by Kendra Hovey
When I first met Jim White, his TED Talk about racism and his conviction to end it and how—“educate, unveil, and eradicate”—had just hit one million views (now: 1,094,362). Titled “A Little Problem I Had Renting a House,” the talk beckons with the promise of a story, even as the reference is immediate: This is not a little problem; it’s big, persistent, and it’s killing people.
It’s also what Jim White and I have come to this coffee shop to talk about. And if a conversation about racism between an African American and a white American sounds more fraught than fun, you really should get to know Jim White.
I hadn’t come to this conversation expecting a policy solution. That’s not what Jim White does (though he should be training those who do). White is a management and performance consultant and co-author of A Better World. His solutions are personal and organizational, and necessarily so: How we function around race is connected to our values and beliefs, many absorbed more than chosen, based on experiences, culture, and media. For many, they are also intensely felt and come with all sorts of triggers and buttons.
“Don’t think because someone buys a cup of coffee you can sit down at the table and talk about race,” says White, referencing Starbucks recent misstep, “because there might just be coffee thrown all over the place.”
Racism and the threats to African American safety are urgent and demand action. But one message from Jim White is that we act with cultural competence. Another message, a very important message: cultural competence, itself, changes behavior, enables productive dialogue, and can bring clarity to actions that will better affect change.
So to increase our cultural competence we need to take stock of our personal beliefs, assumptions, and values, including our biases and cultural blinders. It’s what White calls our personal operating system (POS). We also acknowledge and try to be open to the POS of others. Being open does not mean adopting or agreeing or abandoning our own POS, it means: being open. Should other perspectives and histories add to our knowledge, we then update our POS, as needed.
For a good demonstration of cultural competency see Jim White’s talk. Pay particular attention to how he portrays the landlord and hotel clerk that turn him away, the Major who thinks he’s being helpful, but isn’t. These people are not caricatured or condemned. White shares their words and actions without ascribing intent, belief, ridicule, or judgment. They remain fully human, even as their actions are fully harmful.
“It’s not me, I like you people,” says the manager as he nonetheless denies Jim White a space in his trailer park. “We already have a negro family,” he explains, “and if I let you in, other tenants will move out.” As much as this may offend and reek of an excuse, the man’s actions are a direct result of legislation by the U.S. government. This historical fact is not contested, just forgotten.
We’ve done a “very, very poor job with our history,” says White, “had we really talked about slavery and its impact, we probably wouldn’t be having the discussion we are having today.” Education—knowledge of and empathy regarding the historical struggles of other cultures—is essential to cultural competency and to ending racism.
And, if we really understood the history, we could talk about race without “coffee thrown all over the place.” At his training sessions White always says, “There should be no blame, shame or guilt in this room.” None of us created the conditions under which we are living, he says, “we inherited this.”
He also says: “But if we’re going to move past it, were going to have to acknowledge it. If not, you will perpetuate it.”
The lived-history is in White’s talk. If you’d also like the facts: Legislative action severely limited African Americans’ access to the prime movers that propelled many other Americans into the middle class—the GI bill, education, housing.
- “Of the billions of dollars in the GI Bill for housing and education, less than 2% went to minorities”
- “We have black educational institutions, because most colleges excluded black folks. And companies like IBM and Xerox were not going to black colleges to find their employees and future CEOs.”
- “Redlining [a practice of the U.S. government] and blockbusting [tolerated by the U.S. legal system until the 1980s] meant that blacks could buy houses in the inner city, but were limited in suburbia.”
Our inner cities, our disproportionate poverty and levels of education were legislated into existence. Consider the impact of this today: After WWII, the average house in urban and suburban Detroit went for about $30,000, says White, “today, inner city Detroit is worth $20,000 maybe; Suburban: $300,000.”
The harm is not just economic. “Slavery, reconstruction, KKK, Jim Crow, civil rights, job discrimination, mass incarceration, black kids being shot by police: trauma has been continuous,” White explains, “black folks have never been able to get away from it.”
Understanding this is essential, not to explain or excuse, White says, but so people can do whatever healing they need: “You can’t deal with the trauma, until you understand what the trauma is.”
And, if this is not your own history, you don’t respond with guilt or denial or begin searching your own history for your own trauma—not now. Because to eradicate racism, to improve your cultural competency, you are listening respectfully, perhaps with empathy, allowing yourself to feel the impact of this history on others.
