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Follow This, Speakers, TEDxColumbus

Frederick Nadbaramiyeby Kendra Hovey

I read Frederick Ndabaramiye’s new memoir so that I could write about it for Follow This. I didn’t have to think about whether I wanted to read it. But you will. And because Frederick is Rwandan, and was just 11 years old when genocide swept through his country, you might wonder if this book will be too hard to read, or you might decide, no matter, it is still a book that you ought to read.

Frederick and Hanna

But while the reality of humanity’s capacity for cruelty is extremely hard, this book is not, and while bearing witness to the suffering of others is noble, don’t let it cloud your understanding of what this book is really about. It’s right there on the cover: Frederick. As Jack Hanna tells us in the foreword, “Today, you become one of the privileged. Today, you meet Frederick.”

Frederick: A Story of Boundless Hope,  written with Nashville author Amy Parker, was published this fall. In 2012, Frederick was a speaker at TEDxColumbus. In an onstage conversation with Nancy Kramer, he shared his story, including what he experienced at age 15, while traveling by bus in northeastern Rwanda. The 100-day genocide that left one million dead  had officially ended, but the Interahamwe genocidaires that had managed to escape capture, were again leading attacks from hideaways within the mountains of neighboring Congo. It was this group that intercepted Frederick’s bus and singling out Frederick, ordered him to kill everyone. He refused: “My God won’t let me do that.”

The Interahamwe massacred his bus companions and then severed Frederick’s arms below the elbow. While his book confronts the full force of this trauma—and shares it with equanimity and respect for the reader’s emotions—this memoir is not so much about what happened to Frederick; it’s about what Frederick makes happen.

The story opens with Frederick in Columbus, Ohio and absolutely reeling from so many firsts—his first experience with cities, planes, trains, thousands of white faces, the taste of ice cream and, ironically, gorillas. Frederick had never seen the mountain gorillas on the other side of his country—something “it seemed only wealthy Rwandans and international tourists were privy to”—yet gorillas are why he is here. It was through the Columbus Zoo’s conservation efforts in Rwanda that Frederick came to meet and eventually befriend Jack Hanna, Charlene Jendry and others, and from this, came the flight to Columbus and the appointment at Hanger Prosthetics where he was to be fit with mechanical fingers.

hanger prosthetics

Frederick’s story then takes us to Rwanda, to his village and family, the beginning of the genocide and to the fateful bus trip, and his unlikely escape. The blood streaming from what it left of his arms, he was forced to his feet and to walk. Frederick heard the order “Finish him off,” yet he kept walking “down the hill and into the trees and no one followed.” But escape did not mean survival, to survive would take something else: good fortune. There were the two sisters who first saved him and the truck full of men who found a surgeon; even the electrical cords the Interahamwe used to bind him saved his life. They acted as a tourniquet so that, as Frederick writes, “what those men had meant to harm me, God had used for good.”

I Am AbleThe gratitude expressed in these words from Frederick was hard won. Initially, there was only despair, an attempt to end his life and despair that, even at this, he was a failure. He was a burden, worth nothing, he thought, in a family and a country that demanded self-reliance. From the words in psalms and hymns he began to understand he was not alone in his suffering, and had the seed of a thought that would only grow: So sure of his uselessness, yet maybe there is another perspective he had not considered.

From this epiphany and all that he has made happen since—from a painting to a new educational center for people with disabilities to a movement “I Am Able”—there is a rich story, including surprising interactions with his perpetrator, with his savior and with his mother, that stun, yet reveal the quality of equanimity so impressive in him. There are unexpected details, like that, because rebels would cut the arms off of their own soldiers, Frederick could be mistakenly identified as the very people that did this to him, or that the Center he built and that now educates 500 from preschoolers to master’s students began with a volleyball game. Frederick was the coach.

Ubumwe Community Center

Wherever Frederick shares his story, people often respond with a kind of awed incomprehension. How has he not only healed from this, but thrived? And how did he find the magnanimity to forgive? His book answers these questions, but also asks us to see that his trauma is not so unique, nor is it so worse than others:

“When you, get down to it, I think we all have our handicaps. People everywhere struggle with forgiveness, and everyone is hungry for hope . . . By wearing my handicap on the outside, I’ve learned to speak about the trauma and the struggles that go along with it. People are more likely to show compassion to me. But what about those with hidden handicaps? Disability of the spirit is so much more debilitating than a physical disability. Yet we tend to be less sensitive to those hidden handicaps.”

“We are all broken,” he says. From everything he has experienced, the truth of this statement is clear to him. But, says Frederick, “the good thing is this: although we are all broken, we all have the same offer to be made whole again.”

Frederick at TEDxCbus

 

Kendra Hovey is editor at TEDxColumbus: Follow This. On Twitter @KendraHovey, she blogs at kendrahovey.com

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Events, Follow This, TEDxColumbus

Sunflower wallby Kendra Hovey

In yesterday’s post I asked Who is going to TEDxColumbus? only to conclude that with a willingness to meet and engage with others, we’ll have to all find out for ourselves. Just maybe, we’ll also find talent and commitment not only on stage, but off-stage, perhaps in the seat next to us.

I’m a four-time attendee and this has been my experience—and I’m an introvert. I’ll give you one example: Cathe. At the 2011 event, Cathe and I were two of six “strangers” randomly selected to sit around a table and have lunch together. While some attendees have loved this idea, others not so much. Our table had a great time, and Cathe is definitely a “pro-luncher.” As she told me recently, “I’ve now got these ideas that I’ve heard and then I’m going to sit with these people and were going to have a wild conversation about it. It’s fantastic. I just can’t believe how interesting it is…. We exchange cards … make a little contact and off it goes…. Honestly, to sit down and not try to convince anybody of anything, but just talk about what you just heard—we don’t do it that often.”

