Harlem has long been known for its artists and literary figures who gave birth to the first Harlem Renaissance, in the 1920s. It was that creative legacy that inspired the organizers of the first-ever TEDxHarlem on Tuesday at Riverside Church.
TEDx events are independently produced spinoffs of the exclusive annual TED conferences. Created more than 30 years ago, TED — which stands for technology, education and design — brings together creative thinkers and innovators to share outside-the-box ideas. Events such as TEDxHarlem embody TED's motto of "ideas worth sharing."
One of the issues with bringing a TEDx to Harlem was that the brand didn't register with some residents, said Marcus Glover, one of the event organizers. He said he began introducing the idea of TEDxHarlem to the neighborhood 18 months ago.
"What we sought to do was to use the Harlem Renaissance to suggest that 'thought leadership' was not something foreign or new to the Harlem community," said Glover. "We were thought leaders before it was ever called this cool buzzword.
"First we went door to door to most of the people who were doing important work — churches, community-based organizations, grassroots organizations, foundations, schools. It was important to lay the groundwork for this type of event." (Even with the outreach, there were still some concerns. One of the criticisms of the event was that the $100 ticket price — plus $16 in fees — was unaffordable for many Harlem residents. A venue change — from the Apollo Theater to Riverside Church — allowed organizers to reduce the price to $20.)
Glover hopes TEDxHarlem can be more than an annual event. "We want to be a galvanizing force for Harlem. We would like to cultivate idea people, visionaries, on a year-round basis and then give them the platform TEDxHarlem."
Using the theme "Creating Waves," TEDxHarlem fostered the notion that ideas can cause ripple effects that can spread to many places. It featured more than 20 innovators, performers and activists from a variety of fields — from environmental activist Majora Carter to chef Marcus Samuelsson, who gave a series of lectures and demonstrations that were meant to provoke thought and inspire action.
The audience members were a mix of Harlem business leaders, residents and students. Michelle Newson, owner of Onederland Events, said TEDxHarlem was a new way for her to make connections. "It's just so great to keep expanding that network, especially with people in Harlem that you didn't even know lived right down the street from you and they're doing such amazing things." Newson also understands that this event is only the beginning for creating change in the community. "The seed is planted and now we just have to grow it and make it happen."
Julian Riley, a Harlem resident who is working on opening a brewery called Harlem Blue, came to TEDxHarlem simply to soak in the vibe. "I like being around innovative, creative sparks. Anytime we have creative heads in the room, I want to be there," he said.
With more than 20 speakers offering a rich diversity of ideas, we recapped 10 of the best speakers and presenters (videos of the presentations will be available at TedxHarlem or through the iPhone app in about a week).
Michael A. Walrond Jr.
Walrond, senior pastor for First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem, opened the conference with an inspirational speech calling for everyone to unleash their creativity and find the "passion for the possible," which is also the title of a book by former Riverside Church pastor William Sloane Coffin. Waldron said Coffin "reminded us that all of us who have wonderful ideals, who are innovative thinkers who are people who believe not in what is but what can be, must all enlist in a rebellion. To rebel and enlist in the fight in the abolition of the impossible."
Bruce Duncan With Android Bina48
Duncan is the project leader of LifeNaut, an online project where people can create a "mindfile," a personal digital archive that serves as a "backup" to each person's own mind. Duncan said LifeNaut hopes to one day upload those mindfiles into avatars or robots to re-animate everyone's personalities, which is how the robot Bina48 was created. As Bina48 answered questions from the audience, one couldn't help thinking of Siri, iPhone's digital assistant. But unlike Siri, whose gets information from the Internet, Bina48 was sharing data from an actual human being.
Duncan also noted it's important to recognize that we're sharing our personal data on sites that have their own agenda. "There's so much being uploaded onto the Internet for other businesses. Facebook is a platform for marketing; you're just going along for the ride," he said. "We think the time when people should be the stewards of their own life information is now."
Barton and his company, Local Projects, were asked to develop a better way for communities to share and execute ideas. "The key is to look at cities not as places of scarce resources that need be fought over but to look at cities as places of communities with shared goals." This idea of finding a common ground led to Change by Us NYC, an ambitious project that gives New York residents a platform to help make their city better.
Belsky, founder and CEO of Behance, offered tips on how people and companies can push ideas forward, starting with a simple equation: "Creativity times organization equals the impact you'll make with your ideas. You can have the greatest ideas and creativity in the world but if you have zero organization, you'll have no impact." Focusing and organizing around one great idea is better than bouncing from one idea to another, Belsky said. He pointed out that one of the most creative companies in the world, Apple, is also one of the most organized.
Carroll's speech on the power of play asked everyone to tap into the creative energy of childhood. "Play is about timeless ideas. It doesn't matter what you do, you got to have time for play," said the author and motivational speaker. "You have those lonely moments, that quiet time … to encourage yourself to turn dreams and ideas into reality."
In 1988, Shepard helped create WE ACT, New York City's first environmental justice organization created to improve quality of life in communities of color. "The greatest challenge for the next generation is the struggle for environmental justice," she said. Shepard discussed ways to build sustainable communities and how to get results, such as getting New York City to address the toxic emissions from bus depots — most of them in Harlem — by switching to alternative fuels and doing a diesel retrofit on every bus in the city.
A world-renowned chef, Samuelsson began rethinking how he could have an positive impact after 9/11. He discussed ways to revive "food deserts" with green markets and restaurants, like Red Rooster, that best reflect the community. "Urban renewal does not mean Negro removal, James [Baldwin] taught us that," Samuelsson said.
As founder and superintendent of Harlem-based Democracy Prep, Andrew showed what is possible when there are high expectations placed on low-income students. Each scholar — as Andrew calls students — is expected to "work hard. Go to college. Change the world." Andrews said it was important to prepare students to lead lives of active citizenship, an idea lost on public schools focused on test scores.
As head of the Mama Foundation, Higgensen uses the power of music to motivate and inspire teens to succeed. The foundation's Gospel for Teens program, along with the musical "Mama, I Wanna Sing!" has been a showcase for a generation of singers.
Fetterman, who is the mayor of Braddock, Pa. (pop. 2,300), faces severe challenges. As a reminder of those struggles, Fetterman has the town's ZIP code tattooed on one arm and the dates of murders tattooed on the other. The once-thriving community, located 10 miles outside downtown Pittsburgh, is now the poorest community in Allegheny County. Fetterman shared some of the things he's doing to help turn the town around, and clearly what he's doing is working — he hasn't added a new tattoo in four years.
Genetta M. Adams is a contributor to The Root.