“Feeling this impact” enlarges understanding, but it can also make you angry. In his talk, White says he doesn’t have the luxury of anger. When I asked him more about this, he said that he has his triggers, but he knows how to recognize them. He doesn’t deny his anger; he corrals it, and “keeps stepping forward.” The challenge is to be angry:
- with the right person
- at the right time
- for the right purpose
- to the right extent
- in the right way
Something else about cultural competence, it’s not an end-point. It’s a process, and we don’t do it in isolation. In other words, if we don’t want to talk about race, but we do want to eradicate racism, we’ve got to talk about race. “We all come to the party with biases,” says White, “and as a result of my bias I know I don’t have all the data. If I want to know if something is true, I have to get it outside of me. And the best way to do that is with someone you trust.”
Trust can come from a trained facilitator, of any race, White says, who is comfortable dealing with race, who is aware of their own triggers, and who has the expertise to manage the discussion and keep everyone safe. Trust can also come from someone you know and value. And, it’ll go best if you enter into these conversations aware that questions come from a desire to understand, not offend, and with a willingness to, as White says, throw your own competence out the window: “When I tick you off, no matter how much I think I know, I am willing to say ‘I don’t know what it was that I said that caused you some anxiety and stress but I’m willing to shut up long enough so that you can educate me.’ ” [Another tip: in a group, don’t make one person representative of an entire race, gender, or ethnic group.]
You can also have these conversations without trust, says White, but you need to understand there is risk. His advice: “One thing I say to people is, ‘Have I earned the right to talk to you about this topic?’ Framing it this way makes you stop and think about it differently, and I find in most cases people care when you care about them. Most people are willing to have those discussions with you.”
This doesn’t mean they will agree with you: “Before you explained to me all these details, I didn’t think I agreed with you. But now that you’ve given me the facts, I know that I don’t agree with you. Sometimes,” as White says, “we just aren’t going to agree.”
But when we dynamically engage with one another “we can express those thoughts and ask those questions and then we’re dealing with the truth as opposed to some of our fears and we’re less likely to MSU (Make Stuff Up) and that’s a way,” he says, “to start to move things forward.”
In our world, diversity is a fact. So is connectivity. Discrimination against some has consequences for everyone. It’s time to get a little (or a lot) more comfortable with difference. White has tools to help people get there, but he’s not interested in dictating behavior. One question I had for Jim White, “What can I do?” I never asked. Instead, I shared with him ideas that came to me, and felt right to me, over the course of our (3 hour!) conversation. For everyone, behavior is an expression of values and beliefs, abilities and strengths, etc. Be aware of your own, while also building cultural competence, and the question “What can I do?” begins to answer itself.
by Kendra Hovey
Gabrielle Crosby has been incarcerated for three years. She has seven more to go. Yet, one Thursday a month she visits South Africa. She smiles and waves joyfully to the children at Sunflower House Hospice, then catches her breath and stands tall as she and a choir of inmates begin the first notes of “Little Bit of Me.” The women sing; they perform a puppet show; and when the children respond in song, they listen, eyes beaming.
This visit is a Skype visit, uniting incarcerated women in Ohio with children in hospice care in South Africa. It is also rehabilitation. The first time Gabrielle sang to the children and they sang back, “that was the moment,” she says, “my life began to change.”
Gabrielle shared these words to an audience of over 600—not by Skype, but in person in downtown Columbus. While prisons have hosted TEDx events (and at TEDxRiodelaPlata a prisoner—Martin Bustamante—shared a poem from his seat in the audience), Gabrielle’s talk at TEDxColumbusWomen marks the first time a currently incarcerated person has given a talk on a TED or TEDx stage outside of prison. And on that stage, Gabrielle delivered this message: “I may be serving a sentence but I am also serving a purpose.”
“Music is healing,” she says, and as a member of the Inside/Out Choir, a partnership between The Harmony Project and the Ohio Reformatory for Women (ORW), Gabrielle has experienced the benefits of giving back: “I am astonished at the impact I can have…and I have found something I have been missing for a long time: My voice.”
Gabrielle was introduced at the event (themed Own It: The Power in our Story) by the warden at ORW, Ronette Burkes. Cheering from the audience were five fellow choir members. Warden Burkes had arranged for the inmates to attend the event both to support Gabrielle (not only is she the first prisoner to speak from the stage at a public TEDx, because of prison protocol she was not told when or where until just a few hours before) and so that they could participate and interact with the world that they will soon be reentering.
If all this doesn’t exactly fit with what we think we know about prisons, actually, says Burkes, safe contact with the outside world is an essential part of rehabilitation. And towards this mission, the Harmony Project has been a perfect partner.