At that lunch Cathe and I exchanged cards, talked, and met-up again, and gradually I learned more about the work to which she has dedicated much of her life. It was about thirty-five years ago that Cathe witnessed a young friend’s descent into illness from an incurable brain tumor. Just weeks after her friend’s death, she read an article about hospice (a rather new idea in the U.S. at the time). She called the facility. The woman who interviewed her—who is still in the hospice movement today—told Cathe that she still had her own grieving to do and to call back in six months. She did, and has worked in hospice ever since—a journey that would take her to the far and open spaces of Africa and to the closer and closed spaces of the Ohio Reformatory for Women.

Hospice work is “doing whatever needs doing,” says Cathe. Maybe it’s talking, doing laundry, cleaning out a cat box; there was one woman who couldn’t eat anymore, “but she loved food,” say Cathe, “she would give me a list. I’d buy the ingredients and from her bed she would tell me how to make it. She just liked the smell of it in the house. Then her family would come over and eat it.”

Sometimes, what “needs doing” is just sitting, simply being there. “That was a terrific lesson for me,” she explains. “I was so sure I wasn’t valuable because there wasn’t any demonstrate-able thing going on. Now I know that is not the case.” Hospice volunteers are more than extra hands. “Illness is isolating,” she says, “hospice says to the patient and the family, the community hasn’t forgotten you, and when a patient dies we keep track of the family for a year…. How do you talk about that kind of care? How do we talk about it?”

Contemporary American culture does not have an easy time with language around death and dying. Cathe’s comfort and straightforwardness is refreshing. It’s also essential for good healthcare: “Hospice care is in essence a conversation. The patient is at the center, surrounded by family and a multi-interdisciplinary group of caregivers. Everyone talks to each other about what is best for that patient.” Not just hospice, it’s a model that would benefit all healthcare.

These elements of conversation and community are something Cathe experiences at TEDxColumbus. It’s why she now tries to attend every year: “I find it incredibly interesting that this is the same kind of thing that happens at TEDx. You put us in the center and all these ideas are spoked around us. With hospice, if you have a caring community and family, we support that. If you don’t have that, we help you create it. With TEDx, if you do or don’t have an intellectual community, we are going to create this community—and then we’re all going to share lunch out of a box!”

Janet ParrottCathe was introduced to TEDxColumbus through Janet Parrott, a 2011 speaker and also director of the film Song of the Soul. This film exists because of Cathe. Having heard about the expertise of hospice work in Africa, she began visiting and learning, and after a chance meeting with Parrott back at home, Cathe said to her, You get a film crew. We’ll go and I’ll show you what is going on in South Africa because it is really hopeful. These are wonderful people and we should tell their story. It was a spur-of-the-moment idea, but as Cathe recalls, “Poor Janet goes: Okay.”

It was a lot of work and a lot of travel. Cathe is grateful for the film and “extremely proud” that it is written, directed, produced and financed entirely in Columbus, Ohio. Her hope is that the film will build understanding about hospice, and also show the competence of the programs in Africa, and this one in South Africa particularly. “People go to Africa thinking we’re going to save them, we’re going to show them things, Africans know stuff,” she says incredulously, “they have a tremendous amount to teach us.”

children at sunflower 2Cathe is also involved in a Harmony Project program at the Ohio Reformatory for Women (ORW). The Harmony Project is about “connecting communities across social divides through art, education, and volunteerism,” and it’s about singing, lots of singing. But within that collection of voices are people of different backgrounds, with different needs and life circumstances and the collaboration between them and the gift they give to others with their voices is what makes the Harmony Project transformative, healing, kind of like good quality healthcare.

The program at ORW—one of many within the Harmony Project—offers an opportunity for those “serving a sentence to serve a purpose and be a part of the community.” These words are from founder and creative director David Brown, who also rather deftly points out that community is where these women will one day reintegrate. When Cathe learned of this program, she visited OWR and eventually helped arrange for the choir of female inmates to sing and perform over skype to the children at Joan Marston’s Sunflower House Hospice in Bloemfontein, South Africa. She happened to be there with the children, each one with a life-limiting disease, for the first skype. “It was magic,” she says.

Brown understands that women singing to children may sound like a small thing, but he knows that it has “wonder-working power.” At Sunflower House, when a child dies their name is placed on a sunflower and added to a wall full of other named-sunflowers. The women at OWR have created their own sunflower garden wall, and on each flower is the face of a child that they sing to at the Hospice House.

Hospice can sometimes refer to a building or facility, but always it is a healthcare practice and, as much as it is focused on death and dying, it is a philosophy of living. For me, this is a changed and deepened understanding, and it came by way of two strangers meeting at TEDxColumbus with an openness to talk and to listen.

Kendra Hovey is editor at TEDxColumbus: Follow This. On Twitter @KendraHovey, she blogs at kendrahovey.com

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Follow This, TEDxColumbus

Audince rowby Kendra Hovey

From the list of speakers you know who will be on the stage in front of you, but who will be next to you? Behind you? Who will be in the coffee line? In your lunch circle?

There are 900 possibilities, but I’ll take a small presumptive leap and suggest that one will be Maureen McCabe. The realtor and TED enthusiast has been to all five, plus some of the viewing events, and seeing as it’s not on an Open-House-Sunday, I’ll dare say she’ll show up for year six. And so, maybe, will Kate and Dave. In the past, the married couple juggled work and schedules to make sure they could go together, like a date, but not, cause “date” is just not the kind of language this couple uses. Still, there was date-like anticipation and expectations of fun and inspiration, plus lots of stuff to talk about later.

Audience lunchWho else? Well, each speaker gets two comps, so some of their peeps…and there are always past speakers who return as audience members. There’s a tech manager at a local insurance company who got tickets for her team. She considers the event a team-builder and good research for improving presentations. I’ve heard, too, of a small and overworked non-profit staff that is coming for some needed self-care. They had the option to go to a day spa. They chose TEDxColumbus instead.

