Students, faculty, and community members engaged in conversation over cups of warm coffee and Bon Appétit’s famous brownies last Saturday (March 1) in the echoing lobby of Herrick Hall Auditorium.
This conversational interlude was a “break” from the four hours of inspirational talks sponsored by the first-ever TEDxDenisonU event, an independent TED Talk experience subsidized by the Spectrum Series and the Denison University Entrepreneurship Program and hosted by University President Adam Weinberg.
The 15-minute breaks, weren’t really “breaks” at all, but planned moments of conversation, allowing audience participants to reflect on presentations and enjoy several prerecorded TED Talks from conferences around the world. At Denison, the event featured 13 presenters, the majority of whom were students, addressing this year’s campus theme, “Real Utopias.”
The popularity of TED Talks—which have included inspiring lectures from folks like Bill Gates, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Jane Goodall, and Sheryl Sandberg — has led the nonprofit to create a spinoff, TEDx, made up of local, self-organized talks taking place all over the country.
The purpose of TEDxDenisonU was to inspire. As the staff organizers of this event, Stephanie Hunt-Theophilus and Marlaine Browning, said at the beginning of the afternoon, “We created this event because we know that you are the key to positive change, to progress, to hope for a more utopian society. No pressure, right?”
So, what is a utopia? Presenters had differing ideas on the topic.
For sophomore Mac Sellars ’16, an English major and the first speaker, the perfect world is a place of vulnerability — a difficult task in an age where technology and social media allow us to “edit out the parts of ourselves we don’t like and flaunt the parts of ourselves we do.”
His call, to the audience and himself, was to “risk rejection” in the search for intimacy. Only then can you understand “what is beautiful about friendship — affirmation, acceptance, and belonging.”
The utopia of Chris Ramsey, self-appointed social-consciousness-raiser/entrepreneur and owner of the Newark’s Sparta restaurant, is a transformed version of Newark, Ohio. How do you change a small town where 7.3 percent of people are unemployed and 7,000 kids are hungry, he asked at the beginning of his speech. The answer, Ramsey argued, is to give up “old patterns” of thinking and philanthropy for a new “openness and compassion.”
“We’re not giving a man a fish or teaching him how to fish,” Ramsey said. “We’re sitting there and fishing with him.”
The faculty were also eager to join the conversation. Olivia Aguilar, assistant professor of environmental studies, shared her plan of a utopia where society made no (or at least a smaller) environmental impact. By creating and participating in a “No Impact Week” assignment for one of her classes based on Colin Beavan’s book No Impact Man, Aguilar also revealed how she is spreading her vision.
Speakers for the afternoon were selected by a planning committee made up of students and led by Hunt-Theophilus, Denison’s entrepreneurship program coordinator, based on proposals and in-person auditions. Altogether, the selection process took close to six months, and the final product was available for all to enjoy through a live online stream.
Students who were unable to score tickets to the sold-out event gathered in Slayter Auditorium for a remote simulcast, a more informal setting, where many enjoyed free popcorn, worked on homework, and applauded every presenter — even though the speakers over in Herrick weren’t able to hear them.