Under the direction of David Brown, the Columbus nonprofit harmonizes voices through singing and communities through service and education. There are a number of choirs under the Harmony Project umbrella, and Brown says he runs Inside/Out the same way he runs all his choirs—which is to say, very unlike every other choir you know. In David Brown’s choirs, no one has to audition, but everyone has to serve.
The result is diversity, not just of ability, but of age, culture, religion, orientation, and affiliation. Choir members sing together and serve together—painting murals, tending gardens, building playgrounds—and they break bread together. The Harmony Project creates opportunities for families with different histories and points of view to sit at the same table and share a meal.
Though the logistics are more complicated, the Inside/Out choir is no different. They serve children across the globe by singing, sharing their love and connection, and making homemade toys and supplies however they can—last year they sent 700 pairs of hand-knitted socks to the Sunflower House community.
They also break bread with different families. At ORW, inmates, guests from Columbus, and correctional officers dined side-by-side. Likewise, one evening a small group of inmates were able to join a dinner hosted by the Harmony Project in Columbus.
On the TEDx stage, Gabrielle spoke about the transformation the choir helped bring to her own life. She and many women at ORW are mothers separated from their own children. Gabrielle is mom to three, and the separation from her youngest, born a few months into her prison term, sent Gabrielle into the darkest period of her life. Across the ocean, the terminally ill children in South Africa are also separated, many of them, from their own mothers.
Through song, the women and children have formed a powerful and healing relationship. “Call it warm fuzzy if you want,” says Brown, “but it’s changing lives, not in a Hallmark way, in a gutsy, emotional, confrontational, evolutionary kind of way.” There’s nothing subtle about the metaphor here. Says Brown: “In singing, people find and express their voice—and every voice matters”
It’s 8:59am. You’ve got a car2go, a cohort, a clue, complimentary coffee and glazed crullers, and this challenge: Find six spots. Perform six tasks. Return. You’ve got 2 hours. Okay . . . ready . . . set . . . wave and say cheese to the hovering drone . . . and GO.
This is how the day began for 12 TEDxColumbus attendees who answered YES to a call for “fun-seeking volunteers” and met the following three requirements: (1) be available the morning of the event (2) be a licensed driver (3) don’t ask questions.
TEDx is evolving, and this morning adventure is part of a rank-and-file movement to extend TED’s engagement, curiosity, and public-spiritedness beyond the red-dotted stage and into the community. Acting independently but beginning to cohere under the title TEDxExperiences, TEDxes are bringing action, hands-on learning and a bit of elbow grease to their events. At Friday’s TEDxColumbus (11/7) there was the Morning of Action (which you can read about here) and this scavenger hunt/amazing race with a higher purpose TEDxAdventure.
From an idea sparked by organizer Ruth Milligan, this adventure was made a reality by Columbus Idea Foundry CEO Alex Bandar—implementing, yet again, the aspiration of his own TEDx talk to “narrow the chasm between concept and execution.” Though he wasn’t thinking “scavenger hunt” when he spoke in 2011, now it’s just one more invention he’s happy to add to the prodigious and growing yield of the world’s largest MakerSpace.
I should share that after a thorough and careful review of all available evidence, I have determined that Alex Bandar is unstoppable. He may in fact live in a separate time dimension all together. Heeding the entrepreneurial credo “Say yes before you are ready,” Bandar jumped into this project on Monday. By Friday morning, all’s good to go. Sleepless, swift, bullhorn in-hand, Bandar explains the logistics of the adventure and it’s purpose to metaphorically experience the “start-up” mentality by facing six literal challenges that mirror a “start-up” feeling, behavior or demand, and to do this inside a neighborhood that is itself a start-up. Roll it all together, and the game becomes a lived and often comical story about start-up culture, as well as, the neighborhood of Franklinton. East Franklinton, to be precise, an area once made stagnant by a combination of nature and building codes until the floodwall, community leaders, artists, and young businesses began to start it up again and anew.
Now back to the drone overhead, the smiles, the waves and the word GO…
Our twelve fun-seekers, having divided into six teams—two couples, one mom and daughter, one pair of co-workers, and two pairs of “strangers”—get into six car2gos. Five start up, and cutely scamper along the streets of Franklinton. Six can’t remember their PIN.
Steered by the clue This Grandview glass arts center just relocated to Franklinton one car2go pulls in front of a Town Street building where in order to demonstrate Talent the team of two make something. In this case, a glass bead. Even better, a nice glass bead. But do it in five minutes. From here (Glass Axis—did you guess right?) it’s on to clue #2: Columbus’ wallscape pioneer.
