“You are supposed to be where you are.”
The single most profound and inspirational statement of TEDxBirmingham 2014 came not from among what proved to be a stellar lineup of local speakers, but from a snippet of a filmed interview with the writer and cultural critic Albert Murray. The clip that featured Murray — a native Alabamian who died in New York last summer at the age of 97 — was part of the presentation by Michele Forman, the noted documentary filmmaker and co-founder of the media studies program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Up to the point at which Murray appeared on the video screen suspended in midair to her right, Forman had been talking about the role adversity plays in building character and the value of history in illuminating the present and charting the future. She’d also spoken of the centrality of storytelling to her own life and career, as well as to the collective dreams and aspirations of neighborhoods, communities and society at large.
After Murray’s image faded from the screen and the amplified sound of his voice ceased to echo in the hall, Forman related his words to her own struggle to come to grips with the history of racial turmoil in Birmingham — the hometown she’d happily fled for a Harvard education and a career in the film business that included several years as director of development for Spike Lee’s production company and an Emmy Award nomination of her own. She became immersed in that history when Lee tasked her with primary research for 4 Little Girls, his documentary on the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
Lee’s film went on to earn an Academy Award nomination for best documentary. Helping to bring it to fruition changed Forman’s life, though not in the way you might expect. For in laying the groundwork of stories on which Lee constructed the story of the church bombing, Forman became truly connected to her hometown for the first time. Winding up her talk at the TEDx event, she spoke of that connection, and of her excitement at the current wave of civic momentum that seems to be propelling Birmingham toward something unprecedented. But she also cautioned against the danger of allowing this moment to pass — something that, as any student of Birmingham’s history knows, has happened at virtually every critical moment in the life of the city to date.
“Birmingham is full of great stories,” Forman declared. “But we have to turn our stories into actions. We are at a fairy-tale moment in Birmingham. But what kind of story are we creating?”
The problem with TED
Implicit in Forman’s question, as well as in her use of Murray’s admonition to “be where you are,” was a call for the kind of critical self-analysis in which Birmingham historically has been reluctant, if not downright unwilling, to engage. One result of that is Birmingham’s ongoing struggle to define itself in positive terms, either for its own citizens or to outside observers, to forge a collective civic identity around which the entire community can rally and unify. As Forman alluded, the real drama in this “fairy-tale moment” in which we reside at present is the question of whether Birmingham will, at long last, find its soul.
Which is not to say that we aren’t making some very notable progress in that direction — or that said progress is not being noted, in the pages of Weld and elsewhere. Last fall, as the city was wrapping up its months-long commemoration of the pivotal Civil Rights events of 1963, I shared my own conviction that things are moving in the right direction, writing in my regular Red Dirt column how refreshing it is to see our city “remaking itself, redefining what it means to live and work in Birmingham…writing our own story, shaping a new civic identity, creating our own opportunities to achieve greatness on our own terms.”
Such were the advertised preoccupations of TEDxBirmingham. Forman was one of 15 speakers featured at the all-day affair, which was held on Saturday, March 1, in the 350-seat Sirote Theater of UAB’s Alys Stephens Center (Weld was a sponsor of the event). And while not every seat was filled, the enthusiasm among most in the near-capacity crowd was palpable throughout the day. Of course, that was at least in part because the crowd was a collection of mostly like-minded people, drawn to the occasion by a dual attraction.
First, they wanted to share in the cachet of an event associated with the worldwide prominence of the “TED” brand. TED is a California-based nonprofit that is, in its own words, “devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading,” which it does, among other means, through two annual conferences that feature “the world’s leading thinkers and doers,” each speaking for a prescribed 18 minutes on a topic relative to their expertise. TEDx events are an offshoot of TED, conceived as a way of growing the brand through “a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience.” That experience includes the speeches, video elements and other components designed to “spark deep discussion and connection in a small group.”
Second, the vast majority of attendees at the March 1 event were there to affirm — and to have reaffirmed for them — their excitement about Birmingham. They were there to feel good, to feel good about feeling good, and to share the feeling of feeling good with people who feel good for the same reasons.
Not that there’s anything wrong with feeling good. Indeed, that is one of the avowed purposes of the TED model. And there is no doubt that in Birmingham, there is much about which to feel good. Our city is an exciting place to be right now, although we’d be less than truthful in not stipulating that one’s level of excitement about the current moment in Birmingham is very likely tied to one’s race, job status, income level and financial outlook. Certainly there is no disputing that the crowd at TEDxBirmingham — like the lineup of speakers — was overwhelmingly white, professional and upwardly mobile (in preemptive acceptance of deserved criticism, I acknowledge here that I fit at least the first two of those criteria).
That brings up a basic problem with the TED formula: It is by nature elitist and exclusive, right down to the fact that attendees are hand-picked by event organizers based on their responses to an application for tickets, for which those chosen then were obliged to pay $100. Local TEDx organizers reported that they received more than 800 applications for the 200-plus seats that were allotted to the general public for their event (full disclosure: my ticket was free, by virtue of Weld’s sponsorship).
This is a double-edged sword. Any TED event is a trade-off, in which the upside is that you get a lot of smart, civically oriented people in the same room — hopefully to be informed and inspired, and to make connections that will result in action on a broader scale — and the downside is that you get a lot of self-referential content that, as interesting, informative and even compelling as it might be, is tied only tangentially to larger issues at play in the community and in the world at large.
