pre-approved slice of one prison and I’m also aware that prisons reward good behavior in a way that life does not. But my skeptic is also smarter now, more just, and less prone to turn a fact into an excuse for prejudice or an eraser of good deeds.

I also left TEDxMarionCorrectional feeling lucky. For my freedom? No, turns out I need to work on my gratitude because that was not my first thought. I felt lucky for having gone in. All I did was type my name into Eventbrite and clear one Sunday, and in return I received the huge gift of this experience. For next year, I know what I’m getting into and I can’t wait.

Kendra Hovey is editor and head writer at Follow This. On Twitter @KendraHovey, she blogs at kendrahovey.com

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Follow This, Speakers, TEDxColumbus

 

[by Kendra Hovey]

If “Be Interesting” is on your to-do list today, you’re in luck, because Jessica Hagy’s blueprint for an interesting life is now in print (blue print, even). Described as a “small and quirky book with a large and universal message,” How to Be Interesting offers 200+ pages of insights, wisdoms and quips in pithy graphs, charts and diagrams.

Hagy previewed this project at the 2012 TEDxColumbus, sharing how she uses the tools of quantitative analysis to ponder some of the least quantifiable subjects—and also to poke some fun. It’s something she has been at for a long time now. In fact, her success today can be traced back to a doodle she made on a 3 x 5 card almost seven years ago.

“I was exhausted,” she says, “I was tired of working in a job that felt like an emotional dead-end, even if I was successful at it. I had no idea what to do with myself, and I was just doodling, trying to figure things out.”

That doodle became the inaugural post on Indexed, the blog she launched in 2006. There were more doodles on more 3 x 5 cards, more scans, more posts, and eventually Forbes came calling, as did others.

Hagy is originally from Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. She was educated at Ohio University (BA) and Otterbein (MBA). After ten years in Columbus and one year in London, UK, she now lives in Seattle, which is where, between book tour travels, she took some time to chat with us over email about her new book and more.

 

 

Now that your work has been given some large-scale love, do you have any wisdom to share on having your talents recognized and rewarded?
The good: The internet is an equal opportunity playground, and you can do whatever you like out there. There is room for everyone to be successful online.

The bad: You’ll learn a lot about people by how they react when their friends succeed. Not everybody is going to be happy about your happiness, and that’s really gruesome to accept and process.

The ugly: It takes years of work and thought and learning to be perceived as an overnight success. Read all you can by as many people as you can (even people you don’t agree with or even like) and tinker a lot—trial and error can lead to all sorts of great stuff eventually, but you have to get through a lot of tough trials and embarrassing errors first.

You started out with a simple and straightforward format, the 3 x 5 card, is that still your initial medium?
It is for the blog [Indexed] but anymore I’m hired to do a lot of content that doesn’t fit so easily into that standardized format. Essays and animations and strategy things—I am a creative mercenary and change formats to fit what needs done instead of just repeating what’s been done because it’s the easiest route.

I imagine life is busier now, are you sticking with your regular gigs—Indexed, Forbes, etc?
I work for a handful of steady clients (like Forbes) and I am constantly taking on new projects, so yep, really busy. Being online, every morning I check my inbox, there’s a new connection or opportunity or bit of info that can change the way I work and think—it’s never the same day twice.

If there comes a time when Indexed feels “done” for you, how do you think you will know?
Right now it’s a healthy creative habit, making a little chart out to start out the morning. There might be a time when I want to sign off the internet and go become a tulip farmer or a clay thrower or something, but only time will tell. For now, I’ll keep doodling.

What was the experience of giving a TEDx Talk like for you?
It seems that these days, no matter what your profession, you have to be able to spin your work into a TED talk. It’s like toastmasters became a prerequisite for everybody from astronomers to chainsaw sculptors. “Of course I have a power point presentation for you, I’m a champion tap-dancing fishmonger, after all!”

The TED brand exudes (and demands in return) a calmly extroverted, upper middle-class, tech-driven business-casual optimism. So much other published content and so many other conferences get created to reflect the glow of TED’s trademarked crimson that you cannot escape the TED-curated Zeitgeist. And so I weave that knowledge into my powerpoint presentations, like a good little tap-dancing fishmonger.