I’ll just tell you, it’s Orange Barrel Media, or the construction site that will soon be the new home of Orange Barrel Media. And because, in reality, talent only speaks for itself after its been spoken about, the task here is Creativity in Marketing. Teams are given a new product and must create a logo, slogan and quick video pitch—in ten minutes or less (don’t worry about that crane behind you and sorry about the noise). When given a product described as an “inner-ear language translation module,” one team turned it into The : The World is Hear! And for the new concept product “a webcam-equipped crock-pot,” another team gives us THE WEBBY CROCKER: If you have OCD this is the webcam slow cooker for you!
Next, it’s off to the Lifestyle challenge at The brewery named after the type of institution that the Ohio State University is. Now that his one-time hobby has exploded into a huge start-up business, Alex Bandar has a lot to draw on for this challenge. These days a more accurate tagline for the Idea Foundry is not the current Knowledge, Talent, Mischief, but rather, as Bandar quips, An Unbroken Vista of Ceaseless Toil. The challenge at Land Grant Brewery is to eat and sleep: make and consume a PB&J, catch some shut-eye, and, because every moment is an opportunity for brand engagement, take a selfie. All in 60 seconds. No one did it in 60 seconds.
With the clue Its acronym sounds like the Food and Drug Administration, next stop is the Franklinton Development Association, where with $1 of capital, teams test their Financial acuity on THE WHEEL OF (MIS)FORTUNE. Each decision to spin invites success and setback:
- Your product is discovered to cause epilepsy in snails.
Lose 15 cents.
- Best employee quit and also hates your guts.
Lose 25 cents
- Oprah loves your product! Win at Life.
Before their first spin, one team demonstrated a talent for divergent thinking when they asked if there is “any other way to use our money right now—besides a spin?” Later when faced with a hard decision, they tried their hand at networking: “Any hints for us?” After a string of good fortune, they did a quick assessment: “Okay, were in rapid accelerator mode, we grow too fast we could get in trouble.” Nodding, they both stood up and saying something about “good responsible business decisions,” they walked away. At $1.55, they increased their seed capital by half. All but one other team lost it all.
Oddly, the one clue that had an address—the bar at 400 West Rich—proved most challenging to find. While Strongwater is inside the city-block-long arts complex 400 Rich, the entrance is on Town. Here, one half of the team gets an image. The other a drawing tool. Tasked with the challenge of getting one’s own vision into the head of someone else (also called Management), the “manager,” using only verbal direction, tries to get the drawer to reproduce the image only s/he sees (accurately and to scale). To do this, teams employed a wide-variety of sophisticated communication strategies, including foot-stomping, yelling (“No Mom! This is a happy elephant!”), positive reinforcement (“That’s freakin’ beautiful”) and incentivizing (“You are about to earn yourself a promotion”). One husband and wife team demonstrated an obvious talent for collaboration, as is obvious in this exchange:
“It’s like a couch. A couch for one person. What do you call that?”
Later, when this drawer inquired if he could “put a heart on it,” the manager displayed her ability to define and maintain clear project parameters when she yelled, “Listen! And don’t you start making things up YET!” Effective communication clearly key to this challenge, the top finisher was a team of randomly paired strangers.
The final clue, The largest makerspace in the world, and final challenge, Risk Management, brings us to the Idea Foundry, where teams symbolically navigate the bumpy waters of startup life by actually navigating a quadcopter:
- Two minutes to practice flying the 68-gram remote-control copter.
- Five minutes to complete the flight path.
- One point per checkpoint.
- Three for a proper landing.
- No points for flying the drone into your own face (“I can sue for that, right?”) or into the rafters (“Uh..ladder anyone?”).
- But no points off either.
So who showed creativity and talent, and ably managed risk, sleep, sustenance, people and finances? Does it matter? Failure is the new success, after all. In fact, there is a prize for best failure, as well as for most persistent and “team who turned our thinking upside down.” Judges are still deliberating. But in case it’s still true that America loves a winner, Congratulations to Michael Brown and Casey Brown, first-finishers and future magnates of the Webby Crocker Empire.
*And, yes, we do mean “Blasty”:
This TEDxAdventure would not have been possible without the amazing willingness and creative help of car2go, a great group of volunteers and these fabulous partners:
by 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.
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.
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.”
The 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.
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.”
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.”
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.
Take 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: We’re looking for life as we know it on earth, are we looking for life as we don’t 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?
“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.”
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
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.
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.
The 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.”
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.
His 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.’ ”
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.