Taking responsibility for success — and failure
While unavoidably exemplary of the inherent shortcomings of the model under which it operates, TEDx Birmingham did have a good deal to offer. Among other benefits, where else would one have had the opportunity to encounter, in a single day, an international expert on cybercrime who is based at UAB, one of the nation’s leading chefs, a social media entrepreneur who founded a crowdfunding portal for health-related research and a 12-year-old cello prodigy whose public speaking skills would be the envy of most any adult?
All of the speakers acquitted themselves admirably. The very best of them, like Forman, managed to transcend the limitations of the format, including the performance-like quality of presentation it demands, striking the delicate balance between the artifice that is necessary to effective mass communication and the substance that is required to impel a commitment to action that lasts beyond the inevitable time — generally a day or two at most — when the glow of immediate inspiration wears off.
One such speaker was Victoria Hollis, program manager at the Birmingham Education Foundation. Hollis challenged the crowd to stop accepting as unalterable fact the notion that the Birmingham City Schools cannot become an asset to the city, and that the children who attend them are “throwaways.” She called for all citizens of the city to take responsibility for public education through “collective strategic action” to change the social and economic circumstances that led to the city schools’ decline and relegated the system to perennial underperformance.
“If we want to take advantage of the developmental sweet spot we’re in,” Hollis said to sustained applause, “we’ve got to do some things that are outside our comfort zone.”
Other standouts included chef Chris Hastings, a leader of Birmingham’s emergence as a “food town,” who shared his vision for making Alabama the nation’s largest producer of healthy, sustainable food — and the impacts of doing so on the state’s economy and the health of its population. Pat Hymel, a longtime emergency room physician who is now the CEO of a company devoted to patient safety issues, ostensibly spoke about how to handle failure — illustrating it with an emotional anecdote of how, as a young resident, he contributed to a man’s death through a misdiagnosis — but the talk was really about “getting to what our biases are” in every aspect of life, approaching every challenge and every opportunity with a “beginner’s mind” that allows for creative thought and the anticipation of contingencies.
Interestingly, Hymel was not the only speaker who raised the specter of failure. Hollis remarked in her talk that “It’s okay to fail sometimes,” while urging her listeners to focus less on the magnitude of the overall task of making Birmingham’s schools great than on the importance of “little everyday successes.” Jen Barnett, the former owner of Freshfully — a local-food grocery that closed just weeks ago — talked frankly about the failure of her business, the importance of “letting yourself be disappointed,” the difficulty of feeling that “you proved the naysayers right.” But she also brought the audience to life with the declaration that “they’ll have to kill me to keep me from trying again,” and her admiration for the bravery it takes to make the effort to do something new, or to work for progressive change.
“We need a city full of brave people if we’re going to get where we want to go,” Barnett said.
In this view, TEDxBirmingham was not the transformative event to which its organizers so clearly aspired. Jesus did not make an appearance. None of the daunting brace of issues with which Birmingham grapples, even as it enjoys its newfound success, has been resolved forthwith. And if any lives were deeply changed as a result of the event, then the best things the pilots of those lives could do for themselves is to get out more often, to see for themselves what is going on in this fair city — what is good, what is bad, what needs changing.
Which is not to say that good things did not, and will not, come from TEDx Birmingham. I believe they will. I further believe that the real success of any such gathering — whether it takes place in the lovely surroundings of the Alys Stephens Center, at a local bar, or in a church basement, a private home or any of the thousand other places where people who care about Birmingham gather — is in the quality of the interactions that take place there, and the actions that emerge from it.
It is this accomplishment in which the organizers of TEDx should take pride. Individually and collectively, the speakers presented a picture of people who take seriously both their jobs and the life of their city. What we got was not a sweeping vision for the future of Birmingham, but a vivid mosaic of the many small things on which such a vision can be constructed and realized.
When Glenny Brock, the volunteer coordinator for the Lyric Theatre restoration, said, “When we save the Lyric, we save ourselves”; when Graham Boettcher, the curator of American art at the Birmingham Museum of Art talked about the search for authenticity, in life as well as art; when cybercrime expert Gary Warner highlighted the leading-edge applications of technology that are coming from our city — all of that is an expression of belief in a Birmingham that is bigger than all us. It is a call to aspire continually to be more than we have been and more than we are now — a call to make Birmingham a place where everybody gets the opportunity to do what they’re good at.
Time to grow up
“Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him,” Walker Percy had the narrator of his novel The Moviegoer say. If there is an overarching piece of civic philosophy to be drawn from TEDxBirmingham, it is something very much like that. We have reached a time in the history of this city when we have to realize that there are possibilities that are closed to us — a time when we have to grow up as a city and make firm decisions about where we want to go. This is where we are now — where we’re supposed to be.
As the TEDx event showed, optimism abounds in Birmingham. But it has been, and still is, an unfocused optimism — feeling good about feeling good about the good things that are happening. We still need that overarching vision, along with a lot of hard work to achieve it. That’s going to take all of us. The burden — to do our jobs well, to take an interest in the community around us, to let go once and for all of the biases and prejudices that hold us back — is not just on the elite, not just on elected officials and business leaders and subject-matter experts, but on every person who truly cares about Birmingham.
If we fail in that, we will be relegated once again to the vagaries of perpetual promise. And all the TED talks in the world won’t save us.