There will be students and volunteers, as always, and also out-of-towners: I once sat next to a retired couple who, inspired by their son who had just organized a TEDx event out west, drove to Columbus to learn more about what this TEDx thing is all about. Another year, I met a superintendent of schools (of a faraway district) who, after a year of contentious school board battles, gifted himself a stress-free day off at TEDxColumbus.

I had met this man at lunch—yes, at the maligned and lauded contested “space” that is the TEDxColumbus Lunch. Because we benefit by being open not just to new ideas, but new people, lunch partners were randomized. Though last year that was made optional. This year the event begins with lunch: Just show up, grab a box and eat (with whomever you please).

So as to the question of who else will be at this year’s TEDxColumbus, I really have no idea, so I asked organizer Ruth Milligan. Every year there is a whole crop of new people, she says: “Many individuals come on their own, and now we’re seeing some of our past attendees returning, but bringing their entire offices with them, like 10 to 15 people. But we do assure that the majority of the seats are still available to individuals and friends, partners or spouses that want an inspiring non-office outing for themselves.”

One thing we know is that you will see people who are strangers to you. But, none of us are really strangers. We all have some connection to Columbus. We are curious and want to be engaged. There’s a common denominator that binds us, even if not readily apparent. To get the most out of the day, it’s good to bring with you a willingness to sit next to and engage in conversation with “strangers.” You may just find that the mix of talent, passion and commitment you see on stage is also off-stage, and potentially sitting right next to you. In fact, come back to this site tomorrow; we’ll be posting about one attendee’s passion and commitment, and its positive reverberations close to home and across continents.

Kendra Hovey is editor at TEDxColumbus: Follow This. On Twitter @KendraHovey, she blogs at kendrahovey.com

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Follow This, TEDxColumbus

Scott Gaudi

by Kendra Hovey

Congratulations (x 2) to Scott Gaudi. The 2013 TEDxColumbus lead-off speaker was recently appointed JPL Distinguished Visiting Scientist and, not a month later, he was named the Thomas Jefferson Chair for Discovery and Space Exploration at Ohio State. Illustrious honors, both, but what does it all mean for the Distinguished-Visiting-Scientist–Discovery-and-Space-Exploration-Chair–Professor-of-Astronomy?

More stargazing, for one. Or, to be precise, planet hunting and, even better, planet finding.

Gaudi will also be developing future planet hunts, as well as future planet hunters. At JPL, he’ll be working with NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program (ExEP) to “get the full science” out of their current and past space-based missions, as well as set priorities for future missions. Luckily for his students here, he’ll be able to do most of this close to home, visiting JPL HQ in California in short stints throughout his two-year appointment. The Jefferson Chair, and the anonymously donated endowment that comes with it, will also support and expand his space exploration efforts, and it will enable him to better train and develop the next generation of Ohio State astronomy students, “some of whom,” he says, “will go on to find new planets of their own.”

Planets_everywhere_artist’s_impression-580x382

The planets Gaudi is looking for are called exoplanets, meaning they are outside our solar system. He’s found nearly a dozen already, including two since his TEDxTalk and a potential third, which, if it passes planet muster, might be his most exciting find yet. And what makes one planet more exciting than another? In this case, it’s the temperature. If it is a planet, it will be the hottest, “as hot as a low mass star,” says Gaudi with hopeful enthusiasm. It’ll also be the ninth planet found with the KELT Survey, which was developed with his former graduate student Thomas Beatty (now at Penn State) and is an acronym for Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope. 

If you’re wondering how they know where to point this extremely little telescope…well, they don’t. As Gaudi explains, “it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack, except there are a lot of things that look like needles but aren’t.” It’s laborious work, but for Gaudi the work is a privilege. As he says, “You have to take a step back and say, I just discovered a planet that no one else knew existed, that’s pretty cool, and then occasionally you find something that is not only a new planet but it’s a kind of planet no one even thought could exist or imagined could exist, that’s where things get exciting.” And, of course, there’s the science: “Those systems,” he adds, “inevitably tell us something new about the universe we didn’t expect.”

This is what’s fun about talking to Scott Gaudi about his job: He’s articulate and energetic the way a person is when they are doing exactly what they want to be doing, but also, he’s more than tolerant of a dilettante’s giddy fascination with space, he’s just as fascinated and has the potential, one suspects, to be just as giddy.

PIA18837Take JPL, for instance: Gaudi can tell you it stands for Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It’s the workplace of 5,000 or so scientists and engineers and it’s primary focus is space exploration. Or, he says, think of it this way: it’s NASA, and all that represents—a place where Voyager actually gets built, where discoveries and exploration actually happen. From mission launches, building new technologies, studying phenomenon in the sky, human space flight, the nitty-gritty work of soldering wires and hard core calculations to dreaming big dreams, JPL is “everything space exploration.”

For fun, you might like to visit jpl.nasa.gov. Like many websites, it has a mission tab, but, of course, JPL’s is literal: Kepler, Magellan, Mars Orbiter, Voyager 1 and 2. More than 100 missions, each with a description, a launch date and a target, some targets are specific—solar wind, asteroid Vesta, Mars—and others are more general: The Universe, for instance.

For Gaudi, both appointments are an honor, an opportunity and also the next logical step in his career. But he feels strongly aware of how lucky he is to be alive at this time of technological advances and to be able to make whatever small progress he can towards answering big questions about the universe. “These answers are not out of reach,” he says, “nor are they only for certain people.” He hopes this is an inspiration to others. “Everyone can contribute to exploration,” he says.

For any reporter, “dumb questions” are a tool of the trade, used to bypass preconceptions and misconceptions, plus, they yield the best quotes. But some of the questions that came to mind for Scott Gaudi I feared were downright idiotic. But, as it turns out, he’s cool with Star Trek references. So one of those dumb question was: Were looking for life as we know it on earth, are we looking for life as we dont know it? Or in Star Trek shorthand: If a planet were inhabited by hortas, would we even know?

