Last Saturday I attended my first ever TED event, held in Portland at the State Theatre.
For many years, I’ve been a huge fan of TED Talks as experienced through the voyeuristic portal of video access, never really motivated to invest the time or expense to go “live.”
Maybe that’s the Ying to the omniscient power of the digital Yang – that with unlimited access to online content, it’s easy to (falsely) equate the video capture of an experience as holding the same value as the experience itself.
For those of you not familiar with TED, it was born in 1984 to originally celebrate the convergence of Technology, Entertainment and Design. Since then it has become a global phenomenon where millions of people connect through a common interest in changing the world by promoting bold ideas, open-mindedness, and a fearless dedication to curious thinking.
As a nonprofit organization, TED’s mission is to foster and spread ideas around the world. The TED website is self-described as “… a clearinghouse of free knowledge from the world’s most inspired thinkers – and a community of curious souls.”
That’s what I was looking for last weekend – and that is what I found at TEDxDirgo, the local branch of the massive TED tree.
For more than five hours I was moved from laughter to tears and back again, as 16 speakers and performers stood bravely before a large and diverse audience sharing their stories, their truths and for some, their pain – all presented center-stage, in 18-minute or less doses.
There were artists, educators, musicians, activists, students, a police chief, a restaurateur and some who defied any labels at all. Some revealed messages of lost and found hope, some brought their anger, some gave voice to what needed to be said out loud, and some shared new lenses of perspective to old ways of looking at things. All, things that matter.
They all brought a passionate and distinctive brand of truth – some flavored with sugar and some with rage – all under the aptly titled event title: Dissonance.
They reminded their audience that acknowledging inherent and deeply rooted societal bias about race in America is not an issue for us to debate as individuals, but for us to resolve together as communities.
And yes, black lives matter.
Destigmatizing mental illness matters.
Eradicating anti-human sex trafficking matters.
Changing the focus of our criminal justice system with regard to substance abuse – from the failed “war on drugs” approach, to treatment and support programming – matters.
Equal rights and respect for transgender people matters.
In short, the entire TEDxDirgo event really mattered to me on many levels. Here are just three highlights:
• Anne Verrill, owner of two Portland-area restaurants, made national news last June when she posted a message on Facebook basically telling owners of AR-15 assault-type guns that they weren’t welcome in her restaurants. Her post was in immediate response to the horrific Orlando mass murder of 49 people.
Listening to Verrill at TEDx talking about her children, her employees, and her sense of obligation to speak her truth about the epidemic of gun violence was honest and powerful. Despite the obvious risks to her business and personal reputation, she did what she thought was right. Not for gain or notoriety, but for a pure and honest burst of outrage against the madness of our gun policies and the constant river of blood caused by guns in America.
She was on the right side of history last June, and also, last Saturday.
• Julia Hansen gave one of the most raw, honest and powerful public talks I have ever witnessed. Ever.
Without notes and without pause, she stood tall at the State Theatre as she shared in painful detail her story of losing two of her closest friends last year to suicide. She also shared her own ongoing battle as a young teenager with mental illness and how close she came to ending her own life due to her struggle with depression.
On a large stage, empty but for a microphone and a small red carpet, Hansen stood in front of a sea of strangers, mostly adults, and revealed the darkest and most personal elements of her journey – not for her own benefit, but for ours. It was heroic. It was selfless.
Now a junior at Casco Bay High School, Hansen has launched “The Yellow Tulip Project” an effort to bring attention to smashing the stigma around mental illness – an effort we should all support.
• The story of Wayne Maines and his family’s fight against transgender discrimination has been well documented in news articles, a book (“Becoming Nicole”) and dozens of television interviews. But, beyond his role in the ground-breaking Maine court case that now allows people to use whichever gender bathroom that they identify with, listening to Maines talk about his feelings and experiences as the parent of a transgender child was riveting.
His message was stronger than any discussion of policy issues or political divisiveness connected to transgender rights.
In short, Maines talked about his love for his family.
It’s unimaginable to me that any parent could listen to the story of his daughter, Nicole, and not empathetically connect with her basic right to live her life as she identifies – along with the same human dignity given and preserved for others under our Constitution.
(Epilogue to the highly contentious January 2014 Maine Supreme Judicial Court decision that guaranteed access to bathrooms aligned with a person’s identity: Has there since been a single issue or problem? Not one that I can find, despite the vitriolic fear-mongering against the law in 2013.)
Thank you Anne, Julia, Wayne, and all of the TEDxDirigo speakers; your stories, truths and perspectives, dissonant one and all, really mattered.
Steve Woods is from away, but fully here now, living in Yarmouth, working in Falmouth, traveling the world, and trying his best. His column appears every other week. He can also be heard Saturdays at 11 a.m. on WLOB 1310 AM and 100.5 FM.