“Daddy, what’s a racist?”
Ahmad Ward’s then eight-year-old daughter asked him this question, after seeing NFL player Riley Cooper use a racial slur on television. Ward had been trying to introduce the reality of racism in America slowly over time to both of his children, and described his “rubber meets the road moment” — the moment he said all black parents in the United States have with their children.
“I had to sit them down, look them in the eye, and tell them: ‘No matter how nice and kind you are, no matter how smart you are and how many degrees you obtain, no matter all the good work you may do for the community, and for the world, some people are going to hate you, just because you exist. And you’ve got to be able to deal with that.’ Having to say that to a child is soul-crushing. There are few things worse than watching your children’s eyes well up as they struggle under the notion of something so unnatural.”
Ward, the vice president of the Education and Exhibitions department at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, was one of 17 featured speakers at TEDx Birmingham 2016, held at UAB’s Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center. An audience of 617 heard the talks and connected what happened in Birmingham to a worldwide movement built around thoughtful discussions about important topics.
TED’s acronym — Technology, Education, Design — drives its “Ideas Worth Spreading” mission. The 30-year old California-based nonprofit organization offers guidance, “TED Talks,” and video to all TEDx events, which since 2009 have been independently organized but linked by brand to TED. Birmingham co-organizer Matthew Hamilton noted that there were 29 other TEDx events happening simultaneously all over the world on March 12, 2016.
Marketed as an independently organized TED event, TEDx Birmingham is a local, all volunteer run conference. This year’s TEDx Birmingham event carried the theme “Pure Imagination,” but it was broken up into three sessions with their own optimistic themes: hold your breath, make a wish, change the world.
“TED just hit one billion views on YouTube. We really are part of a global community,” Hamilton said. One of Birmingham’s TEDx connections with the international event is particularly strong this year: TEDx Birmingham organizer Sarah Parcak, a UAB associate professor of anthropology, National Geographic fellow and TED Senior Fellow, is the recipient of the 2016 TED Prize. The million-dollar prize will enable Parcak to bring her pioneering space archaeology work to the entire planet.
Shining a light on race
Ward’s talk, in the second session of the TEDx event, was intensely personal, yet had a very public message: do not brush off or ignore racism in America. Audience members were moved to tears as Ward shared his story, and how he copes daily with racial disparity.
He discussed having to brush off some experiences just to make it from day to day: People suddenly clutching their purses or locking their car doors in his presence. Being mistaken for the valet in New York, Washington, D.C. and at the Birmingham Country Club.
He talked about people of color having conversations about race the same way people discuss table manners or how to ride a bike: casual, everyday, yet very necessary conversations. Ward said he walked away from that tough conversation with his daughters feeling guilty because he hadn’t discussed race and racism with them sooner. “This is a hard job, but I need to try,” he said. “We need to try.”
Ward said that “race is the most successful social construct in the history of the world. And it puts us in these nice little boxes and categories. And we’ve all — all —been indoctrinated into that process. We readily accept those roles and boxes to our detriment. And whether we like it or not, race is a part and parcel of the very fabric of our country.”
He said, however, that “brushing off racism” takes a toll over the years, and noted that is it is a trauma being passed down to younger generations. He argued that slavery and displacement of native people helped create a category of “other” which flies in the face of the very idea of the United States. “All men are created equal,” Ward said, “unless they aren’t.”
Ward recommended that people consider doing something other than just ignoring racism when it appears. “The next time someone says a racial epithet or dismisses someone because of a cultural difference, don’t struggle over words, don’t shut down, don’t run away,” he said. “Do something about that situation. Fix that problem. Intervene in that moment. Be an advocate for someone who needs it.
“Teaching our children to deal with conflicts in this manner will only strengthen them in the long run and maybe will keep them from making the same mistakes that we have made by running away and brushing it off. Racism chips away at us at an early age. Let’s prevent those fractures before they happen.”
Race was a common theme for several TEDx Birmingham talks. Lonnie Hannon, associate professor of sociology at Tuskegee University, spoke about overcoming forces that can prevent African-American boys from succeeding. “The context of American greatness is often skewed toward white,” he said. “People who have been systematically ignored need new pathways to success through HBCUs. Please, America, work with me to create more pathways to prosperity.”
Young adult novelist and WBHM employee Randi Pink attended a different HBCU (historically black college or university): Alabama State. She grew up in one of the nicest neighborhoods in Alabama as a teenager, what she described as “Mayberry, a Prius-hatchback kind of place.” But a background largely immersed in white culture resulted in quite a shock when she went off to ASU, which was, other than church, her first all-black environment. It led her to think about preconceptions, which she talked about with the TEDx audience.
“I judged Alabama State University before setting foot on the campus,” Pink said later. “I never would’ve attended, but no other school accepted me. I’m not proud of this, but it’s the truth. My own preconceived notions nearly cost me the most beautiful and transformative years of my life. I walked into that school a confused child rejecting my own culture and graduated a proud black woman. ASU peeled away the phony layers, and I found myself hiding inside — beautiful and whole. I met my husband there. I began to realize own my potential there. I found freedom in the last place I would’ve thought to explore, and hopefully that resonated with someone in the audience.”
Comedian Chris Davis closed out the day’s program, noting that Randi Pink and Ahmad Ward’s TEDx talks about race resonated with him. Davis said people often tell him, “You sound like a white person! Black people would say ‘You don’t sound like us’ and white people would say ‘You don’t sound like us… Muppet. Don’t drag us into this!’”