Gaudi’s answer: “It’s hard, right? The classic example is if I ask you to describe a dog you could probably do it, if I asked you to describe a not-dog, what would you say? We can imagine alternate forms of life, we can write down requirements for what life means—though even defining life is difficult—but silicon-based life…life that uses ammonia as a solvent instead of water…I think the first step is to try to imagine if that life is even plausible, and researchers here are trying to do that. It’s important to keep our minds open and it’s not that we don’t understand that life might be very, very different than what it is on earth, it’s just that if we want to make any progress we have to have a specific goal in mind. So, for instance, Europa, Jupiter’s moon, shows evidence of an underground ocean, so we’ll likely look there for some form of bacterial life.”

Lastly, I asked: While he’s excited to find other life, there are people who fear such a discovery and its unknown consequences. Does he understand this fear? Or in any way share it?

No.

“The idea that life arose elsewhere gives a profound meaning to the question of Why are we here? Even if it’s microbes, we are not alone,” he says. “The universe is so rich. If we do find life in the next few years, it certainly means that life is abundant, and if life is abundant, doesn’t it just make the universe a much more interesting place? I can’t imagine being afraid of discovery of any kind. Certainly not discovery of life.”

Kendra Hovey is editor at TEDxColumbus: Follow This. On Twitter @KendraHovey, she blogs at kendrahovey.com

Photo Credits: “Artist’s impression of exoplanets everywhere,” ESO M. Kornmesser, creative commons;  “Artist illlustration of HAT-P-11b passing in front of its star,” NASA/JPL-Caltech   

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Follow This, TEDxColumbus

sharing supplies

by Kendra Hovey

The shipment came down the Nile by boat, where it was transferred onto small makeshift watercrafts, ferried to the riverbank, and then all 6,000 pounds of it carried by hand for a mile up to the village of Piol. This was the Buckeye Clinic’s third shipment of food and supplies since war broke out in South Sudan, and the most challenging; it’s the rainy season and Piol is accessible only by foot or canoe.

 

Makeshift boat

Last December, just days after we posted a story about past-speaker Bol Aweng and the Buckeye Health Clinic, the situation in South Sudan changed drastically. When we shared the story, the Clinic, supported almost exclusively by the Columbus community, was up and running and close to completing its final goals. Both Aweng and fellow “Lost Boy” Jok Dau had good news to share, including the unexpected and happy discovery that Aweng’s sister, missing since 1991, was indeed alive and soon would be reunited with the Aweng family in Piol.

But on December 15th, violence broke out between warring political factions, the Buckeye Clinic shifted their efforts to provide needed food and humanitarian aid, and the reunion, of course, did not happen.

Today, the region is under its third cease-fire, this one includes a 45-day period to build a coalition government. Since the fighting began, over 10,000 have been killed, almost 2,000,000 have been displaced and the region is now facing a potential famine, one that is entirely human-made. Most South Sudanese live in rural areas (and with violence turning some cities into ghost towns this percentage has likely increased) where the main source of food is family crops. But because of insecurity and displacement many fields remain fallow.

delivering suppliesThe Clinic is still providing needed medical care. Luckily, it has not been damaged or looted and has been able to remain open since the crisis began. The first shipment of food and supplies were sent in April. It had an unexpected ripple effect. Most of the community had fled to the marshlands of the Nile. While safer from violence, food is limited (people lived on water lilies and what fish they could catch). And without medicine, clean water and adequate shelter, there is risk of waterborne disease, especially vulnerable are children under five. When the first shipment arrived it was assumed that people would take the food and return to the Nile, but instead a number of them stayed and began to rebuild their homes and plant crops. The support network for the Buckeye Clinic sent two additional shipments over the summer, and is preparing a fourth (all with no administrative costs—receipts, distribution lists, photos and videos are posted on their website, as well as opportunities to donate).  

After decades of war, a period of rebuilding and then independence, the people of South Sudan are again threatened—this time by internal strife. So how do we understand this conflict?

There are the factual events. At independence in 2011, Salva Kiir, who is Dinka, became the first President of South Sudan. Riek Machar, who is Nuer, became Vice President. For both, these mirror the leadership roles they held since the end of the civil war in 2005. In July of 2013, Kiir dismissed his cabinet and VP. Machar, interpreting this as a power grab, convenes a December press conference, which Kiir interprets as a coup. Violence erupts.

There is recent history, which tragically can be traced through the traumas experienced by Bol Aweng’s family (and many others). The second civil war between the north and south began in 1983. The village of Piol was attacked in 1987 and Bol Aweng, running for his life at age six, became one of over 36,000 Lost Boys of Sudan. While this conflict still raged, internal strife developed within the South Sudan Resistance. Citing different political goals, Riek Machar (the VP mentioned above) challenged the leadership of John Garang. In 1991, his largely Nuer forces attacked Garang’s home territory—Dinka lands, including Piol. Bol’s mother and sister were abducted. The mother returned, but the daughter was not heard from again, until just last year when she was found living in Nuer lands.

Machar, who received support from the Sudan government in Khartoum, signed an agreement with them in 1997, but in 2002, he rejoined Garang’s Resistance Movement (Garang was killed in a crash in 2005; Kiir was his second in command) and, in 2012, Machar publicly apologized for the massacre of 1991.

And there are the consequences of decades of war. The health delivery system was destroyed and has not been adequately re-developed. One out of five children do not live to age five. South Sudan has one of the highest maternal mortality rates, and their literacy rate is the lowest in the world—these are just some of the realities of generation after generation having to live in survival mode.

Is this an inevitable tribal conflict? A battle for political power? For economic control? [After all, oil-rich regions are continually a loci of conflict.] Or a consequence of war’s neglect and stagnation?

