…to attend a TED conference, the nec plus ultra of trendy conferences (TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design). I discovered TED talks about three years ago on ted.com, the internet site where all the talks are available free of charge. TED is a wonderful idea catalyst, a truly novel kind of university, a new venue, a unique place to share knowledge and experience from fields as diverse as science, art, economics, the environment, social sciences, and many others. Concretely, the speakers, supported by the audience, have 18 minutes to do their best presentation ever to share an idea and give the best of themselves. This celebration of knowledge and creativity creates a real community, a network of women and men who exchange projects, ideas, and of course calling cards.
My dream became a reality thanks to the first TEDWomen conference in Washington, D.C. – two days devoted to ideas and visions from women with the promising title Reshaping the future. Somewhere between emotion and pragmatism, avowed feminism and poetry, I came out of these two days as shook up as if I had been through a mixer but also energized and happy! What could be more stimulating albeit bewildering to see a cohort of seven hundred women wearing everything from stiletto heels to tennis shoes, a few men scattered here and there, coming together from diverse horizons in a country that sees big and gets into the action.
That electrifying atmosphere where suspense is raised to a pitch was created thanks to the co-organizers, June Cohen and Pat Mitchell, who were in charge of presenting seventy speakers in two days – the same number of speakers as in the usual four days of other major TED conferences. TEDWomen was a genuine marathon, every moment an opportunity for exchange, from the conference room to the other smaller rooms and even the toilets. Also available were many areas set up to let people stay connected with the world via Twitter, Skype, and a hundred other TEDx conferences (independent events organized under the TED license) associated with TEDWomen. Energy was high, carried along by the dynamic music that introduced each new session, like the dinner moving into the dance phase with Angélique Kidjo and the closing celebration in the bright new United States Institute of Peace, not yet open to the public. It was definitely the place to be!
When next I set foot on Parisian soil, I realized that I had taken a giant step in my mind. Inspiration comes after a period of integration, like a sort of rite of passage, or getting over jet lag, letting me perceive things differently and see the relationships between Europe and the United States, between ideas and action. It is not easy to summarize the entire conferences, of course. Certain speakers touched me by their presence and functioned as mentors, others impressed with their vigorous conviction and combative stance. I particularly remember the sensitive intelligence of Madeleine Albright who said, her eyes sparkling like those of a little girl, “Read my pins” and announced that “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” I remember an image of Indian policemen and prisoners all seated in the lotus position, learning meditation from Kiran Bedi as part of a reform of the prison system driven by the philosophy that prevention is better than punishment. Donna Karan created a foundation she called Urban Zen when she was experiencing calm in the midst of chaos. There was the power of compassion, which helps us deal with all kinds of situations and improves our immune system, explained by Joan Halifax using the archetypical image of a woman with a thousand arms, each hand holding a tool for liberation and an eye to see reality. Halla Tomasdottir in her black dress and red high-heeled shoes is a financial analyst who is saving Iceland by applying women’s values to the economy – focusing on consciousness of risks, authentic communication, building on emotional capital, making profit with principles. Liza Donnelly’s humorous cartoons in The New Yorker take a new look at “political correctness” with clever drawings. There was a photo of Elisabeth Lindsey and her mentor, a Hawaiian navigator who taught her to navigate using the stars, forehead to forehead: “True navigation begins in the heart” she said. The charged voice of Tony Porter encouraged men to step out of their “man box” to stop violence against women. An image of an oyster, an organic form and a treasure of our ecosystem, was used by Kate Orff, architect and landscape designer, to rethink the city of New York. There emerged the idea of a digital identity for what is becoming a digital life: a “digital self” that can be dressed every morning, and a panegyric on the latest superstar, the Moringa tree, a miracle plant with multiple nutritional qualities. The magnificent gaze of felines by Beverly and Dereck Joubert that celebrate wild nature and healthy aggression. Rufus Griscom and Alisa Volkman’s graphic designs unveil the taboos underlying family life – they have created a website for parents at sea. Elisabeth Lesser talked about “the tendency to otherise” and invites this “other”, considered the enemy, to come to dinner. Seheir Hammad’s spellbinding voice reciting a poem, because “Poetry makes you choose to do the things you wouldn’t have chosen”. Young Sejal Hathi, only 18, demonstrates her serious commitment to promoting mutual aid and sorority through her many websites, such as “Girls helping girls”. Caroline Casey exemplified the unstoppable energy of self-confidence – although blind, she traveled 1000 kilometers on the back of an elephant to find funding for her foundation: “Being true to yourself is actually being free, and you don’t need eyes to see.” Eve Ensler gave a poignant speech on the difficulties involved in her relationship to her body: “If you are divided from your body, you are divided from the body of the earth”. Last but not least, a surprise guest, Hillary Clinton, emphasized to one of the leitmotifs of these two days: “Give women equal rights, and an entire nation is more stable and secure.”
And of course, so many other things… so many speakers, so many moments of emotion and inspiration that open us up to other things. There was only one downside: it was too short! TED is an inexhaustible resource that enables everyone to answer the question: “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” I’m left with yet another dream: to attend many more TED conferences!
A special thanks for the translation to Roberta Faulhaber.