Is there a “next” project on the horizon?
I’m working on a project with a lot of other cartoonists, a collection of cartoons all based on a shared image, a book of illustrated poetry, and lots more content for my current clients. I’m finishing up a manifesto in watercolors this week—it’ll be live in a month or so.

Lastly, any thoughts to share on how to survive, perhaps even thrive, as a writer during this particularly challenging moment in history?


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kendra Hovey is editor and head writer at Follow This. On Twitter @KendraHovey, she blogs at kendrahovey.com


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TEDxColumbus: The Future Revealed- October 5, 2012

WantedSpeakers who can inspire, predict, reflect, challenge, educate and/or resonate.

This year’s TEDxColumbus, anchoring the Columbus Bicentennial’s idUS week, aims to answer an aspirational call: showcase some of our best and brightest thinkers, doers and visionaries with ideas that will shatter bias, ignite creativity and move action.

Keeping in mind we are looking for stories that help reveal the future (or a future), they can be in any of these categories:

  • an idea worth spreading
  • an amazing personal story
  • a stunning performance
  • a jawdropping technology demo
  • a brand new piece of work/research
  • a unique “how to”
  • a slide show of remarkable images
  • a review of a unique trend or set of data with your unique lens
  • anything that you think would fascinate, excite, educate, inspire or delight the rest of us.

This year’s process has a new phase which includes an open call for ideas.

Phase 1:

To be considered by the curatorial team (April – June), anyone nominated needs to submit a one minute (and we mean one minute) video of the idea you want to share at TEDxColumbus. You may nominate others or yourself, as long as the video is submitted at the same time as the nomination. We will not consider any nominations during this time that don’t include a video.

So, to nominate yourself or someone else, two things are needed.

1. Fill out this form.

2. Submit a video to this email address: tedxcolumbus@gmail.com.

If you don’t submit a video, we will not remind you or reach to you, we’ll just not review your nomination.  You should be notified by July whether or not you were chosen by the curatorial team. We encourage you to submit your videos by May 15th!  But read on….

Phase 2:

While the curatorial team will pick approximately 12-15 speakers and performers from our search and general nominations in Phase 1, we will leave three spots open to be chosen in three new ways in 2012:

  • A panel of previous TEDxColumbus attendees and speakers will audition up to 10 speakers who will be chosen from the video submissions.  Each applicant / nominee will present a 3 minute sample talk. During that same audition, we will open it to up to 20 people (first come, first serve) to present 1 minute ideas to also be considered. These people need not submit a nomination or video in advance.  The panel’s choice will present at TEDxColumbus 2012. The audition event is August 16 at Columbus Museum of Art in the Cardinal Health Auditorium from 7-9pm. This audition is open and free to anyone to attend, should you just want to stop in and hear some great short talks!
  • Registrants / attendees to TEDxColumbus 2012 will get to vote on a final speaker, also from the open nomination videos. We will submit three videos to the attendees in early September on which they will vote and the winner will present.
  • We will pick one speaker from TEDxYouth@Columbus on October 3 (also at COSI). We will scout a speaker or performer that day and offer a surprise invitation to him or her to come back on October 5.
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We’re thrilled to announce the 2011 TEDxColumbus line up.  After many months of nominations, interviews, conversations and research, the list is complete.

“The heart-and-soul of a TEDx event is the passion, talent, data, perspective and determination that comes through in every talk.  This year at TEDxColumbus the speakers and performers will offer a delicate balance of primary research, unbelievable life journeys, fascinating analyses and overall, really big ideas that will stretch every mind in the room.” said Ruth Milligan, Event Curator. “Everyone is assured to walk away with their own personal time capsule of experience and knowledge.”

In alphabetical order, those who will present include:

Alex Bandar– Visionary, Metallurgist, Connector
For a guy that doesn’t sleep much, Alex has an amazingly coherent vision for the world. Concerned with the death of “shop,” his vision for bringing a “maker” experience to the students in Columbus is only one part of his story. He’ll share how that vision is informed by his morning, noon and night passion (yes, different than his day job), where he’s quietly built one of the most dynamic collaboratives of engineers, artists and tinkerers in the region.