And perhaps a more important question: Is there a way forward politically? This remains to be seen. But it’s important to understand that even as the map divides regions and tribes, those lines crisscross everywhere—Nuer helping Dinka, Dinka helping Nuer (and for a less heartwarming example, some Dinka were part of Machar’s group in the 1990s), and those of other tribal affiliations helping both. A Dinka man, for instance, is protecting his two Nuer nieces, even as the girls’ relatives in another area are fighting, albeit reluctantly, against Dinka. “I would save those girls again,” he says, “even if my people are killed, I would rather save a life, any life, rather than take one.” There are many stories like this. No matter how cruel the politics and the violence, there always are.

Seemingly pointless political machinations and mass killings make it difficult for those in the west to watch and, eventually, to care. Bol Aweng understands this. The last year has returned him, quite painfully, to his own trauma and the awful knowledge that it is happening again to others. Though it is hard to witness, he is grateful to those who do. As a child he remembers feeling as if his misery was “imperceptible” to the rest of the world. Now he is here in Columbus, he is raising a family, he is making art, he is improving healthcare, he is reducing infant mortality. “In the world, a lot of bad things happen,” he says, “but if we save the life of one person, this is a big difference we can make in the lives of human beings.”

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

 

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Events, Follow This, Speakers, TEDxYouth@Columbus

Austin Channell at TEDxCbus

by Kendra Hovey

If you didn’t see it, you might have heard about it: First standing O of the day . . . 80,290 views online . . . featured on WOSU TV’s TEDxColumbus special . . . The talk, Austin Channell’s A Culture of Obsession: Why taking choir kept me from being valedictorian, was even retweeted by preeminent chorale composer Eric Whitacre—making Channell, for one hot moment, a hero among Central Ohio choir directors.

It all made for an interesting senior year of high school for Austin Channell, who never expected to be juggling his class schedule with an appearance on All Sides with Ann Fisher or piggybacking a college visit onto a speaking engagement in Virginia.

Now a high school graduate, Channell finished third in his class, but was not a valedictorian. As he says, “that would have been awkward.” In the fall, he’ll attend Vanderbilt University, where he plans to study civil engineering.

Austin Channell on all sides with Ann FisherHis TEDx talk, to quickly refresh, grew out of a real life quandary: He could take choir in high school, get an A and, as a result, lower his GPA. Or he could sign up for study hall and end up with a higher GPA. As absurd as this sounds, it’s also built into the educational grading system. As Channell deftly points out, it is possible for a student to “succeed in more areas and be penalized for it.”

It’s not that he had some great ambition to be a valedictorian, as he says, “It was the principle of the thing.” And the problem is bigger than just some nonsensical grade point system. At issue, is the larger and more complicated matter of how we choose to define and measure success, and the resulting effects on college-entrance, and the self-esteem, health and well-being of our youth.

For students, it can lead to some silly scheduling maneuvers—going to art class while officially signed up for study hall. But if college is going to be in the picture, GPA is vital, and even as current business-speak extols the virtues of failure while the social sciences send out alerts about the dangers of perfectionism, students know exactly the fine line they have to walk.

If an A in a non-AP class can reduce GPA or just one B can plummet a class rank from one to one hundred and something, an example Channell shares, why take a risk? Or follow an interest? Maybe the student truly is that much less smart or less studious than before the B, either way, at many colleges, her application’s gone from the top of the pile to the slush pile. Grading—how it varies between districts, schools and teachers and what exactly it measures—is not just a complicated puzzle for administrators. Channell is telling us it’s having real effects, adverse effects, on real lives.

Yet not every high schooler with something important to say, says it on the TEDx stage. In fact, in the history of TEDxColumbus there’ve been exactly two: Austin Channell and Meagan Jones. Channell’s journey began courtesy of his public school, where a posted flyer and a nudge from a teacher led to an internship with TEDxYouth. Working with Andy Aichele for two years, he helped plan, coach and stage manage the event. “We spent a lot of time at a lot of Paneras,” he says. As can happen when working with TED, the question pops up: “What would be your talk?” When Achiele would pose it, Channell, took it as idle musing, at least until the day he began “ranting” about his situation. As he recalls, “Andy said, ‘This is your talk,’ and I thought, ‘Yeah…it is.’ ”

Austin Channell interviewed by CBS News Pittsburg

Once he left the TEDxColumbus stage, it didn’t take long for the tweeting and sharing to start, as well as the dialogue and invitations to speak. He’s been interviewed on various news programs, shared versions of the talk at a school board meeting, at the Ohio Department of Education (twice) and, by invitation of a PTA, as far away as Falls Church, Virginia. The small city, essentially a suburb of DC, is in the wealthiest county in the U.S. and home to supposedly the best high school in the country (though public, admission is selective). In Falls Church, says Channell, “even the middle school librarian has an ivy league degree.” It was there, during the Q&A, that Channell was asked maybe the most heart-breaking question. It came from an 8th grader. To paraphrase, she asked, “What if I don’t feel so driven to succeed, but my parents want it and I don’t want to make them unhappy?”

This child’s question helps explain the strong response to Channell’s talk. Education is not just about student and teacher, but administrators, communities, society, says Channell, and the core relationship between parent and child. “We know education is a hot button issue,” he says, “some relate to what they see as an unfair system, some question how we assess learning, some defend the system, but for parents in particular, the effects on their children are really concerning—I know how hard it was on my own parents to witness the physical toll of my class schedule and academic stress.”

Another reason for the overwhelming response may just be that Austin Channell did a really good job. And were I to add “for his age” it’s not to put a qualifier on his abilities, but to acknowledge age is a factor. Though he doesn’t attempt to offer a solution, and while people are listening and talking no changes have yet been made (though his school board just announced it will be reviewing the valedictorian system), still in Channell’s TEDx talk there is hope. Because despite everything we have left the next generation to grapple with, if they still come out smart, articulate, principled and mature, there’s definitely hope.

