This past Monday, the Everyday Ambassador team was invited to take part in a historic event: the first ever TEDx talk at the United Nations! TEDx events are hosted in order to share “ideas worth spreading”, ideas that can change the world, and I came away with a pages and pages of notes from the speakers. Some ideas were deeply inspiring, yet some were frankly… disturbing!
We believe that both kinds of ideas are equally important. If we only look at highlights and not the questionable comments, we would miss a chance to foster meaningful conversation on key principles of social change. It’s crucial that we’re able to tell the difference between what’s just smoke and mirrors, and what type of values will enact the lasting change we all seek to make.
Let’s start with the not-so-hot presentations, and what brought them down. (I’m not going to call out people by name, because my aim is to identify dangerous habits and methods, not shame individuals!)
1. Fact-check failure: One presenter spoke excitedly about how possible it is to end poverty in our era, and cited the Millennium Villages Project as the gold standard by which we can enact this change. Yet MVP is a hotly contested development program, with well documented evidence and debate that it may not be a useful approach. A reminder that we need to to read up on all perspectives (and evidence) before we promote solutions!
2. Masking political agenda with social change: One presenter’s mission seemed to be promoting more friendly business environments around the world, but then spent his time criticizing President Obama’s politics, instead of demonstrating compelling examples of good business causing social change (of which there are many!) Political critique is fine, but this wasn’t the proper venue. Further, critique wasn’t followed by ideas for improvement. (And when ideas were offered they were a bit disconcerting: i.e. he called it ‘smart’ business when an Estonian government office turned off the country’s mobile network so that they could conduct an important business video teleconference. Yikes.)
3. Missing measurements, etc!: The most bizarre presentation of all was about an app on which you can find nearby volunteer projects, participate in these service activities to win ‘points’, and then cash in your points to attend a music festival . Most of the presentation featured a cartoon animation of a heart beating a drum to house music. Trippy. Where do I begin? The false premise that people do service work because they want things like concert tickets instead of the fulfillment of serving others? The absence of thought on vetting volunteer gigs, to determine whether or not they are projects that help and don’t harm communities? No set of measurements for what type of changes the sporadic volunteerism enacts? The lack of thought that volunteerism only affects change when it’s part of well designed and carefully organized movements, and not when it’s a second thought, drop-in-when-I-feel-like-it, easily abandonable effort? Good spirit around rethinking volunteerism, but the devil is in the details!
4. We’re at the UN and (almost) everyone’s Dutch or American. I was expecting a diverse set of presenters from every continent and a wide array of countries, especially since the event was being held at the United Nations. I don’t know what constraints the organizers were under, so there may be reasons for who ended up presenting, but in the future would love a broader set of perspectives. On that note, we want to have more global voices here on EA, so we would appreciate your help identifying new contributors in the weeks ahead!
Now for the high-lights, the most stellar presenters and what made them shine:
1. Admitting failure and demonstrating perseverance. Two speakers in particular stick out for their humility, humor, and perseverance, despite difficulty: Disney animator Brenda Chapman and 16 year-old inventor Jack Andraka. Brenda explained how she battled gender discrimination barriers for years, like being initially rejected from animation school, and given her first job “because she was a woman” and needed to fill a quota. But she persisted and thanks to Brenda we have films like “Brave” to inspire young girls that they don’t need a prince charming to save them.
Superstar Jake developed a concept for detecting pancreatic cancer (at age 15) and sent his application to 200 labs across the country, and received 199 rejections. Can you imagine? He succeeded with one and is now busy being boy-genius in the lab with disease detection technologies. Both people are hugely accomplished yet neither focused on their accomplishments. Both emphasized their failures and rejections, the dark (and real!) underbelly of social change work, and encouraged the audience through their own experiences to face obstacles with bravery.
2. Cultivating deep change over time: There was a lot of chest-beating about how radical new ideas will change the world, but more instructive were people who talked about change happening incrementally over time as part of systemic reform. Dr. Jess Ghannam gave a most compelling presentation about his experience creating cadres of community health workers focused on psychiatry and mental health, and deploying them in war torn regions to help everyday people overcome anxiety, depression, and PTSD. His concept is not flashy or fast-acting, and could take decades to make ‘accessible mental health care’ a new norm – but his efforts are of the game-changing kind.
3. You can’t help others until you’ve helped yourself: Harry Kraemer, author of From Values to Action, gave a fantastic overview of four key values for affecting change: (1) Self-reflection, (2) Balanced Perspective, (3) True self-confidence, (4) Genuine humility. He talked about the dangers of confusing “activity” with “proactivity”, and being unable to relate to others if we’re unable to first know ourselves well, and he emphasized the need for constant awareness of our own behavior and perspectives. Of course at EA we loved his focus on the same type of values we see as necessary for effective service work!
We are grateful to the TEDxUNPlaza organizers for hosting this incredibly stimulating event, and look forward to next year! Please feel free to push back and offer thoughts on this feedback, or your reaction to any of the presentations if you attended!