Mark Berman– Naturalist, Educator, Entomologist
Who cares about the bug?  Mark does.  And thinks you should too.  He’ll bring a unique lens to the two, four or ten legged creatures that in his opinion, can bring you perspective and maybe in return, a little respect.

David Burns– Innovator, Antagonist, Educator, Father
The pathway that David took to being a pioneer in the STEM/ 21st Century Learning Movement is a fascinating journey.  But what this leader knows about education makes him question: is education system viable anymore? He’ll uncover his own trepidation on this topic, fueled both by the irrelevant standards he faces in his daily work but also by the challenges of his three teenaged, college-contemplating children and how this impacts them.

Mike Figliuolo – Traveler, Teacher, Entrepreneur
While travel creates great stress and anxiety for many, some find it an amazing set of moments that illustrate the human condition.  Today Mike will share a different angle on his journeys and the interesting places they have taken him – and now, all of us.

Theresa Flores– Warrior, Vigilante, Advocate
Theresa’s passionate advocacy for one of the most vulnerable segments of our society is inspired by her own horrifying experience.  As she introduces you to a world far beyond your mind’s reach, she’ll show it can really be found next door.  And how one answer to it all might be found in a tiny bar of soap.

Jamie Greene– Planner, Architect, Collaborator
As our city has a moment in time as it turns 200 next year, Jamie will help guide hundreds of initiatives, events, promotions, exhibits, books and more into a year-long, collective commemoration.  But at the heart of it all, we’re curious, why does it matter?  In a brief reflection, Jamie will bring clarity to this question and inspire us to join in the movement.

Denny Griffith– Artist, Administrator, Visionary
Most creative individuals end up with more than one persona in life.  How do they support, conflict and interact with each other?  Denny will reveal his vulnerable insights from years searching for the balance between his public and private personas.

Claudia Kirsch– Radiologist, Artist, Pioneer
Claudia spends her life looking for hitchhikers, the kind that take ‘free rides’ along your nerves carrying cancer. Through her blend of science and a little art, she’s redefining how radiologists look at the most congested traffic site in our bodies: the head and neck. Her discoveries will inspire and may someday even save your life.

Maryanna Klatt–  Researcher, Yogi, Teacher
The impact of chronic stress on our health, productivity, and overall wellbeing can be catastrophic.  But how do you reduce it without adding one more thing to your life? Maryanna will reveal from her significant research initiatives that learning stress reduction techniques within the very ecosystem where we spend our days may be the most viable solution.

Dirk Knemeyer– Provocateur, Entrepreneur, Thinker
Dirk argues humanity took a wrong turn, but is getting close to finding its way again. After centuries of industrial production in inhuman ways and scales we now have the opportunity to turn our substantial capacity for remaking the world toward the most promising and unexplored of frontiers: ourselves. Dirk challenges us to view the future through the lens of the self.

Randy Nelson – Professor, Neuroscientist, Researcher
Dr. Nelson has a deep curiosity about the dark side of light at night.  His research will reveal that our passion for electrification has more complex consequences than can meet the sleeping eye.

Bart Overly–  Futurist, Architect, Thinker
As our population rapidly ages and lives much longer, how so might the habitats we have constructed for our comforts adapt to this change?  A global review of attitudes towards this longevity crisis (or opportunity) might enlighten design and development’s reaction towards it.  As a student of architecture, Bart will share his perspectives on this ever dynamic and somewhat troubling dilemma.

Janet Parrott– Filmmaker, Storyteller, Professor
The exploration of hospice was not one that Janet had planned to take, but found herself in South Africa doing just that.  As a filmmaker, Janet was equipped with tools to tell the story of a very different approach to what we embrace in America as hospice, but challenged by the pathway that took her there, having lost many personal friends to HIV/AIDS herself.  Janet will reveal the struggle that ensues when the creator becomes a part of the creation.

