Saturday, January 26, 2013

TEDx Baltimore Review

by Josh M.

“I went from the PTA to sex therapist,” stated Lois Feinblatt, at the TEDxBaltimore event on January 25. Feinblatt  is grandmotherly looking 91 year old woman who started her career screening prospective adoptive parents and transitioned to be a human sexuality therapist in the 1960’s. She was one of the 21 presenters at TEDxBaltimore and provided the audience with laughs as she told her story and described how she has seen Baltimore, and the world, change since 1921.

If you are not aware of the wonder that is, now is the time to learn! TED conferences bring together the world’s leading thinkers and doers for a series of talks, presentations and performances with a maximum time of 18 minutes. TED events have been called “a clearing house of free knowledge and inspiration.”

Started in 1987 in California, TED is a nonprofit organization devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. Originally a four-day conference, TED has grown and continues to support those world-changing ideas. All the talks are then made available for free at

Baltimore’s brightest thought leaders, visionary artists, thought-provoking philosophers, community vanguards and entertainers were nominated by their peers and participated in its first official TEDxBaltimore event, held at Morgan State University.

TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. The x officially stands for “an independently organized TED event.” However, people involved consider it to be more like an exponential or “the power of yes, I can make this happen on my own!” TEDx events can only be hosted once a year.

In the past, there have been two TEDx events in Baltimore, but under the flag of the larger TEDxMid-Atlantic. This was our own event though, with members from our community.

Over 40 collaborators volunteered their time and have worked for nearly a year to make the day a reality. The two principal coordinators and MC’s for the day were Sarge Salman and Jen Gunner.

Salman is a Colorado transplant who has embedded himself in the Baltimore technology community and is also the organizer for the Baltimore Lean Startup group. His co-host, Gunner, is a Baltimore native and is the COO at the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore, an affiliate professor of marketing at Loyola College and was the former interim COO for the Greater Baltimore Technology Council.

The day began with a Skype call from Jordan Evans, the Engineering Development and Operations Manager-Mars Science Laboratory at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. While the simulation of the landing of the Mars Rover, Curiosity, was impressive, the crowd roared when he put on his Raven’s Hat and officially launched the opening of TEDxBaltimore.

The day was then split into four hour and a half sessions and had a subtitle from the overall theme, “Baltimore REWired.” The first session, entitled “Our Future” included Lance Lucas, James Piper Bond, Keimmie Booth, Noor Siddiqual, and Dr. Roni Ellington.

Lucas is committed to bridging the digital divide with the underprivileged students of Baltimore City through his company, Digit All Systems. His method is to bring the skills necessary to succeed to the people who need it most. He provides students with education and resources to help them earn their A+ Certification (the first certification required to be a computer technician) and teaches them the values of being an entrepreneur.

Piper Bond has been an imperative member in the cultural shift being fostered throughout the city and is the President of the Living Classrooms Foundation. While Piper Bond and Living Classrooms have had a huge impact on the city, he still has a lot more to do. He spoke in detail about their continued work to improve the “Target Investment Zone” which begun in 2007. TIZ is an “initiative aimed at helping children, youth, and families in underserved East Baltimore communities break a cycle of poverty through education and workforce development, as well as creating safer and cleaner neighborhoods.”

Keimmie Booth, a 17 year old senior at Western High School, taught the audience, “Every failure is an opportunity for problem solving” through her experience as a member of her schools robotics league, “2528: The RoboDoves.” Her story of finding her passion was delivered with confidence and poise. The audience responded with the first standing ovation of the day.

Noor Siddiqui, from Fairfax, Virginia graduated top of her class, is 18, and was the model student. Despite being accepted to several universities, she turned them all down and became a Thiel Fellow. The Thiel Fellowship provides 20 students under 20 yearly with the opportunity and funds ($100,000) to pursue their passion in Silicon Valley. The one catch, you have to dedicate yourself to it 100%, that means putting off college for 2 years. Siddiqui is working on a curriculum that allows the “bottom billion” an opportunity to monetize their education and will allow them to learn while they earn money to keep their family sustainable.

The first session was wrapped up by self proclaimed “Angry Black Woman,” Dr. Roni Ellington. She is not a mathematics teacher, but “teaches students mathematics” at Morgan State University. The wording is important. As an educator, remembering that it is primarily about the students and secondarily about your topic of study is imperative. “We must teach outside the book.”

The second session, “The People Around Us,” consisted of Professor Firmin DeBrabander, Aaron Henkin, Dr. Eduardo Rodriquiz, and Whitney Sibol.

Professor DeBrabander of MICA read a compelling speech about the negative aspects of allowing guns in classrooms. While he feels that death tolls could be reduced, the benefits do not outweigh the negatives of training teachers to wield weapons.

Aaron Henkin, host of WYPR’s The Signal, presented his first ever PowerPoint presentation at TEDxBaltimore. Apparently there isn’t much need for it on the radio. Henkin spent 4 months in May 2012 on the 3300 block of Greenmount Avenue learning about the people who work, live, and play there. Separated only by walls, he collected 25 hours of interviews and shared a few of them with us. Edited down to 48 minutes, it aired on the Signal last year. Henkin challenged all in attendance to “talk to strangers,” you never know what you will learn and what you have in common until you do.

