Monday, November 10, 2014

Mavericks and Misfits: Highlights and Insights from TEDxDirigo2014

The 2014 edition of TEDxDirigo has come and gone, and I'm still processing what I heard and experienced at the conference.

As a side note, I've learned that with TEDxDirigo on a Sunday, we enter the workweek energized to literally SOLVE THE WORLD'S PROBLEMS...which is kind of amusing to my coworkers and staff at 9am at a Monday morning Research meeting!


I'll back up...if you're not familiar with TED, it's a global set of conferences. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, and the "TED talks" (all 20 minutes and under) are meant to highlight "ideas worth spreading." 

The TED mission statement, which really gives you the oomph behind the conferences, states: 

"We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world. So we're building here a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world's most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other."

TEDxDirigo is Maine's independent TED event, led by director and master curator Adam Burk and team (great interview of Adam here). The event attendees are an eclectic gathering of minds - big thinkers, artists, technologists, philanthropists, student leaders, and even roller derby queens! I had the good fortune to connect up with many other attendees, including past speaker Dr. Rafael Grossmann, a Maine physician pioneering the use of Google Glass in medicine, and Kate Northrup, author of Money: A Love Story and host of Glimpse TV

The speaker mix is just as eclectic, from a Passamaquoddy basket weaver to a former Presidential cabinet member, and the topics range from science on Mars to the study of shame. 

I'll highlight some of my favorite talks below, but I urge you to take a look at all of the talks. The livestream recording is here, and the individual talk recordings will be available in December. 

The event kicked off with the incomparable, and internationally acclaimed lyric poet, Lady Zen whose vocal stylings had the room vibrating to Black Water. 


Science writer Hannah Holmes kicked off the speaking sessions with a fascinating look (hot on the heels of the election) at the science of "red brains" and "blue brains." 


In short, red brains orient to threats faster and are primed to notice when threats arrived. Well-positioned well to secure the territory, red brains have more interest in stepping forward to confront a threat, and want strong and fast rules to have a swift response to threats. 


Blue brains seek flat (not hierarchical) systems with a high level of autonomy...and have the personality to see strangers at the gate as an opportunity, not a threat (not helpful in the case of smallpox blankets - Holmes had some great slides!). According to Holmes, the blue brain has a stronger adrenaline response "to the bunnies and flowers," so not as keyed into threats.


Obviously in the modern world, we do need both red and blue brains. A territory run entirely by protectors (red) or entirely by explorers (blue) would falter. So while the media tends to focus on the very extremes of the spectrum where the differences are more easily seen, most of us are somewhere in the middle. 

Psychiatrist Anne Hallward brought up the "secret subject" of shame. Hallward focused on how shame makes us want to retreat into silence, but she wants to bring that into the light and into the spoken...as the things we don't talk about start to get associated with shame. As Hallward said "I became a psychiatrist because I wanted to deal with awkward subjects." 

Hallward feels that shame is a public health threat, as it is at the heart of addiction, depression, and suicide. To that end, Hallward started Safe Space Radio as a way to reduce stigma and provide education: "To me, the microphone is alike a talking stick. It allows people to drop into their stories and brings their stories to the larger culture."


Historian and entrepreneur (and fellow Trinity College Dublin alum!) Kristen Gwinn-Becker. Are we unknowingly letting history slip away? History, which is so important to society? Gwinn-Becker thinks we are. To the Digital Native generation (which she calls "Generation Click") it is assumed that they're searching the "world of information" but what they don't realize is that they're only searching the world that has been made available to them via search engine...it's not everything! 

As a society, we're not effectively making the transition from paper to digital of the vast amounts of our historical records currently sitting in libraries and archives. As historical records get digitized, we have to be careful and intentional about how we funnel historical information onto the web so they can be found (through proper tagging, metadata, etc.).  

Three TEDxDirigo speakers talked about using art (visual, tactile, poetry, drama) to heal: Tommy Waltz, Jeremy Frey and Marty Pottenger.


Tommy Waltz, a Treehouse Innovation Fellow, is by day a clinical case manager with Preble Street’s Anti-Trafficking Coalition. Waltz took his years of professional theater experience in New York and created a drama therapy program for the homeless. In fact, his graduate thesis was on drama therapy and the homeless experience: "The homeless label is the heaviest weight someone can carry in society today. So much so that the homeless can lose sight of who they were...and who they could be."  Waltz created an improvisational theater program for the homeless that, coupled with social work, helped his clients focus on self-worth, relationship-building, mindfulness, honest expression, creativity, and witness.


Jeremy Frey, a Passamaquoddy basket weaver descended from generations of basket weavers whose work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian and the Museum of Art and Design shared his story. In the throes of a drug addiction, Frey moved home so his family could help care for him on his sober journey. As he went through withdrawal, he needed something to keep his hands busy and his mother offered to teach him basket weaving. Simply put, he said: "During my early days of sobriety, art saved me." 

One of the final speakers of the day, Marty Pottenger wears many hats, as a writer, performer, director and activist pioneer in the community arts and arts-based civic dialogue movement. Pottenger feels strongly that "Inside all of us we have a treasure, but rarely do we use it. It's exhilarating in an excruciating way.... It's creativity." Pottenger highlighted that when a community has art-making, it provides social capital. "When we make art we're smarter, we're willing to hold contradictions, deal with immense challenges." 


To highlight this point, Pottenger shared stories and video about using art (visual, drama) to facilitate community conversation, such as between youth and police. Art can also raise spirits and moral, and release demons. Pottenger shared how she was brought in to address low morale on a police force. What was implemented? Poetry! The poetry program shifted hearts and minds...from an officer saying to Pottenger: "Marty, I'd rather fight four guys by myself than write a poem!" to sharing that (amazing, heartbreaking) poem in front of a group of colleagues...after seeing the video of that officer and his poem you could have heard a pin drop in the room. 

Pottenger wanted us to focus on "ideas that shift the bones of the world" which dovetails nicely into the theme of TED and the TEDx conferences: Ideas Worth Spreading.


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