The Salty Caramels– Musical gumbo
With a suitcase bass drum, cast-iron skillet, heavy-gage chain and a musical saw as ingredients in their “musical gumbo”, you’d expect for the Salty Caramels to stand out, and that’s exactly what they do.

Adam Smith– Multi-Instrumentalist, Composer
His passion for fusing his Film and TV music experience, jazz idioms, art installations and free-improvised directions creates an extremely unique landscape for the adventurous musician and listener.

Rose SmithPoet
One of our many shared ‘moments’ at TEDxColumbus, Rose will delight us with her provocative poetry and engaging delivery. 

Trent Tipple – Survivor, Father, Scientist
In a touching reflection on the fragility of our existence, Trent will question our ability to truly appreciate what life has offered. He should know, he’s faced his own mortality three times.  And fortunately for his family, his patients and the world, he’s here to openly share that appreciation of his own.

Susan Willeke – Ethicist, Teacher, Steward
We’re told to keep an open mind, so why would Susan argue that we need some bias in our lives?  As an ethics trainer, she will compel you to recognize why your bias is helpful in keeping some societal order, but on occasion, how it drags us into some of our most regrettable mistakes.

 

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Thanks to a few generous sponsors who can’t use all of their TEDxColumbus tickets, we have now opened up a student scholarship lottery for seats TEDxColumbus on 11.11.11 at COSI.

If you are a student and cannot afford to attend but would like to, please register for the lottery here. Only students who can produce a student ID the day of the event will be eligible.

We will announce the winners on November 7th when every applicant will receive an email notifying them of the winners.

If you would like to help offset costs for students to attend, we welcome donations to the TEDx fund through this link

Thanks to all for your support!

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Jane Goodall is my hero. I love her compassion and dedication in working with chimpanzees in Tanzania. In this TED Talk, she describes how her team’s community projects for humans are helping the struggling people surrounding the chimpanzee’s habitat with clean water, farming techniques, and unexpectedly, a growing interest in conservation. Her commitment to both people and animals is creating an environment of peaceful coexistence for both.

Kate Storm
COSI
Director of Strategic Initiatives & Artist

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Tis the season to coordinate the curation of the third TEDxColumbus event.  We’ve been overhwelmed with speaker nominations, much to our delight.

We thought we’d share the main factors in how we sort, debate and choose the speakers as we head into the final inning of this process.

1. Chosen speakers generally fall into one of 3 categories:

     A. Primary researcher or original artist/author

     B. Primary observer of other people’s data from a unique lens

     C. Primary experiencer (our word) of a once in a lifetime event

2. Topics and ideas they speak on can be widely varying against our theme, but we aim for:

     A. Big and mind-bending

     B. Provocative and emotional

     C. Story/anecdote rich

3. Nominations not considered are:

     A. Anything remotely self promotional

     B. Policy talks – they are usually important but dry and often politically charged.

     C. Riffs – ie one sided, research-lacking, opinionated rants.

     D. Leadership and motivational talks

     E. Speakers who do not have an intrinsic tie to Columbus

 

Once we have vetted through if a speaker and topic are a potential fit, we look at the entire list altogether. This allows us to achieve balance in narrative style, native / foreign speakers, topic, gender and ethnic diversity.  This is the tough part of the process as we always end up leaving a good speaker or idea behind.  But the audience (you), would not appreciate only talks on education, or only talks by people who have overcome a life-threatening, heart-tugging obstacle.  The beauty of a live TEDx event is the connectivity one finds between diverse topics.

We don’t have an exact statistic on how long speakers take to prepare, but our rule of thumb is at least one hour per minute of presentation, particularly if it is a new talk (even on an old idea).  The first year we had one speaker leave town from his family for 3 days to work on his 12 minute talk. Let’s say it’s a notable commitment.

But the payoff if significant. Speakers know the audience is seeking new ideas and has a wide-open mind, the shared experience with the other speakers is quite amazing, and last but not least, the value of having a TEDx video online is a fairly huge perk.

We welcome your questions and suggestions as we continue to refine and improve our process. But we ask that you only give feedback if you have attended a live TEDx event.  Watching individual talks online is not an adequate judge of the wholistic experience we work to achieve for our audience every fall.

 

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