How do you encourage a city to improve and grow? How do you help connect good intentions with true and meaningful reforms? And who should be included in the conversation?
Tacoma hosted its second TEDx event on April 17. TED (Technology Entertainment Design), a nonprofit devoted to “Ideas Worth Spreading,” manages a number of programs, most notably TEDTalks – short demonstrations, performances and talks that share innovative, creative and provoking ideas.
TEDTalks are often curated around a theme and, after the event itself, shared via video and podcast for free to the rest of the world. TEDx events are independently organized TEDTalks, which are allowed to use the TED branding (if sanctioned), and presented under strict guidelines.
A previous production of TEDxTacoma took place at the University of Puget Sound in 2010, and this month also saw a student-run TEDx at Charles Wright Academy. April 17th’s TEDx was spearheaded and sponsored by South Sound Magazine and Broadway Center for the Performing Arts, making it by far the city’s most prominent and most advertised TEDTalks to date.
Tacoma’s obsession with self-reinvention was on display at TEDxTacoma. The talks were held at in the Museum of Glass (MOG) Hot Shop, a space devoted to the transformation of substances. While a live audience watched the talks from the Hot Shop, more could see a live stream in the Museum’s theater. With such a prominent location and steep ticket prices to match, this TEDx event struck an inescapably elite and authoritative chord.
At their best, TEDTalks engage a broad range of speakers, yet Tacoma’s TEDx talks were relatively insular; academics (local or otherwise), politicians, medical professionals, and artists were all noticably underrepesented.
It’s inevitable that relationships play a role in choosing participants for any event; still, one might suspect that some of the speakers were chosen primarily on the merit of their association with presenting sponsors.
At TEDxTacoma, it was the iconoclasts among the speakers and organizers – not the self-congratulators – who made it clear how a conference for spreading meaningful ideas about transformation could provide real community value other than an opportunity to display status.
We hope next year to see a TEDxTacoma that shares a true wealth of research and innovative thinking from our community.
Despite our slight misgivings about the event’s overall tone, the talks were well-produced and many were thought-provoking, setting a high bar for future presentations. Here are a few of our favorites, and some not so favorable:
Notable Tacoma TED X-ers, in order of Appearance
Tom Llewellyn and Lance Kagey, Beautiful Angle
“Transformation is for suckers.” That’s how the Beautiful Angle artists and creators began their TED talk. They made it clear that there’s no point talking about change without being willing to change ourselves and our method of message delivery.
Llewellyn and Kagey laid out three rules for powerful, change-bringing, interactions:
- Money: “Remove money from the equation. Money is simply a form of power. In fact, money is so powerful that it has its own gravitational pull. And in the same way that gravity warps space-time, money will warp your message.” They gave Twitter as an example of a product that eschewed money for potential impact: “Twitter still does not have a revenue model. But what Twitter does have are official bands from the governments of Egypt and Iran … If the government bans you, you’ve had impact.”
- Power: “Demand an audience,” they said. They noted that Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses were posted on the Wittenberg church door on October 31, 1517, and within two months his words travelled across Europe, sparking the Protestant Reformation. His message didn’t wait for approval or permission.
- Desire: “Tell your message to someone that’s longing to hear it. Meet a need.” They referenced King’s Books, and how it perceived a need for a center for literary arts. They’re right. Typically, King’s hosts anywhere from five to ten events in a week, fulfilling a desire in the community.
In addition, they lit their ties on fire.
Donald Byrd, 5th Avenue Theatre
Byrd’s account of the recent staging of Oklahoma! at the 5th Avenue Theatre (where he is artistic director) was a powerful reminder that not only can art entertain, but it can also move us to really think about larger issues.
The 5th Avenue Theatre’s production used Oklahoma’s rich and racially diverse history to present a different interpretation of the classic American musical, one featuring race-specific casting. Most notably, the character of Jud, who is somewhat of a villain in the musical, was performed by a black actor. The casting created some discomfort and controversy, partially because it did not ignore race, like most renditions do.
Byrd quoted one critical audience member as saying, “We don’t go to the theatre to think, or for ideas. We go to be entertained.” Byrd was incredulous at this response, and used it to explain the role of art in society as he sees it. He said, “I want…something to stick to my emotional, spiritual, and intellectual ribs… art that complicates my thinking and disturbs my complacency.”