Whether Channell agrees with this or not, he can’t deny that people are impressed with his public speaking abilities, because the reality is he gets asked about it all the time. He actually loves this question. He knows exactly where he learned stage presence and how to engage an audience, and he’s happy to share: “It’s theater,” he says, “It’s what the arts can do for you.”

Another question catches him more off-guard. The details vary each time, but it goes something like this: “Would you mind if we drove three hours from Pittsburg to interview you?” Or, “We can pay to fly you and your mom to Virginia, put you up in a hotel, give you a rental car, pay for your food and a travel stipend…would that be okay?” Recounting these today, he still sounds bemused: “It’s one of those questions people would ask, but I’m still not sure . . . who says no to this?”

If this whole experience has been a bit disorienting for Channell, it’s also been humbling and motivating. Amazed by how far and wide the talk has spread, he also wonders if maybe he should have put more into it—more than writing it during an 11th period study hall, he confesses. This concern comes from the perfectionist in him, but also from a real sense of responsibility.

He has no obligation but to go off and be a college student and pursue his interest in civil engineering. But that’s not how he’s feeling. “I don’t know what form it will take or what point in my life it will happen,” he says, but the issue is not behind him. By sheer coincidence, Vanderbilt is home to Peabody College, the best graduate school of education in the nation. He’s already made contact, though just out of curiosity. He does say that, in his mind, from civil engineering to education is not a huge leap. “Civil engineering is about creating and maintaining systems. Though more infrastructure related, it’s borderline policy,” he says. Plus, he’s never been one for purely technical pursuits, being more macro- than micro-focused.

The system of education is one of many things he’s looking forward to potentially exploring in college. But for the moment, he’s got his graveyard shift at a truck parts warehouse. Spending his summer laboring alongside mostly fulltime union workers, ”I put parts in boxes,” he says, “I close the box and put a shipping label on it.” He’s in it for the money—“I know I’ll be poor in college, but my goal is to be less poor in college”—but as a side benefit, he’s listened to a lot of audio books.

One night that audiobook was The Ghost Map about a cholera epidemic in 1854. “If you want to get strange looks from people, just listen to a description of someone suffering from cholera,” he says. When the guys around him asked what he was listening to, it blossomed into a group discussion about medical issues and the scientific process. “Turn it up,” someone suggested, and at 10:00 on a summer night instead of a muffled din of rap, metal and various podcasts, blaring inside this truck parts warehouse was a story about disease and sanitation in mid-19th century London, England. Yet another unexpected and interesting experience in what has been an unexpected and interesting year for Austin Channell.

 

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

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Events, Follow This, Speakers, TEDxColumbus, TEDxColumbusWomen, TEDxWomen

by Kendra Hovey

Sold out in one day. Attendance up five-fold. All the sudden, TEDxColumbusWomen is a rock star. In its fourth year, the live-stream of the annual TEDWomen conference added something new: five talks from local speakers—which might explain the sudden surge in interest, except it was announced after the last ticket sold. 

This post shares some event highlights and commentary, but for those eager to skip ahead…

For local TEDxColumbusWomen speakers:
Jump to Session II

For TEDWomen speakers:
Jump to Session I

Or, to begin with general info and impressions, simply read on.

TEDxColumbusWomen was held on December 5th at the Columbus Foundation. TEDWomen 2013: Invented Here streamed from San Francisco—the title, in part, an acknowledgement of the host city. The first set of TEDWomen talks (Session I:  To Be Is To Do) took the most literal approach to the Invented Here theme, rolling out one innovative product after another: an energy-generating soccer ball, an affordable artificial knee, a preemie incubator for home use, a smarter spacesuit, and more.

Ideally, content should stand on its own, and when that content is literally bouncing (soccer ball) or walking (spacesuit) on the stage in front of you, this ideal seems almost possible. But, as both neuroscience and social science tell us, to veil identity (gender or otherwise) is not so easy, nor is it always helpful. Plus, to gloss over the subject would make TEDWomen less interesting. The event had me constantly thinking about gender. It’s kind of the point of it, even as gender was rarely the actual topic of a talk.

Beyond sharing hidden histories and the great breadth and diversity of women’s work, accomplishments and insights, the event brings gender into focus in other ways. Krista Donaldson designs products for people living on less than $4 a day. Jessica Matthews delights in other people’s hacks to her products. User-focus is in no way gender-specific, yet there was something different in how speakers, repeatedly, put the user at center stage. And when speaker Jane Chen called her life-saving scientific invention “technology powered by love,” I wondered would she say it exactly like that at a technology conference or at Big TED? And if she did, would it come out just as easily and just as heartfelt? Maybe, but that I had the question at all is what I mean when I say gender was on my mind.

Also, not every event takes note of its male audience members. This one did. And the irritating buzz that accompanied the first few talks couldn’t help but make me aware of gender. TEDWomen is one of TED’s three annual conferences, and I’ve never seen serious technical glitches like that at livestreams of TED or TEDGlobal.

And then there are the MCs. They talk a lot, in a way some may find supportive, but that I find cloying. It is less the MCs, though, then my reaction to them that had me acutely aware of gender. I’m hard-pressed to think of a time when two men on a stage represented all men, but the day I can listen to these MCs and be merely annoyed instead of cringing, it will be a sign of a more enlightened world and a more enlightened me.  [For good or bad, the MCs are not in the online videos.]

Here are some of the stand-out talks from Session I: To Be Is To Do:

  • Jessica Matthews, partly for jump roping in heels, mostly for her delight when users change and improve her products, and also for her big points that 1) play is a tool for social impact and 2) invention is less about the product and more about the people it “invents.”
  • Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley who fell ill, so instead was spoken about by Google VP Megan Smith, who also shared part of a documentary about this early programmer. For me, this talk was a bargain: I went from utterly ignorant about women in technology to somewhat knowledgeable in just ten minutes. Did you know that the first programmer was a woman? I didn’t. Far more shocking, Megan Smith didn’t either.
  • Maya Penn because she is creative, generous, industrious and only thirteen.
  • Diana Nyad because she is riveting and her presence is commanding. Plus, there’s the deadly box jellyfish and hallucinations of the Taj Majal.

