Birmingham has come a long way since the days when the city was known as a dying steel town where a heavy handed local government turned fire hoses and police dogs on peaceful civil rights protestors. Today the city is better known for its leading edge medical research, its commitment to civil rights education and preserving its history, and its burgeoning food scene. It’s a city that has its eyes firmly planted on the future, made stronger by the mistakes of its past. Nowhere is this shift more evident than at TEDxBirmingham.
For those that don’t know, TEDx conferences are independently organized and licensed conferences in the spirit of the larger TED conferences. These things have popped up all over the world with more than 15000 events to date generating over a billion talk views. That’s some serious reach for events largely put together by volunteers. Four years ago, a group of people in Birmingham, Alabama decided to get in on the action and start a local TEDx conference. This was my first year to attend, and I was absolutely floored at the professionalism, passion and energy on display. It’s a reflection of the direction Birmingham as a whole is headed. I’d like to put down a few thoughts before the details fade into memory. The conference helpfully provided a program notebook in the goody bag, complete with a section to jot down notes on each talk.
All of the speakers were outstanding in their own way. It’s clear that the coaching and practice for speakers paid off. There’s a certain cadence and consistency to the way TED speakers present. They don’t typically do a big introduction about themselves, instead launching right into the content. They take you on a journey, instead of just walking through some slideware. They are well rehearsed, sharing their story without notes. Most importantly, they are concise. Short, even. The idea is distilled into a concentrated essence, delivered as a personal story that brings the audience along in a way that seems almost hypnotic, effortless. A few of my favorite moments:
Brian Reaves was the first speaker of the day, and provided a strong open for the conference. Brian is an illusionist, which I thought an odd choice for a TED style event, especially as the opener. That thought disappeared along with several of his props on stage as he talked about how magic forces you to see the impossible as possible, and how reframing a problem or letting go of your current perspective can completely change the way you approach things. Start from “It can be done, I just need to figure out how”. Having Brian kick off the conference helped everybody open their minds a little bit for the rest of what followed.
Later on in session one, we heard from Dunya Habash. Dunya is a musician, filmmaker and refugee advocate. She spoke about visiting the Zaatari Syrian Refugee Camp in Jordan and how it challenged her notions of what it meant to be a refugee. Her talk was probably the most moving moment of the day, doing more to show the resilience, ingenuity and humanity of displaced persons than any media report I have ever seen. So much of what we hear and see about refugees is at best incomplete, at worst deliberately misleading. She also shared her thoughts on the way refugees are portrayed, driving home the point that consumer friendly media is failing us in ways we don’t even understand. The important stories are so much deeper than a Facebook post, so much more complex than a soundbite, and we owe them our full attention.
Unsurprisingly for an event connected in so many ways to UAB, many of the talks had a medical or public health angle. Dr. Michael Saag challenged our assumptions about eradicating hepatitis C. He ended with a concrete call to action to help us make eradication a reality by reducing the price of lifesaving drugs. I was a bit perplexed that he called out drug advertising as a major cost contributor, but never mentioned lobbying against it in his call. Dr. Julian Maha made a compelling case for expanding the way we address disability to include those invisible, sensory disabilities. Most interesting to me is how he positioned his story as a set of inclusive, reasonably easy to implement changes that can open the world to those with sensory challenges. Dr. Jayme Locke educated the crowd on the human cost of kidney transplant waiting lists and an innovative matchmaking network to improve the chances of donors and those needing a living donor getting connected. Will Wright unpacked the true cost of loneliness on health and challenged all of us to reach out to somebody that needs a friendly ear.
We also heard from some people working hard to change the social fabric of Birmingham. Honestly, social issues aren’t usually my focus area, but these sessions were some of the most moving and eye opening. Maacah Davis coined what may be my new favorite phrase for creating in a space full of constrictive (and often harmful) assumptions: “Artistic Claustrophobia”. Lara Avsar deconstructed how harmful both princess fantasies and Wonder Woman stereotypes can be to a young woman (especially poignant as I figure out how to raise my own daughter), and pointed to a better way in which the struggle, failure and resiliency are core values. Diedre Clark introduced us all to concept of Kuumba (the idea of leaving our community more beautiful and beneficial than we found it) and her innovative community arts program by the same name. Anne Wright took us on a heartbreaking journey through running a program for homeless men, and encouraged us to use our own hopelessness as common ground, a gateway from sympathy to empathy.
It wouldn’t be a TED conference without some representation from education, which Randall Woodfin filled in nicely. Mr. Woodfin has been a fixture in education in the city for some time, a steady, moderate and thoughtful voice for the children of Birmingham. Oddly absent from his introduction was the fact that he has declared his candidacy for mayor, but perhaps the TEDxBirmingham organizers felt it was best to keep politics on the sideline. Either way it was great to hear from our mayoral candidate about his views on education, community and how the two have to work hand in hand for the best outcomes. Elizabeth Bevan rounded out the day, sharing her passion for sea turtles, her job and her research. She gave us a glimpse into the present and future of researching animals in their natural environments with drones. Drones are a relatively new addition to the field biologist’s toolkit, but are already allowing researchers to observe behaviors never seen before.
The Interactive Sessions
I’ve been to a LOT of conferences, usually attending 3-4 a year on a variety of topics. I also present regularly on system architecture, content management, document security and many other topics. I love the TED format and wish more conferences would structure themselves in a similar way, maybe we’d have less “death by powerpoint”. Alternating between sit down sessions and walking around for some more interactive session time keeps the blood flowing, and gives you an opportunity to discuss what you’ve just heard with the other conference attendees. It also gives you a chance to ask follow up questions of the speakers, who usually had a nice crowd around them during every interactive session. Probably my favorite bit from the interactive sessions were the artists that were making art on site that reflected what was shared in the talks. My only complaint was that I didn’t get a chance to try out the VR/AR gear, it always had quite a line.
The Event in General
In a word, it was professional. Start to finish. The crowds were well managed. There were a ton of ambassadors around if you had questions and every one of them had a smile. The check in was fast. Lunch was easy. There was always coffee (this is huge). The presentations were well run. It’s hard to believe that event was entirely put on by volunteers. Unbelievably well done. About the only thing I might change is the addition of a speaker or two that has a bit of a technology focus, but I’m in the industry so that’s my bias showing. With AI and machine learning reshaping the world, and digital transformation completely rewiring companies from the ground up or disrupting them entirely there is a lot of ground to cover there.
I can’t wait for next year. If you live in Birmingham and want to see how inspired and inspiring your city can be, you need to be there too.
Image credit: tedxbirmingham.org. Hope y’all don’t mind that I borrowed it.