Byrd skillfully turned an engaging, timely story into a highly relevant, timeless point, like many of the best TEDtalks do. Byrd’s presentation was amplified by his arresting stage presence; clearly a dancer, his movements added an extra level of entertainment.
Erik Van Alstine, The Code
It’s hard to know where to start with Erik Van Alstine. Though his was one of the more powerful presentations, it was for all the wrong reasons. Van Alstine wants your business, pure and simple.
He started out by giving out candy, and showed the graph below, which illustrates a study of the rate at which a group of judges granted parole. As you can see, prisoners scheduled for judgement right before lunch were out of luck. This information was amusing, as Van Alstine’s talk also occurred right before lunch. Van Alstine used it to introduce his point: failure to self-regulate affects our performance negatively. Great start.
Now, notice the logo at the bottom right of the screen. Eric Van Alstine is selling a self-help strategy, called The Code, a group of 5 “laws” that are apparently universal. When followed in sequence, these laws will change your life and allow you to enter the ranks of an elite group of people “numbering less than a thousand on earth who know exactly what that code is… and that code represents the knowledge behind all purpose-driven thought and behavior, and it gives us incredible power to not run our lives by default – but to run by design.” (4:53).
It’s amazing that the human race has survived so long without such a code. And it was hard to tell if the “elite 1,000” are just the people who have bought Van Alstine’s product, or if it’s some sort of Masonic club.
Erik Van Alstine is wildly charismatic, like an overt salesman. There were other salespeople at the event, but Van Alstine took the cake. While very entertaining, this talk didn’t belong anywhere near TEDxTacoma, and future organizers of the event should be especially wary of other snake oil salesmen.
Megan Sukys, KUOW
Sukys is an excellent, excellent storyteller. Her talk, accompanied by beautiful illustrations of her husband Britton Sukys, was more like one told for The Moth, a New York-based organization that invites others to tell their most personal stories.
Sukys argued that the Amigo electric wheelchair is perhaps the world’s greatest invention. The story she told about her mother, an Amigo user, and how it changed their lives, was one of the most enjoyable and accessible talks of the day.
TEDTalks very often build to an emotional appeal to the audience to view the world differently, but Sukys made one of the simplest, most poignant points of the day. She closed by saying:
“We don’t always know what kind of an impact our creations are going to have, and we really can’t control the way that people use the ideas that we share with them. But even if it … won’t affect that many people or be totally world changing … it can make a really big difference in someone’s life. And that’s the purpose of being creative, is to reach out and touch somebody in some way and help them live the life they really want to be living.”
Watch the video of her talk. You won’t be disappointed.
There were 23 speakers, too many to address in detail. Joe Kane encouraged support of community forests; Paul Rucker played cello and talked about race and social justice; Salvador Mungia told a tear-wrenching story about his son growing up; Scott Ercoliani, a videographer, made a nearly unwatchable video; Elaina M. Ellis spoke about poetry and collaboration (while Emily Peterson played cello); and Patricia Talton, of the Northwest Leadership Foundation, ended the day with a call to wisdom.
When you listen to the TED podcast or watch the videos, the best of the best has been curated for you. The talks that failed to deliver an “idea worth spreading” or don’t fit the carefully constructed aesthetic of TED simply aren’t presented. The bar for TEDTalks is set very high. Some of the talks on April 17 hit this bar, and some didn’t.
Content aside, the first true issue with TEDxTacoma was access. In short, it was expensive. Tickets were $100 to sit in the Hot Shop and $65 for the live video stream. Both authors of this article were only able to attend on scholarship.
It’s not clear who the target demographic was (and we were told by many involved that young people were encouraged to attend), but in this city many balk at $15 for a good concert, making a $65 minimum painfully overpriced. While an event like TEDx certainly must be expensive to facilitate, a lot of potential attendees were dissuaded by the high price. Also, this was a full-day event, held on a weekday which means you would had to skip work to attend. With its non-specialized and broad-ranging format, it would be hard to argue that TEDx was a justifiable professional development activity.
So how do you create an event that honors our community, while opening ourselves up to a universal audience? How best do you use a platform that was created in California and has since been exported to the rest of the world to speak genuinely to Tacoma? This was part of the difficulty faced by the organizers and speakers.
Tacoma has heart and good ideas. The best talks of the day were conducted by speakers who stayed authentic to their passions and themselves without being too Tacoma-centric or putting ulterior motives (like sales or self-congratulation) on display. These authors look forward to future events that challenge Tacoma to seek transformation and share its best. We believe that our city can deliver.