 

 


Following a break for cupcakes and conversation, Session II featured five talks from local speakers, sharing insights on diverse topics. If there is a throughline that connects them all, it is that each spoke from the knowledge that comes from lived experience and that each, on some level, is a story of self-invention (yet another take on the theme Invented Here). Also, ranging from four minutes to fourteen, the talks are short. To watch all five, you can go straight to the playlist. Or, for more of a foothold, without giving much away, here’s a brief word on each:

1. In her talk, Celia Crossley shares her rather circuitous route to her career as a career strategist helping others route or create their own careers. Her big point: by all means, Lean In, if you can, but know that there is another path to job satisfaction, personal fulfillment, and economic viability: Leaning Out.

 

2. Her country, her community, and her comfortable day-to-day life suddenly collapsed. As a Tutsi married to a Hutu, her family collapsed. As a person who was loved and suddenly deemed an outcast, her identity collapsed. After the genocide in her home country, Norah Bagirinka did not feel human and did not think she would ever feel human again. Her humanity fully restored and thriving, she shares her story, her current work with Rwanda Women In Action and her insights into what it takes to create a bridge to a new life.

 

3. Barbara Allen can work a room. That’s one reason to watch this video. Another is to learn about the improv mantra: Yes… And…. Currently in vogue as a work organization tool, the concept may not be new, but Allen’s wholesome and big-hearted delivery is.

 

4. Gabrielle Smith is a teenager entrepreneur. She’ll graduate high school this summer, almost three years after she launched her small business. Her talk shares what can happen when a maker takes her passion seriously.

 

5. JoDee Davis works with people that you, most likely, do everything you can to avoid. It’s okay, says Davis, she once tried to avoid these people, too. But an experience changed her. On one level, her talk is an interesting story about meeting success time and time again and struggling to understand why (with help, she eventually does). On another level, her talk is a powerful story that has a strong potential to shift your understanding.  And I’ll leave it at that.

 

All photos by Tessa Potts, except Diana Nyad by Marla Aufmuth, courtesy of TEDWomen 2013

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]

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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Events, Follow This, TEDxColumbus

[by Kendra Hovey]

The answers are tallied and submissions (so far) are in. We can now share what TEDxCbusers think of Columbus and what Columbus (+ surrounds) thinks of TEDxColumbus. Before the 2013 event we invited attendees and live-stream viewers—at McConnell Arts, Marion Correctional (MCI), home, office, etc—to write about their Out There experience. Their posts are below (please add your own in the comments).

And during the event, sometime after the aliens, brain pacemakers, cats in code, anti-terrorist dry cleaning and lunch but before the Maillard reaction, tampons, valleys, sewage, healing and “genderbread,” each audience member was given a 3×5 card and asked to answer 3 questions:

  1. Why are you here (at TEDxCbus)?
  2. What are your talents?
  3. Has Columbus provided you the opportunity to share your talents?

543—almost 75% of attendees—responded. Here’s what they said:

Why Here?
The answer to this question typically came in pairs (“to grow and connect”) or in triplicate+ (“to be inspired, enriched, motivated, to make change”). Judging by word count alone, to learn and to be inspired were the top two reasons. And the brain, whether it would think differently, wake up, open up, or be fed or fueled or blown altogether, was the biggest beneficiary, but not the only one: a few came to “open my heart,” “feed my soul” or “to be moved to act differently.” Other reasons, from most repeated to least: Community (connecting, conversing, celebrating); To Support Someone (a speaker, mostly); Personal Growth (motivate, refuel, “clear the cobwebs”); Fun; and To Listen to Others. There was also a sprinkling of “curiosity,” “creativity,” “innovation” and “I love TEDs,” plus one or two outliers: “I am here as a spy.”

What Talents?
Interestingly, in these career-focused times, less than 5% of respondents mentioned a professional title or identity. (Who did the most? The dancers.) Instead, an absolutely overwhelming majority said their talent was helping others. “Others” was usually non-specific, but some subsets emerged, namely youth, community and animals. Parenting and advocacy (#1 environment; #2 arts) were other oft-repeated talents. Many listed personal qualities, such as “kindness,” “modesty,” “loyalty,” “being a good neighbor;” and a few were much more specific, mentioning a talent for “great pastry,” “a bad accent,” “selling a lot of jeans,” “solving puzzles,” and “soup.”

Is Columbus Supporting Our Talents?
YES—say a whopping 87.3%. For 8.7% the answer was NO, while 4% did not answer or were out-of-towners. It is interesting, too, to look at how respondents shared their Yeses and Nos. With variations in size and placement, the bulk (401) of the total yeses (474) were straightforward, unadorned and unqualified. Among the rest that were more detailed in their response (73), the emphatic, superlative, decorated YES (62)—as in, the big bubble-lettered YES, Abso-freakin-lutely Yes, Yes x 10, even Yes x 1,000—beat out the tentative YES (11)—as in, 1/2 Yes; Yes…but barely—by a ratio of nearly 6 to 1. In contrast, just under half of the total NOs (47) were clear-cut (23). Only 1 was a resounding NO! The rest stopped just short with either a “Not Yet” (13) or “Not Fully” (8)—also expressed as “ish” and “meh”—and 2 of the NOs blamed themselves (“I haven’t taken enough advantage…”; “I think the onus is on me now…”)

There you have it. And now, a sampling of what Columbus has to say about Out There:

Brian Crawford, live-stream at MCI
I felt honored to be a part of the TEDxColumbus simulcast here at Marion Correctional. The entire production was great and I got something from every TEDx talk. My favorite talk was the young man (Austin Channell) talking about grade point averages and how the system is flawed. I felt hurt because I have four children in school and this could affect them. I felt like getting up and running to my kids’ school to demand change. As a parent this issue hit me deeply. I absolutely loved the event. I felt free for a few hours.


