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Philadelphia Jazz Project's Nimrod Speakers and Bethlehem Roberson perform following Natalie Nixon's rousing talk on the future of work, which she posited "will look like jazz." Photo by Kevin Monko.
Emaleigh Doley is co-producer of TEDxPhiladelphia 2014. Knight Foundation was the title sponsor of the conference.
More than 1,100 thinkers, makers and doers took a break from the hustle and bustle of the city to explore Philadelphia’s urban reinvention at TEDxPhiladelphia recently, offering a wide range of perspectives designed to provoke, engage and excite but, most important, spark new ideas, new conversations and new ways of changing our corner of the world.
The sold-out crowd at the March 28 conference listened intently to 21 speakers at Temple Performing Arts Center during the day, everyone from funders and financiers to educators and organizers, guided by the theme “The New Workshop of the World.”
The historic former Baptist temple has hosted some of the country’s most prominent intellectual and political figures, from civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Helen Keller.
It was fitting that a new crop of leaders speak from the same pulpit. From parent and public education activist Helen Gym, recently named a Cesar Chavez Champion of Change by the White House, to textile designer and “Project Runway” winner Dom Streater, who challenged consumers to reassess their values and learn to care not just about what we put in our bodies, but the clothing we put on our bodies.
If you’ve never been to a TED or TEDx event, it might surprise you just how much talking happens offstage. Breaks are built into the day to encourage attendees to talk with friends, old and new. Everywhere, people were engaged in deep conversation.
Exhibitors explained their work and process, as members learned about 3-D printing and industrial design, wrote postcards to friends touting their “Phillyosophy” and shopped at the Maker Fair, where they met members of Philadelphia’s homegrown design community.
When you are entrenched in the minute details of a program with as many dimensions as TEDxPhiladelphia, it can be difficult to see if the end goal is being realized. But as I walked through the venue, I could sense the magic happening.
Down in the basement, speakers on deck traded words of encouragement with one another as committee members and volunteers kept the show moving at a fast clip.
And there were little moments throughout the day that made me pause.
Terry Gillen, who challenged the audience to make no small plans, took a moment to flip through the Philadelphia Daily News before her talk, a reminder of the importance of the world swirling outside and our place in it.
As I hurried down the hall, I stumbled upon poet Sonia Sanchez, who was doing tai chi just moments before she delivered a powerful reading, a sure sign to keep calm and carry on. “Lean into each other’s breath and breathe as one,” she later said from the stage.
Speaker Austin Seraphin managed to locate one of the few quiet spaces in the building to catch a break. Surprisingly, that space was directly behind the stage, where I found him laughing with two friends, surrounded by a mess of cords and video equipment before his crowd-pleasing talk on accessible technology and cities and how a little product called the iPhone changed his life.
Accessibility is “in our DNA,” he said, taking a moment to describe how Philadelphia’s street grid laid out by city founder William Penn in 1682 impacts the way blind people navigate the city today.
In an email after the conference, public art curator Marsha Moss described attending TEDxPhiladelphia as an “extraordinary experience... speakers with big ideas, from chaordic thinking to sight through sound for the blind. What a vast range of creative expression and innovation.”
As co-producer of the conference, I second that emotion.
Working alongside Thaddeus Squire and Aimée Knight, and over a dozen other smart and inquisitive committee members to create this year’s conference was a mind-bending, life-affirming experience that challenged my own view of the city.
During the many months of meeting and debating, the committee offered a diverse range of perspectives as we ourselves imagined Philadelphia as a new workshop of the world and reconfigured our own place in it.
All along, I was reminded of a phrase that came up time and time again: This is a do-ocracy. Of course, some in local politics might challenge that gumption but Philadelphia’s restless and gritty energy cannot be overlooked.
This is a city that embraces those that do, a city that “rewards moxie… a place for people who come and try their luck,” as described in the trailer for the documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment,” which we screened as part of the conference.
TEDxPhiladelphia 2014 revealed the spirit that keeps this city moving, in all forms.
As former banker and credit expert Richard Vague said towards the end of his TEDxPhiladelphia talk, “Here’s a toast to those who jump.”
Emaleigh Doley is an independent communications consultant interested in how we build connections, the stories we tell and how we share them. Learn more at emaleighsays.com.