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By Michael Suen '11 on Middblog during TEDxMiddlebury on October 2, 2010
As we noted this morning, today marks TEDxMiddlebury, the college’s first ever TED-like conference organized by Cloe Shasha ’11 and her team of fellow students. Titled “How We Started: From Idea to Impact,” the TEDx event features a prominent lineup of writers, journalists, athletes, activists, and thinkers — many of them Midd alumni — and several TED Talk videos. The afternoon session is currently ongoing in BiHall 216. For those elsewhere, watch the live stream here.
Note: Presentation notes will be converted into more coherent paragraphs over time. Unfortunately, MiddBlog was not present during the presentations by Stephen Kiernan (“Authentic Patriotism: How They Found It, and Restored a Nation Adrift”) and Dr. Beth Coleman (“Hello Avatar: Your Networked Life”). Summaries will be forthcoming.
Elizabeth Gilbert: “On Nuturing Creativity” (TED Talk Video)
Frank Sesno ’77: “It’s All in the Story”
For Sesno, director of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University and ex-White House correspondent for CNN, “once upon a time” are four crucially important words. He urged Middlebury students to conceive of their lives as their own narrative. In an age oversaturated with information, he said, it was crucial to find a way to sort through all the stories. Why is it that “Charlie Bit My Finger” has received over 200 million views on YouTube, while it took an event as devastating as Katrina for as many people to realize that there is poverty in America?
Story has the power to connect people to other people and causes they do not know. Sesno posed the question: How are we to tell stories in more compelling ways? Technology has empowered us to tell them from the bottom-up, as opposed to the traditional top-down mode, and in this way we may find the hidden, inspiring, or crucial stories.
Alex Prud’homme ’84: “Writing with Julia”
Prud’homme spent two years after graduating from Middlebury traveling around the world, unsure of what he wanted to do. Eventually, he would find himself drawn to the story of his aunt, who in 1948 discovered fine dining in France, where “cooking is considered a mix of high art and competitive cooking.” Prud’homme’s aunt Julia Child would later go on to become one of the first, wildly popular TV chef personalities in the United States. Her primary challenge was to demystify the European “cuisine bourgeois” for a United States audience, and with her humor and optimism, she was able to do so.
Prud’homme would later translate Child’s journey to becoming a chef, co-writing her memoir My Life in France, which would later serve as the basis for the film Julie & Julia. “Have the courage of your convinctions,” he told the audience. To write a book, Prud’homme noted, was not unlike flipping a crepe: It requires not only effort, but a little of luck. Provided with a live cooking demonstration, the auditorium erupted in applause as the crepe flipped gracefully.
Sierra Crane-Murdoch ’09: “On Being Human”
Murdoch lived by a train track in Virgina, said to use coal amounts equivalent to 12 million tons of carbon dioxide a year. For her, the train came to be a physical metaphor for the dehumanization of the coal debate. “We have a tendency to dehumanize the people we work with or against,” said Murdoch. “I decided this summer that it was about time for me to love my enemy too. So I called up my local coal executive.” A markedly human dialogue is important — a sacred space carved out also for listening.
Especially in this quick-paced digital generation in which ideologies clash and are rallied through computer screens, we’re tricked into thinking a clicked Like button on Facebook or a brief 140 character Twitter message constitutes change. “Human moments are what drive change,” Murdoch emphasized.
Steven Johnson: “Where Good Ideas Come From” (TED Talk Video)
Michael Kiernan: “Shouting over the Storm: Communication in a Moment of Crisis”
As an emergency physician, Kiernan often sensed that his duty to inform his patients as to their sicknesses — no matter how horrifying — was in part a performance. The more challenging the circumstances, the more difficult it was to call forth empathy, he found. He developed three steps to face this self-consciousness: 1) get over yourself; 2) see the situation through others’ eyes and actively indicate you understand the other’s POV; 3) give the straightforward facts.
When Kiernan accompanied a family around their recently-passed relative, he recalled a stillness often falling over group. “Tell me about him,” he would say, and this would incite an outpouring of emotions from their perspective. Similar to Murdoch, Kiernan noted the importance of listening. ”If you want to add to injury,” he said, “deny them of their voice.”
Chris Waddell ’91: “Recovery”
Waddell was rendered unable to walk after a skiing accident as a freshman Feb in 1988. For him, the biggest issue after his injury was feeling separated from others. At the same time, Waddell acknowledged that the best time of his life was immediately following the accident: There was no cure then, so he had to find his own cure. “Happiness is the most worthwhile pursuit we can have,” he told the audience. “And the struggle is part of the cure.”
Later in his life, Waddell was invited to a biotech meeting, in which he was told his injury could be cured. The thought left him distraught, because — as his friend told him — “that would make you just like the rest of us.” Even now, he wouldn’t trade the experiences and learning he received for the ability to walk. What was construed as a flaw to others, was a strength to him. One’s own genius and sense of being, Waddell noted, exists within oneself. He continued to ski race, going on to compete on the US Disabled Ski Team and scaling Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Philip Conkling: “Thinking like an Island”
Philip Conkling, father of Jamie Conkling ’11, told the story of how he came to be interested in islands. Educated during the Vietnam War, and then inspired by On the Road, Conkling hitchhiked across the country to Los Angeles in the month prior to his graduation. Learning to cut trees, dig clams, and having discovered the remnants of island communities, he came to see the island as a metaphor for the self: isolation meant listening to yourself think.