Doug Dangler, live-stream on computer
Consider these quotations from Michelle Alexander’s talk:

  • During a 30-year period of time, our nation’s prison population quintupled.
  • We have the highest rate of prison incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates of even highly repressive regimes like Russia or China or Iran.
  • As of 2004, more black men were denied the right to vote than in 1870.

It’s an overwhelming problem, with the final statistic pointing to the thesis of Alexander’s talk: institutionalized racism is evident in the War on Drugs and mass incarceration, resulting in a new caste of legally disenfranchised and dehumanized people, who are overwhelmingly poor and of color. Alexander said that nothing less than a radical revision of the criminal justice system, with attendant major upheaval and social change, will combat this problem. So she ended with a call to action, asking TEDxColumbus attendees to do the “hard work of movement building.”

I was left feeling that she was right and that changes needed to be made. But how will these changes arise? The changes she’s suggesting—decriminalizing marijuana, restoring voting rights to felons, dramatically shrinking the prison population, etc.—will be an incredibly difficult sell in a nation whose elected officials can’t even keep the government open. I hope her next TEDx talk will lay out specifics of how to accomplish her goals. Clearly, this is a hugely difficult task. But a thinker and speaker as deep and talented as Michelle Alexander may be just the person to do it.


Wayne Snitzky, live stream at MCI
Watching TEDxColumbus live from inside Marion Correctional had the same effect as watching any live event, we felt connected to the event. The difference is that inside a prison the opportunity to feel that connection is few and far between. Watching as a curator is always fun because it is an opportunity to…borrow ideas for our event, and learn from their glitches and glories. My thoughts on the overall event can be summed up in the last thought I had watching the event. When Nancy Kramer gave Decker Moss a hug after his talk I thought: (tongue firmly in cheek) “Oh great, now we’ll have to stock men’s rooms with free tampons!”


David Hooker, live at COSI

One of the most interesting talks for me was a session by Mohamed Ali, the founder of the Iftiin Foundation created to foster innovation and entrepreneurial spirit in Somalia, spurring forward an economy and putting people to work.

He shared stories about bringing a dry cleaning shop to Mogadishu, figuring out how to run cappuccino machines without electricity—in a city with no functioning electrical grid after years of war—and how solar-powered street lights allowed people to stay up after dark to socialize with neighbors, and shops to stay open late. The reemergence of nightlife, missing in Mogadishu for 20 years, speaks to the simple needs and simple solutions that can have a huge impact on a culture.

Ali’s story of terrorists trying to break these streetlamps to drive people back inside and to crush an economy where people have a chance of earning a living instead of turning to illegal work or terror to support their families, speaks volumes. My sense is, his talk, and the work he does, will have great impact in this part of the world for generations to come.

 

Daniel Royston, live-stream at MCI
So…she said in a paraphrased kind of way…”you can’t contemplate what you see or hear unless the signal is degraded.” And it was this, this simple phrase that totally made my TEDxColumbus day. Now I have to confess that I may have missed the next talk or two as I contemplated this metaphorically difficult yet contextually simple sentence she had just shook me with. I mean think about it, have you ever thought about something that went well? Beyond the “This is too good to be true” cliché when things do go well? Or…are you like me and always become fixated on the imperfections we see in everything we do?

I realize that it is moments like these that draw me to TED talks and TEDx events again and again, these small unexpected moments of clarity, bursts of catharsis, or epiphanies with gravity if you will. Dr. Susan Nittrouer was talking about hearing loss, cochlear implants and the deaf learning to speak without impediments. But all I could think about was all the nights I had lain awake, my mind stubbornly refusing to shutdown as I chastised myself for whatever minute mistake I had made and contemplating just how I could avoid doing the same in the future…and then I wondered, why I never find myself in that same place at that same time reliving something incredible that I had accomplished that day and how I should strive to be that good…again…tomorrow. How did I go from contemplating a degraded signal to pondering my daily failings and my obsession with them?

I was watching TEDxColumbus via livestream at our viewing party in Marion Correctional Institution in a room full of men just like myself. Men who are reminded of their own shortcomings and mistakes every morning they wake up and look out the window to see the 20’ tall razor wire fences that surround their current residence, and I find myself thinking about all the little things I have done the last 15 years to improve my own “signal” from the horribly degraded version it was all those years ago. I will always be someone who broke the law, someone that society holds to a different standard than someone who hasn’t. But maybe the work I’ve done has been successful and my signal is no longer degraded as much as it used to be. Maybe society… and by this I mean you…will contemplate my character, my signal, as it is…today.


Matt, live-stream at MCI

I really enjoyed TEDxColumbus. I thought it was very well organized and the overall flow was planned very well. I really was humbled by all of the praise offered to the Marion Correctional team. We are all hopeful of the same future with the same goals: That every man and woman regardless of race or religion will have a voice and the platform to share ideas. Thank you, TED.

 

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

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Here is the session schedule for TEDxColumbus: OUT THERE this Friday, October 11.

Livestream link: https://new.livestream.com/tedx/Columbus

 

Session 1: 9 am – 10:30am

Scott Gaudi, Ali Rezai, Ly Apelado, Joe Simkins, Michelle Alexander

 

Session 2: 11am – 12:30pm

David Bromwich, Chris Domas, Susan Nittrouer, Kaweh Mansouri, Mohamed Ali

 

Session 3: 1:30 – 2:30 pm

Tobin-Wilcox, Nancy Kramer, Jess Mathews, Chris Fraser, Stephanie Hughes, Miriam Abbott, Josh Hara

 

Session 4: 2:50 pm – 4:00 pm

Castros, Dax Blake, Tom Knotek, Lori Moffett, Jim Fussell, Gabrielle Burton, Decker Moss

 

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