TEDx North Adams Focuses on Building Community
From the most basic needs of water and food and through arts and creativity to contemplating other perspectives, the second annual TEDx North Adams event highlighted voices examining how we communicate and share to construct communities.
"Everything made me feel better about the world," said Michael McDonough, one of the 100 attendees at the event.
"I think my favorite part about the whole thing is we didn't pick them to blend in as they did," said Geeg Wiles, one of the organizers. "It just sort of happened naturally — it seemed like they were all talking before the event to merge their talks to fit together. ...
"I'm at a loss for words how smooth and exciting the event went."
Wiles and fellow coordinators Benjamin Lamb and Keifer Gammell, along with a team of volunteers, began the effort last year to bring a local version of the internationally known TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) talks to the city. Marked with "x," the local independent products have to follow strict guidelines to use the TED licensing.
That limited ticket sales this year and last to 100, although the group is hoping the "training wheels" will come off for next year that will allow more tickets and a move into a larger venue. The event was limited in tickets and also had to have quality speakers and enough views of talks once they're posted online.
"We think our quality was excellent so we are hoping to have our training years wheels taken off next year," said Brian Handspicker, marketing director. "We continue to try to grow the event."
Attendees were provided with tote bags, local information and gift certificates provided by local eateries. "We want to make sure people are directed to the great stores, great restaurants, great hotels in the area," he said.
The event in the B-10 Theater at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts started with a big idea: bringing potable water to underserved areas basically in a box.
Hamza Farrukh, a Williams College graduate and founder of Bondh E Shams (the Solar Water Project), explained that as a native of Pakistan, he was shocked when he learned that you could drink water directly out of the tap in Williamstown. That's not the case for some 1.2 billion people who wonder every day where their water would come from and he told the story of a woman who spent up to 10 hours a day walking to get water.
His answer? A "strongly worded research proposal" that resulted in the first grants to create the solar-powered, self-contained pumping system that can be set up in seven minutes.
"It is a thrill to see with a flip of a button you can solve a decades-long crisis in minutes."
Where Farrukh is trying to solve conflict by addressing water access as a human right, Catherine Storing, a Boston author and content creation coach, urged the audience to not shy away from conflict.
Using her frequent head-butting with her sister as an example, she outlined ways to see from her sister's perspective to understand where she was coming from.
Her seven principles: Listen to what people are saying; empathize with what they're feeling; be honest even if it's uncomfortable; think about what you can learn in the moment; acknowledge you might be wrong; ask what you would like to learn, and admit you're human and make mistakes.
"If we want to grow our communities, we have to get comfortable with conflict," Storing said.
Kristen van Ginhoven, who founded the 9-year-old WAM Theatre to speak to women's empowerment, said she's trying to become comfortable with conflict and to speak up immediately. Too often, she said, white women "have the privilege of time" in waiting before addressing sexist, racist, ageist or classist speech.
"This discomfort of speaking up in the moment sounds all too familiar to me," Ginhoven said, using the example of how a colleague was treated at a town meeting.
"If a truly believe in a culture of equity and honesty, this discomfort of speaking in the moment is something I have to work through now ... to own the power of my privilege and speak up."
Lisa Donovan and Ty Allan Jackson spoke of developing community through the arts at a young age.
Donovan, a professor of arts management in the Fine and Performing Arts Department at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, has begun research through a National Endowment of the Arts grant on how "the most renowned cultural assets" in the Berkshires, more than 50 in all, could be leveraged with local educators to deepen and strengthen rural educational opportunities.
Her research has helped developed Berkshire Cultural Assets Network and BRAINWorks, the Berkshire Regional Arts Integration Network. "Our tourists know what we have here and my job is to make every young person in Berkshire County gets it as well."
"We could be the very model that I was looking for and couldn't find," she said. "We have the map, we have the networks but we need to think like a region."
Jackson, award-winning children's book author and founder of Big Head Books publishing in Pittsfield, wants to break down barriers that limit African-American children's access to reading.
"I discovered that many black kids don't like reading ... as a father and an author that is disturbing to me," said Jackson. It can also correlate to lower educational aspirations and higher incarceration rates. In part it's caused by the unavailability of books, he said, pointing out that New York's Capital Region and the Bronx have about the same population but where Albany has 21 bookstores, the Bronx has zero.
It's also a matter of children not seeing themselves portrayed in books, or in popular fiction, and authors of color not having the exposure that their compatriots in entertainment and sports do. Imagine, Jackson said, if someone like Cardi B promoted an author or a book.
"We can change the narrative of what it means and have children of color see themselves represented in more positive ways," he said. "Build a bond and connection the same way they do with the hip hop artists and the actors and the athletes ... that these authors are the rocks stars as well."
Tenth-generation farmer Craig Floyd finds community through food: the growing of it, the sharing of it.
"If you really care about your community, you would feed those in need," said Floyd of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center's Giving Garden in Stonington, Conn. The 1600s-era farm was conserved as open space and now an 11,800 square-foot garden that has produced more than 20 tons of fresh food local food projects and pantries.
Beyond that, the farm is now a place for hundreds of volunteers from all walks of life to get in touch with the soil, to find a purpose. Getting "wasted on nature," as Floyd puts it.
"One of the biggest things we try to do is show our respect for everybody," he said, adding, "Start growing something, quit eating chemicals, learn how to farm with nature."
The other two presentations went beyond speech to involve audience participation with sound.
"We kind of threw some caution to the wind and brought in music and dance performance," Lamb said. "I think that just added a whole new layer of dynamics to the event. Community exists on all scales and I think that was really the theme that people got."
Musician and instrument designer Mark Stewart, a founding member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars who has worked with a long list of world-renowned performers, led a joyful talk on harmony using heel-stomping sounds, vocal notes and "found" instruments and encouraged the audience to participate.
"This is stuff that's fairly magical," he said. "I'm always amazed at the perfection of you and me ... I'm always inspired and I'm always delighted ... The word musician is too often used to discourage people from participating in their birthright as sound makers."
The event closed out with dysFUNKcrew, a smaller community of varied young professionals who found ways to cross lines and teach each other. The MCLA graduates performed their movement with voiceovers of how their presence at the event was their commitment to growth in the community.
"You feel like you don't belong: find people who look like you ... introduce them to your culture and uplift them ... uplift yourself."
This year's event garnered nearly 200 nominations that were curated down to the eight presentations (a ninth had to be canceled for unforeseen circumstances) on Saturday. A wrap party followed at the Green where attendees could mingle with the speakers and sponsors were thanked.
"We saw this community come together for the day and just take a whole ton of information and inspiration from our eight fantastic speakers," Lamb said. "I thought it was excellent, everyone was engaged, the speakers were fantastic, the crowd stayed the entire time."
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