Dr. Rodriquez is the Chief of Plastic, Reconstructive & Maxillofacial Surgery at the R. Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center and gained notoriety after performing the most extensive face transplant preformed to date. The gentleman’s injury from a high-energy ballistic injury in 1997 resulted in his total face, double jaw and tongue transplant in March of 2012. This was an amazing talk and is really worth watching.  He spoke in detail of the process and practice involved with this surgery.

Whitney Sibol gave, in my opinion, the most inspiring talk. She shared her story of preparing for a triathlon, being a member of Under Armor’s What’s Beautiful program. During the swimming portion of her training, she was hit by a boat and broke many of the bones and lost feeling on the left side of her body. Rushed to shock trauma, and many months later, she is on the “journey back to good.” Her story was compelling and will leave tears in your eyes, but it is one that everyone should watch if you need inspiration to continue forward in life.

The third session, “Building Community” began with a musical and visual session by Ami Dang. While her music was Indian by culture, the backbeat of the drums and bass gave it a more ambient sound. The visual effects added a layer that kept members of the audience spellbound.

Following Ami was another Skype call, this time from George Ng'ayu, of Nairobi, Kenya. He was a member of the TEDxBrookhouse School event and delivered a talk about being who you are. His speech included his donning a wig and singing Edna’s last song from Hairspray. It’s fun to know that Jon Water’s movie has had such an impact across the world.

Ellen Durkan, an artist from Delaware, strutted on the stage wearing a copper dress that one couldn’t help but look at in amazement. She had her hair curled into buns, covered by copper, and her outfit hung to her thighs. But, the part that caught everyone’s attention was the ornate three feet long curled cones that protruded from her chest. She shared with the audience her methods of integrating metalsmithing with high fashion. She concluded with a model displaying her newest creation, a hand-cut steel lace-like corset. While this is not her forte, “Everything doesn’t have to be figured out ahead of time. Sometimes you have to jump, sink, and figure it out.” Walking off the stage, the crowd chuckled as squeaks emitted from the outfit's metal hinges.

While listening to a congressman speak has a tendency to frustrate, anger, or bore people, Rep. John Sarbanes gave a compelling talk from two different perspectives. First as a congressman, Sarbanes spoke of the time he has to spend fundraising; he claims most congressional members spend 30-70% of their time raising capital. This keeps him, and the others, from doing what they have been elected to do. The other hat he, metaphorically, wore was that of constituent  He criticized the usage of Super Packs to fund public offices. He is working to get a petition signed that will help convert our “politics, government, and democracy of, by and for the money, but instead for the many”. For more information, visit Grassroots Democracy Act.

Seema Iyer, an Urban Planner who oversees the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, discussed the methods in which Baltimore is growing, despite having lost nearly 300,000 people in our population in 50 years. The Alliance’s website provides a 100 point data analysis about every neighborhood in Baltimore available for download. Her talk displayed a number of maps with the data overlaid to show that the growth is happening near the major thoroughfares of the city. Bleakly, growth is shown to be halted if an area has as little as 4% vacancy rates.

The final member of the third session was Peter Beilenson, CEO of Evergreen Health Cooperative and former Health Officer of Baltimore City. He told a compelling story about a boy he had helped get out of the crime and gang ridden West Baltimore. He stressed the importance of getting involved in city government and to “force politicians to put emphasis on improving lives in the city instead of things like Indy car races.”

The final session, “Finding Your Place,” was a bit smaller in audience numbers (due to the starting snow showers outside) but provided some of the best entertainment of the day.

Joe Ehrmann, former Baltimore Colt and football coach, spoke of the negative effects of being told to “Be a man!” as a child. Being a man is associated with athletic ability, sexual conquest, and later with financial success; “This isn’t what it means to be a man.” Listening to people on their death beds, real men are concerned with ensuring they were good sons, fathers, husbands, or friends. They also want to know that they’ve made a difference in the world. It was a compelling talk and worth a watch.

Two more Digital Harbor high school students shared their experiences with us. Evodie Ngoy created a film about being a refugee in the Baltimore City School system. Shaquuille Brooks spoke about opportunity and the Rec2Tech program, which converted the shutdown recreation center at the corner of Light and Cross streets into a technology center for youth.

The highlight of the final session was Dan Trahey and the BSO’s ORCHkids program. Nearly 50 kids, ranging from 5 – 17 years old, entertained the audience with three songs played by “The Bucket Brigade.”  Students are brought in from throughout the city, taught to work together and to be musicians, not instrumentalists. Their first class is to learn to play the buckets. Then they move to the more traditional instruments, although they play everything from Bach to Beyonce. The orchestra was made up completely of children, even the conductor. The ORCHkids just started a harp program which was highlighted by three adorable 5 year old girls playing a song alongside their teacher. The event was concluded with the ORCHkids choral performance of two songs. It is really worth watching and was a lot of fun.

Overall, the day was an absolute blast and provided me with the experience I had hoped for. I am already looking forward to the next event, Create Baltimore, on February 16.

You can find out more about TEDxBaltimore on their website, which has a link to a live video stream of the day. Edited videos will be posted in the coming weeks.