Hanover Hosts TEDx Talks

  • TEDx Dartmouth talks speaker Bobbi Wegner a clinical psychologist gives her talk in Hanover, N.H., on April 21, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • TEDx Dartmouth talks organizers Brenda Miao, left, Arvind Suresh, and Heather Flokos check audience members in before the start of the talk in Hanover, N.H., on April 21, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, April 21, 2018

Hanover — Standing at the front of the auditorium in his open blazer and button-down shirt, Alex Danilowicz, 20, bent his knees and waved his hands to emphasize his words, his glasses charmingly dark-framed as he talked in a way that was polished, but not too polished.

“Today we’re going to hear about the crises facing our oceans, immigration in the United States, health system science, what it means to be a feminist, the importance of meeting new people and other ideas worth spreading,” he told the Filene Auditorium crowd of nearly 200 that had pre-booked tickets for the privilege of, on the first picture-perfect spring Saturday of the year, listening to a lecture series.

Danilowicz didn’t come up with the phrase “ideas worth spreading” on his own. That’s the slogan and mission statement of TED, a nonprofit that was founded in 1984 and which today posts thousands of lecture videos online beneath its simple red block-letter logo.

TED has become a brand with a reputation for choosing speakers who can find the sweet spot between expertise and engagement, and it allows local groups — in this case, a group of enthusiastic Dartmouth College students — to organize and host grass-roots versions of the format, called “TEDx.”

Twenty-year-old Arvind Suresh, an organizer for TEDx Dartmouth, said he and other volunteers applied for permission to hold the event last year, and got a green light from TED in August. They spent the months since lining up speakers and organizing every detail, from microphones for the speakers to doughnuts for the attendees.

Danilowicz, who hosted the daylong event, told the audience that the theme of the day was “paradigm shifts.”

“There are paradigm shifts happening all around us,” he said, shortly before introducing the first speaker, Alice Liou. “We may just not be aware of them.”

Liou, a 26-year-old Dartmouth graduate who’s currently pursuing a Ph.D. in social studies education at Columbia University, began speaking, while on a projector screen behind her, words appeared related to her topic: greatness.

“Growing up, it was so important for me to be great,” Liou said. “I wanted to be great. Everything I did was in pursuit of becoming great. For my parents, who are first-generation immigrants, it was so important for me — ”

But then Liou interrupted herself. She’d hit a mental snag in her meticulously memorized speech.

“I’m sorry, can I start over? I’m so nervous,” she said, drawing a round of supportive applause.

Later, during a break, Liou explained why she’d found the experience more nerve-wracking than her typical lecture to students.

“The pressure comes from the fact that it was livestreamed,” she said, noting that she wanted a clean take for the video editors who would post the video for global consumption. “I wanted it to be true to what I wrote.”

And that capacity for human error is part of what gives TEDx the flavor of an engaging live performance, Danilowicz said.

“It’s special,” he said. “It takes everything good from TED — they’re in the ivory tower — and now you get local experts, students, teachers and professionals from the community, teaching.”

As Liou got into the meat of her 20-minute talk, her nervousness dissipated. She told the attentive audience that greatness — the idea of superior individual achievement as the best path to a fulfilling life — is a deeply flawed concept.

“Greatness reinforces working hard,” she said. “But working hard does not address the fact that some people work tirelessly just to meet their basic needs. ... Greatness makes it normal to work endlessly just to get by.”

The pursuit of greatness not only leaves most people with a sense of unfulfillment, but it also de-emphasizes the quiet work that can lead to happiness and political achievement.

“If we only learn about movements through great saint-like individuals like (Martin Luther King Jr.), then we signal to young people and adults alike ... that they must achieve at the same level.”

Instead, Liou argued for the celebration of organizational achievements, like those of the volunteers who helped to arrange for the transportation logistics that made the civil rights movement of the ’60s possible. She advocated for doing away with achievement lists, awards, classroom grades and other measures of greatness, and to instead shift the discourse toward “growth, wellness and solidarity” rather than greatness.

Liou was followed by eight other speakers whose thought-provoking topics fit under the general theme of a “paradigm shift,” including a spoken word performance by Sabyne Pierre (who began, “If I could have a superpower I would choose to not be invisible”) and the playing of two previously recorded videos of Dartmouth alumni James Nachtwey (a photojournalist) and Shonda Rhimes (creator of the medical drama Grey’s Anatomy).

Joseph Rosen, a professor of surgery at the Geisel School of Medicine and an engineering professor, spoke of the recent government-funded push for the mass production of laboratory-grown human organs, like kidneys.

“There’s a billion people around the world that we can now, when they come into our office, rather than giving them a treatment every day of their lives, we can give them a new organ,” he said.

And Bobbi Wegner, a clinical psychologist at Boston Behavioral Medicine who teaches at Harvard University, talked about her own efforts as “an average mom fumbling my way through raising three feisty kids” to embrace the term “feminist,” and to raise her children to do the same.

People’s brains don’t embrace gender stereotypes “to be mean or cruel or sexist,” she said. “They’re just trying to be efficient” by creating an often ill-advised shortcut to understanding other people.

“We can move forward if we acknowledge it and make a choice to do something different,” she said. “A feminist is simply a person who believes in equality for men and women. ... If somebody asks, say, ‘Yes, I am a feminist.’ ”

The quick dip into such a diverse array of heady and powerful ideas, Danilowicz said, is what makes a lecture series like TEDx a powerful draw for mainstream audiences who just want to enjoy the experience of learning.

“They’re really ideas to be stolen,” he said. “Stolen in a way to spark conversation, so you can develop real opinions and become a better person.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.