TEDxDurham at Carolina Theatre

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At the Carolina Theatre last Saturday, 21 speakers unleashed captivating ideas, stories and missions meant to solve problems in each of their domains. 

But there was a common thread at the inaugural TEDxDurham—a collective appreciation for Durham and a dedication towards advancing the city and its people. The event also carried a salute to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which has dominated national conversation after a week of heightened racial tension. 

Though most speakers didn’t represent “entrepreneurship/startups” in a traditional sense, each is an innovator. And all of their talks centered around social missions, which compliments Durham’s growing emphasis on social entrepreneurship.

A few presenters shared how they are using technology to solve medical and health-related problems both for individuals and communities.

There’s Jess Jur, a professor from NC State’s College of Textiles who leads the research group Nano-EXtended Textiles, which meshes wearable technology with fabrics. With him on stage was NC State graduate Jazsalyn McNeil wearing a dress she designed. The gown was adorned with LED lights that flickered with the detection of her heartbeat. Jurr’s goal is to develop and bring to market stylish, wearable technology like the dress, that can be used to track heartbeat patterns over time. It’s a new method toward preventative health care.

Nirmish Shah is also focused on medical/health intervention. Through his role as director of Duke’s sickle cell transition program, he noticed the need for patients to regularly manage their symptoms and medications without having to make back-and-forth trips to the doctor. 

He has two apps under the name Sickle cell Mobile Application to Record symptoms via Technology, or SMARTA. One educates patients about their illness and helps them manage their home medication regimen through a fun incentive—sending their doctors video selfies taking their medication as prescribed. The other app keeps a log of patients’ symptoms and stressors to predict future pain in the same way that weather apps predict precipitation.

Another social innovator focused on health is Allison Matthews, a Doctor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who is crowdsourcing a cure for HIV online with a project called 2BeatHIV. A series of social media campaigns and creative content contests help build awareness about HIV testing, which Matthews hopes will give researchers a better understanding of how patients are affected by the disease.

Other talks shared similar social-impact missions.

A long-time multimedia artist, Tarish Pipkins incorporates puppetry into teaching kids creative expression at Just Right Academy in Durham. Along with Dina the Dinosaur, one of his handmade, artisanal puppets, Pierce Freelon joined him on stage to announce a collaboration with Blackspace, an Afrofuturism, digital media and social entrepreneurship makerspace he founded in Durham.

David Reese, president and CEO of the East Durham Children’s Initiative, talked of a cradle-to-college approach to education in marginalized communities. His initiative has a comprehensive, long-term resource model that guides children and adolescents through life with academic enrichment programs and community engagement opportunities. The organization also has parent and youth advocates on staff to help families create a home environment that will better ensure their child’s success in school.

Jason Parker introduced an idea to implement aspects and rules of an ultimate frisbee game into daily life. He’s the president of the board of directors for Triangle Ultimate, a volunteer and member-based youth and adult ultimate frisbee organization. He says one of the rules of ultimate frisbee is that the responsibility of sportsmanship is not given to referees, but to the players. This facilitates a stronger motivation for players to work together to fix conflicts that come up during games. Parker translates this to life outside of the game and encouraged the audience to put practices in place that put less reliance on authority and more reliance on individuals and groups to resolve problems together.

Some other presentations gave perspectives on sociopolitical concepts.

Duke literature professor Negar Mottahedeh examined the meaning and impact of the “selfie.” While a cultural phenomenon and a Millennial staple, the selfie has the unspoken power to make statements in a way that no other self-expressive tool can—whether they be political or personal. And these statements can be used in protests to transcend language and cultural barriers.

Omid Safi, the director of Duke’s Islamic Studies Center, addressed current misconceptions of the Muslim community in the U.S. He discussed the destructiveness of fear-inducing rhetoric and called for more collaboration between American Muslims and other marginalized groups. 

Through a series of powerful photos he took over the past 40 years, UNC Chapel Hill history professor Bill Ferris told stories of black and white members community members in Mississippi. The images showcase a rich tradition of Southern storytelling through music, literature and art.

Last was Dasan Ahanu, a spoken word performer and poet who co-founded the Bull City Slam Team in Durham. His talk surrounded an idea to include artists, writers, musicians and other creatives in organizing political movements to help communicate points through the arts. He left the crowd with a spoken word poem about the #BlackLivesMatter movement that encapsulated that idea.

Reaffirming Durham's reputation for inclusiveness

As in many speaking events, TEDxDurham pretty much went as planned, but there was something striking and unexpected uniting the presentations.

The event fell in the wake of last week’s events that ignited racial tensions all over the nation.

Durham has a history of standing in solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, even before it gained wide, mainstream attention. The community reacted to last week’s events with a weekend of collective efforts to stop police violence against people of color, both in and out of the TEDx event.

While citizens all over the city gathered at both vigils and protests to do so, nearly every TEDxDurham speaker incorporated tributes to those killed last week. 

This released a sort of unanticipated sub-theme to the event that stuck with the official “Centers + Edges” tagline, but made it relevant to communities of color not just in Durham but throughout the U.S.

In this way, TEDxDurham reaffirmed the city’s reputation of diversity and inclusiveness, while also capturing its age-old trend of breaking molds through innovation.