Ideas and voices worth sharing at TEDx Chattanooga
TEDx Chattanooga made its debut this past weekend, although it was actually the city’s second TEDx event. TED stands for “technology, entertainment, design.”
The first one in 2014—known as TEDx UTChattanooga—was an invitation-only event limited to 100 attendees, essentially a test drive required by the TED organization for local organizers to prove they could put on a good show and do the TED brand proud.
Rather than just repeating that successful show for this year’s 500-person, sellout crowd, organizers presented a completely new conference featuring 13 speakers on stage in UTC’s Roland Hayes Concert Hall, plus three recorded TED talks, three special performances, and a live interview with The Impressions followed by a song.
“I think what we were hoping to do was create a collision, not just of stories and ideas but of artistic performances, and not in a negative sense but in terms of things knocking up against each other and seeing what happens,” said J.Ed. Marston, co-chair of the selection committee. “Compared to the first one, which was much more what it means to be Chattanooga and what’s happened in Chattanooga, this was much more about what’s bubbling up in Chattanooga.”
Like the TED talks that emerge from the mother ship TED conference and dozens of licensed but independent TEDx conferences around the world, TEDx Chattanooga featured a lot of inspiration from unexpected sources. Trying to wrap up the conference and tie a bow around it here, I find that lot of the talks had a very “had to be there” quality in retrospect.
GPS senior Rachel Raisin opened the conference with a bang, giving a talk about what flowed from her project to make 1,000 origami cranes. She wanted a hero, but, “That hero didn’t come so I became one myself.” Doing good engendered a surprising amount of opposition—“dEverything I did someone tried to stop me.” It may read a little cheesy on the page, but it was an astonishingly vulnerable revelation of the inner workings of a pretty amazing person.
The same was true of African-American performance poet Christian Collier. It’s interesting enough when he says, “The act of writing is like prayer” or “Poetry allows us to see ourselves and each other intimately, vulnerably.” But when he speaks a poem about his first love, who asked him to leave her birthday party to hide him from her white father, and talks about seeing her with her children years later, his presence compounds the effect of his words.
Even the talk that was most technological and idea-centric felt very personal. Biohacker Cole Montalvo’s pitch for seeing the good side of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) felt like he was introducing his friends. Okay, his friends include clothes made from bacteria and chairs that grow themselves. He works with stuff like this in a community lab, essentially a biotech maker space, and he hates to see technology with so much potential for sustainability get a bad rap from sharing the GMO moniker with genetically engineered foods whose safety is widely questioned.
Documentary photographer Billy Weeks’ talk may have provided a key for understanding the day. He described growing up poor in a “shell house” that had exterior walls but inside had only 2x4 framing with electrical wires and duct work showing. The light in that house made a big impression on him, and he saw the same light decades later in a dirt-floored house in Guatemala.
“There’s always more than one person in a photo: the subject and the photographer,” Weeks said. “In the end, I am always photographing myself.”
That nails the feeling after a day of watching people give what TED organizers like to say should be the best speech of the speaker’s life. Those talks were like Billy Weeks’ photos: they included both the subject and the speaker in a surprisingly intimate view. And the audience responded as much to the speaker as to the idea being shared.
Rich Bailey is a professional writer, editor and (sometimes) PR consultant. He led a project to create Chattanooga’s first civic website in 1995 before even owning a modem. Now he covers Chattanooga technology for The Pulse and blogs about it at CircleChattanooga.com