His final joke of the night directly poked fun at the social construct of race. “I just want to put this to rest, being judged like this…it’s just silly. Everybody sounds the way they sound, and acts the way they act. I just want to put this to rest, right now, in front of all you people, okay? I may not act black, I may not talk black, I may not behave black, but I’ll you this… I’m black where it counts, if you know what I mean. I have sickle cell!”
A number of the TEDx speakers came from or worked for UAB, including epidemiologist Olivia Affuso, whose talk focused on what she contends is the danger of relying on Body Mass Index (BMI), as an indicator of health. “BMI sucks,” she said, adding that BMI can be a matter of life or death because it can be used to deny people health care. Affuso is developing new ways to assess body composition at UAB, using a computer 3-D model to measure body volume in pixels. “There has to be a better way,” she said. “We want to know: can we accurately measure body composition without BMI?”
Other speakers who work for UAB included:
- Graduate student Garrison Linn, a researcher in quantum physics and relativity, who is working with robots. “Robots have no concern where the path is going,” he said. “We must engage in open-ended exploration and goal-driven work.”
- Marine biologist Jim McClintock, an Antarctic explorer and author. “[Antarctica] is amazing. The size of India and China combined with 70 percent of our fresh water locked in its icy cap. It serves as a barometer of global change. It foretells our future.”
- Biologist Steven Austad, who is working to change the trajectory of the human lifespan. “Science has found ways to delay our dying, but science has not found a way to delay our aging,” he said. Through his research on the effects of diet and nutrition on the aging process, he is convinced that by changing our notion of the life cycle, “we can do better. I think we have better ideas.”
- Writer Amy Bickers, who shared the experience of witnessing her ex-husband’s suicide. His note read, “I’m so sorry. This is very hard.” She spoke about the trap of waiting for what’s next, wanting to be saved, and finding peace by coming to terms with “What feels true versus what simply feels good.”
- Medical futurist Rubin Pillay, professor of Healthcare Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Collat School of Business and assistant dean for Global Health Innovation at the UAB School of Medicine, pointed out that the U.S. healthcare system is itself unhealthy. “Patients are at the mercy of their physicians and health systems,” Pillay said. Using the example of a new “smart” contact lens that measures glucose levels, he said that technology is changing healthcare to the point where doctors may become obsolete: “You can become the CEO of your own health. Doctors optional.”
TEDx Birmingham also featured a number of speakers who work in education or related fields.
Donna Dukes, founder and executive director of the Maranathan Academy, works with critically at-risk youth, and believes the ability to dream creates hope. “Young people who don’t have hope don’t care what they do to themselves, or anybody else,” Dukes said. “They don’t have hope.” Her work advocates for the creation of a sense of safety, love and in turn, success.
Fifth-grade teacher Al Elliott began his TEDx talk with an image of a handwritten note often clandestinely passed in elementary school, the kind that asks Do you like me? Yes or no? “We all want to be liked. We all serve as a validating institution for each other,” said Elliott, who believes imagination begins with the spark of an idea, and the willingness to share that idea with the world. He often writes hip-hop music and uses it as a teaching tool with his students. “As long as I’m learning with them, they are my classmates. Know that you are a validating institution.”
Inspired by her brother Jordan, who was born with Down’s Syndrome, Lindy Cleveland began her work as an advocate for adults with developmental disabilities. She described her brother’s childlike, joyful approach to life as the main reason she launched UnlessU, a nonprofit school she described as “a disability respectful college-like environment, a place where adults with developmental disabilities are not seen through the lens of their disability but rather through what they offer their community.”
Jonathan Owen, director of the youth organization Camp Straight Street, spoke about the importance of not labeling kids. “It’s so easy to peg someone, label them, before we really know who they are,” he said, adding that calling kids “good,” “bad,” or “weird” becomes a barrier to understanding what makes each child an individual.
The artistic view
There were also several artists among the TEDx speakers.
Painter Terry Strickland creates art about personal experiences. Her talk focused on her paintings of other people, which she described, nevertheless, as self-portraits. “Representational art speaks the visual language of humanity. The images are readable because they are in the language of all of us,” Strickland said.
Calligrapher Deb Warnat sat at a table and practiced her art for the TEDx Birmingham audience. “Have you ever considered how amazing and intricate the art of writing is?” Warnat asked. “We humans are the only creatures on earth with the ability to write and also to express ourselves through writing.”
Renee Keene, who creates pieces made of art made from reclaimed wood, learned from her father how to work with tools. “Just about anything can be transformed into something new and different. You start to notice that there is art all around,” she said. Keene prefers the imperfection of found materials. “I get to give these materials a second chance in life. Claim and reclaim yourself.”
Writer Tammy Harper urged the audience to stop checking their electronic communications devices so often, noting that people are spending an average of 7.5 hours a day looking at screens. “Time without screens means more human connection,” Harper said.
TEDx Birmingham organizers said they would have edited video from this year’s conference on YouTube as early as next week. The live streaming archive is now available online: http://livestream.com/tedx/tedxbirmingham2016 Birmingham’s contribution will become a permanent part of the global TEDx conference video archive. For more information visit tedxbirmingham.org/
A completely separate event, TEDxUAB is expected to be held April 9. For more information about that event, visit www.uab.edu/tedxuab