“The uses of the past are indexed in the landscape,” he told the audience. “Once you’ve seen one island, you’ve seen them all.” He contended that models of development for Africa could apply equally well to Maine. More than a century ago, there were 300 year-round island communities. Now there remain only 15, the equivalent to an endangered species. And though one may not be able to manage natural resources, he or she may be able to manage people: this germinated the idea for the Island Institute, a membership-based community development organization focused on the Gulf of Maine. Regarding leadership, Conkling advised: “Lead from behind, operate from the inside out.”
Anna Cummins: “Synthetic Sea, Synthetic Me: Plastic in the World’s Oceans”
On the problem of plastic trash littering our Earth’s oceans, Anna Cummins asks: “How did we get here?” To her, it’s evident we weren’t thinking about a long-term plan. What would become of all the disposable packaging over time? Cummins cited a decades-long study of spilled bath toys from a tanker crash — little plastic ducks were swept by the currents and washed up on shores all over the world.
Traveling to the areas seriously affected by the waste, Cummins discovered the skeletal remains of albatross, their stomach cavities overspilling with plastic trash. It was plastic ingestion by animals in a food chain human beings also depend on. According to Cummins, plastics in the ocean also absorb chemicals, tests indicating that they were one million times more concentrated than the sea water around it; the implication is that we will pass this chemical pollution in our very bodies on to future generations. With her husband, Cummins founded 5 Gyres — an organization dedicated to “understanding plastic pollution through exploration, education, and action” – and is calling for a “cradle to cradle,” instead of “cradle to grave” mentality in the way we produce goods and conduct our lives.
Jessica Riley: “The Place of Wonder: A Gigantic Pod of Potential”
- Life is a continual creative process
- Favorite teacher was one from Paris, who took a hammer to her sculpture. “It was good, but you can do better.”
- Don’t get attached to outside form
- Cycle of rebuilding
- Expressive arts – lets you see the big picture of all that is.
- Keyword is “play.” No anticipated outcome.
- Can we merge impact on the world and a childlike sense of play?
- The arts are a big gigantic door. Why do we cut art programs?
Sir Ken Robinson: “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” (TED Talk Video)
Chris Maxey: “Time for Schools to Go to Work”
- Went from being NAVY Seal blowing up coral reefs in the Philippines and eating the fish that were killed, to founding the Island School in the Bahamas.
- Learn to love the place where you’re from. One of first classes: rubbing sand on faces.
- Also teaching locals how to swim: empowerment and encouragement
- Does not believe in the word “school”
- Rather than linear, left brain focus – should allow freedom for creativity, collaboration, and work with community
- We cannot let school get in the way of our education. (Mark Twain)
Michael Silberman ’02: “Rise of the Amateur Organizers”
- Grew up in suburban Connecticut, started as youth organizer
- Helped Middlebury start on its route toward being carbon-neutral campus
- For Conn. and Midd issues, relatively local. Could assemble others easily.
- Joined Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign as staffer.
- This kind of work in past decades had been in hands of professional organizers, to hold local meetings. Amateurs – no political experience – now willing to organize.
- Dean example: Able to start with nothing, made process transparent, rallied grassroots organizers. Process much more powerful results than a small group in a small office.
- Citizen journalist able to cover US Air crash 15 minutes before any professional media outlet able to.
- Forcing media and changemaker to reevaluate their models. What does it mean when anyone can do it?
- Changemaking happening now versus when he first got involved, is that it’s just no longer in the hands of an establishment. Technology is disruptive, but also democratic.
Nicholas Christakis: “The Hidden Influence of Social Networks” (TED Talk Video)
Astri Von Arbin Ahlander & Yelizavetta Kofman ’07: “Lattice as Lifestyle”
- Rethinking of corporate ladder as lattice
- The ideal worker: 1950′s man directs all time to work, with a stay-at home wife (Don Draper)
- American work culture: Who can afford to take unpaid leave? Not guaranteed any paid vacation or paid sick leave.
- Today, workers have many other responsibilities to attend to
- Founded The Lattice Group: focus on work-life balance issues
- Best antidote is to embrace the lattice lifestyle: move in different directions
- Whole industries can change. European companies, to remain competitive, have attractive internal policies of paid paternal leave, for instance.
- Learn about the work culture of the place you want to work. Fight for flexibility. What is the most important aspect to you (lavish lifestyle, ability to order time)? Talk to your partner about lifestyle.
- Ask yourself the tough questions. Sex teacher advice: “If you can’t talk about it, don’t do it.”
Sunny Bates: “Getting Here from There”
- Graduated Middle Eastern Studies and Energy Economics from Cornell, during bad economic climate.
- Moved to New York, cold-called about 200 magazines and periodicals, got three job offers. Took one – closed after three months.
- Everybody wants to help. Be clear about what you want.
- Networks run on information as currency. Pitched story of failed magazine career.
- Became one of three publishers in New York, had family and children. With good network and ability to identify talent, went back and created business.
- Teach people how to reimagine themselves. Try to find a way to make a living out of bringing people together.
- “A network is probably the most important creation you can work on right now.”
- Networks come from spirit of generosity, mutual trust, and acknowledgement; there is a give and a get.
Follow Michael Suen, the author of this post, on Twitter.
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