“We’ve never stopped being the Magic City, but we’d lost the ability to recognize it,” says Dr. Sarah Parcak, 2012 TED Fellow and organizer of TEDxBirmingham 2014.
That is the idea behind “Rediscovering the Magic,” the theme for the 2014 TEDxBirmingham event scheduled for March 1 at the Alys Stephens Center, an event put on by Parcak and fellow organizer Matthew Hamilton, along with their team of 10 volunteers.
TEDx events are an offshoot of the TED Conference, which began in 1984 with a commitment to “Ideas Worth Spreading.” TED itself is an acronym for Technology, Entertainment, Design. TED was founded in Silicon Valley and became a global series of conferences.
“The thought is,” Hamilton says, “that through ideas you can change how people think. If you can change how people think, you can change how they act. If you can change how they act, you can change the world.”
In March of 2009, TED started the TEDx initiative. The organization has two annual conferences, the TED Conference and TEDGlobal, but wanted to allow smaller communities to have their own events. “The x stands for independently organized event,” Hamilton says.
Hamilton had much to do with the independent organizing. Moving to Birmingham in early 2013 from North Carolina, he felt happy when he saw that there was going to be a TEDxBirmingham 2013 event. He says, “I was just kind of excited, like, ‘Oh maybe I’ll get to attend.’”
When he saw the event was cancelled, he got in touch with the organizers via Twitter.
Hamilton met with one of the organizers, a group of volunteers who had put on a TEDxBirmingham event in 2011, and learned that the event was being cancelled simply because the volunteer group had too many other ongoing personal and professional projects. “That’s when it became apparent: Well, if anyone’s going to make it happen, I guess I’ve got to step up to the plate,” he says.
Around that time, Innovation Depot President and CEO Susan Matlock introduced Hamilton to Parcak. The meeting went well, Hamilton says. “We hashed the plans together to take over the reins for TEDxBirmingham.”
One of the advantages of meeting with Parcak was her status as a 2012 TED Fellow. TED selects 40 fellows a year, and each one gives a speech, often called the “talk of their life,” at the TED Conference during the week-long event held in Vancouver, B.C.
Parcak, an associate professor of anthropology at UAB, spoke on space archaeology.
Her TED Fellow status allows the conference to exceed the 100-person limit set if none of the organizers has been to the TED Conference. “That’s why the previous TEDxBirmingham was small. They had about 80 attendees. We don’t have that restriction,” Hamilton says.
The event has 350 seats available, each $100, and includes the full day’s attendance, a gourmet box lunch, and a post-event reception catered by Chris Hastings of Hot and Hot Fish Club, who is speaking at the event. Scholarships are available for students and K-12 educators.
“We aren’t just selling tickets to the event,” Hamilton says. “It’s not like first-come, first-serve, you get a ticket.” Hopeful attendees must go to the TEDxBirmingham website and apply for an invitation. The deadline for applications is Jan. 15, and invitations with a code to purchase tickets will be emailed out in late January.
“I think anyone with a passion for Birmingham should apply,” Parcak says. “Whether you’re a lawyer, teacher, student or a homemaker — we want a diverse audience with diverse perspectives.”
The audience’s diversity may be an issue because of the cost. “Charging the money is [necessary] because there’s cost to put it on,” Hamilton says, noting that the available scholarships will make it possible for some to attend who might not be able to otherwise.
Other Birminghamians who cannot afford the price tag may simply have to wait. Hamilton writes in a follow-up email, “It’s our goal in the future to make TEDxBirmingham as accessible as possible, which may include a larger venue with more seats, lower ticket prices, more scholarships, and better marketing to all communities in Birmingham. Some of that is predicated upon the success of this year’s event and our ability to secure more sponsorship in the future.” As an example he notes TEDxAtlanta, which has held nine events in five years and offers free admission.
Speaker diversity may also be an issue. Of the 15 speakers, 13 are white, according to their online headshots. Hamilton confirms, “We were really not selecting speakers based on demographics; we were selecting based upon what they have to talk about.” To the question of racial homogeneity, he says, “It wasn’t designed that way.”
Some speakers were recommended and approached by the TEDx volunteers. The organizers also took nominations online and had an open audition process in which anyone could post a 60-second YouTube video of him- or herself. The organizers selected two from the 18 submitted via that method.
From the 50+ nominations received altogether, 33 percent were from minorities, with 22 percent African-American and 11 percent other minorities. Forty-five percent were from women. “We approached nominees based upon their expertise, story, and ideas, and were blind to their race and gender,” Hamilton writes. In an earlier conversation, though, he says, “When we first starting picking people, it was also more weighted towards men than women.” Now eight of the 15 speakers are women.
Speakers range from 12-year-old concert cellist Malik Kofi to computer forensics expert Gary Warner. Except for Jordan Reeves, a UAB alumnus speaking on counterintuitive LGBT stereotypes, the speakers all reside in Birmingham. “We decided this year to keep it all local to really highlight the voices in the city,” Hamilton says.
Whether a majority-white lineup of speakers can highlight this city is another question. Hamilton says, “I would think that a lot of the underrepresented racial minorities in the community just don’t know about TED and don’t know about TEDx, and that’s not a byproduct of us picking speakers.”
Is it a byproduct of the method used to reach out to speakers? That point is unclear. But it is clear that in Birmingham, where the majority of residents are black, it is the minority population which is represented demographically by the speakers for the event.
Participation is important to the organizers, however. “We also want people who are willing to share their stories and who are willing to commit to active engagement, whether it is running a TEDxWomen/Youth event, volunteering in schools or starting a local nonprofit,” Parcak says.
“What we don’t want it to be,” Hamilton says, “is a day-long event where you come and you hear 15 great speakers put out some awesome ideas, and then at the end of the day you go back to your normal life and nothing changes.”
The city itself has been highlighted in the past several years. “I think Birmingham is at a crucial tipping point in its history,” Parcak says. “There has been enormous growth in the last three to four years, and it has not gone unnoticed.”
Parcak cites stories in The New York Times, the Associated Press and National Geographic Magazine.
“Whatever unknown forces were holding the city back are long gone,” she continues. “This change needs to be celebrated by our community.”
Hamilton agrees. “If you look at things that have happened in 2013, there have just been some amazing developments in urban revitalization, the Barons moving back downtown; we got named several times by different places like Forbes and National Geographic […] as one of the hot up-and-coming cities.”
He tempers his excitement. “We’re not there yet. We still have work to do as a community.”
“We want to use the event as a force multiplier,” Parcak says. “I believe people will leave the day feeling re-energized and inspired and more willing to be engaged and use their skills and passions to make Birmingham even better.”
In addition to hoping community members change Birmingham from the inside, the organizers hope the conference helps with outside marketing. Hamilton cites the Birmingham Business Alliance, REV Birmingham and the Community Foundation as organizations that can use the conference to draw “more attention, more money, more companies and more talents” to Birmingham.
Hamilton hopes that the TEDx event says to the rest of the country, “No, we’re not a backwards southern town where people don’t wear shoes. [Birmingham] may be a small city, but it’s still a city. It’s vibrant, it’s progressive.”
To Birmingham he says, “We are a great city.”