Propelled by possibility: Tarana Burke speaks at TEDWomen 2018

“Trauma halts possibility; movement activates it.” The founder of the Me Too movement, Tarana Burke, is the first speaker at TEDWomen 2018: Showing Up, on November 28, 2018, in Palm Springs, California. (Photo: Marla Aufmuth / TED)

In 2006, Tarana Burke was consumed by a desire to do something about the rampant sexual violence she saw in her community. She took out a piece of paper, wrote “Me Too” across the top and laid out an action plan for a movement centered on the power of empathy between survivors — a movement that could open up the possibility of healing.

Over the next decade, the Me Too movement steadily helped survivors of sexual violence, particularly Black women and girls, find pathways to healing. In 2017, the movement gained a hashtag and sparked a global conversation on social media among survivors and supporters.

Yet as Burke takes the stage at TEDWomen 2018, she admits a hard truth: “I am numb.”

For Burke, numbness is not an absence of feeling — it’s an accumulation of feelings. It’s the memories that creep up in the middle of the night that can’t be fought off, the sense of the magnitude of the task ahead. And she recognizes that this feeling has spread. “For survivors, we often have to hold the truth of our experience,” she says. “But now we are all holding something, whether we want to or not.”

What might we all be holding on to? Burke reflects on the Kavanaugh hearings, the criticism of survivors that’s come out of the White House — and a media backlash that has framed the Me Too movement as a witch hunt, out to destroy due process or start a gender war. “Suddenly, a movement to center survivors of sexual violence is being talked about as a vindictive plot against men,” Burke says. At times, the movement she sees portrayed in the media is almost unrecognizable to the one she started over a decade ago.

So Burke wants to be clear about what the Me Too movement is. “This is a movement about the one in four girls and the one in six boys who are sexually abused every year, and who carry those wounds into adulthood,” she says. It’s about the far-reaching power of empathy and the millions of people who raised their hands a year ago to say “me too” — and still have their hands raised.

Amid the upheaval of this historical moment, it’s understandable that many of us have been left numb, she says. “This accumulation of feelings that so many of us are feeling together across the globe is collective trauma,” Burke says. But it is also the first step toward building the world we need right now. “This is bigger than a moment,” she says. “We are in a movement.”

In Burke’s eyes, the most powerful movements have always been about a bigger shared vision of what’s possible, not just the acknowledgment of what is now. Recalling Dr. King’s famous quoting of Theodore Parker — “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice” — Burke reminds us that someone has to bend it.

“My vision for the Me Too movement is part of a collective vision to see a world free of sexual violence,” she says. “I believe we can build that world. Full stop.”

How can we reach this world? We start by dismantling the building blocks of sexual violence: power and privilege. This starts by shifting our culture away from a focus on individual bad actors or depraved, isolated behavior. Instead, we must recognize that any person sitting in a position of power comes with privilege, rendering those without power vulnerable — whether it’s a boss and employee, coach and athlete, landlord and tenant or another similar dynamic. “We reshape that imbalance [of power] by raising our voices against it in unison, by creating spaces that speak truth to power,” she says. “We have to re-educate ourselves and our children to understand that power and privilege doesn’t always have to destroy and take — it can be used to serve and build,” she says.

At the same time, Burke reminds us that the work of the Me Too movement is to teach survivors it’s OK not to lean in to the trauma. Rather being forced to replay their experiences in public for others’ awareness, Burke says, survivors should be given space to find and create joy in their lives.

Looking back on the origin of the Me Too movement in 2006, Burke returns to the notion of possibility. “I have been propelled by possibility for most of my life,” she says. “Possibility is a gift. It births new worlds and it births vision … Those who came before didn’t win every fight. But it did not kill their vision, it fueled it.”

For that reason, Burke refuses to give up — and asks that we do the same. “We owe future generations nothing less than a world free of sexual violence,” she says. “I believe we can build that world. Do you?”


Showing up: Notes from Session 1 of TEDWomen 2018

Propelled by possibility, Tarana Burke opens TEDWomen 2018 with a powerful call to action: “We owe future generations nothing less than a world free of sexual violence,” she says. (Photo: Marla Aufmuth / TED)

Women the world over are no longer accepting the status quo. They’re showing up and pushing boundaries. Whatever their focus and talent — business, technology, art, science, politics — pioneers and their allies are joining forces in an explosion of discovery and ingenuity to drive real, meaningful change.

At TEDWomen 2018 — three days of ideas and connections at La Quinta Resort and Club in La Quinta, California — a dynamic and diverse group of leaders, thinkers and people seeking change are facing challenges head-on while empowering us all to shape the future we want to see. The conference kicked off with an electrifying session hosted by TEDWomen curator Pat Mitchell on Wednesday night — with talks and performances by Simona Abdallah, Tarana Burke, Ai-jen Poo, Dolores Huerta, Ashweetha Shetty, Katharine Wilkinson, Marian Wright Edelman and Flor de Toloache.

A rallying beat to show up and be. Percussionist Simona Abdallah opens TEDWomen with a rapturous bang of the darbuka, a drum of Middle Eastern origin traditionally played by men. Beneath a spotlight with eyes closed and face alight with expression, Abdallah fills the room with the crisp, resounding rhythms of her drum. Her passion and talent in percussion has vaulted her over barriers to international success. And as she welcomes the audience to clap along, it feels like an invitation for everyone watching to find the rhythm of their own.

Propelled by possibility. In 2006, Tarana Burke was consumed by a desire to do something about the rampant sexual violence she saw in her community. She took out a piece of paper, wrote “Me Too” across the top and laid out an action plan for a movement centered on the power of empathy between survivors. More than a decade later, she reflects on the state of what has now become a global movement — and makes a powerful call to action to end sexual violence. “We owe future generations nothing less than a world free of sexual violence,” she says. “I believe we can build that world.” Read a full recap of her talk here.

Activist Ai-jen Poo shares her work helping overlooked domestic workers get a chance at a better life — as well as stories from the US-Mexico border, where migrant children are being separated from their families. She speaks at TEDWomen 2018: Showing Up, on November 28, 2018, in Palm Springs. (Photo: Callie Giovanna / TED)

What domestic workers can teach us about creating a more humane world. What is it like to be both absolutely essential and yet completely invisible? What is it like to care for the world’s most treasured humans but not be seen as possessing value of one’s own? These riddles help capture the painful existence of domestic workers — the nannies, cleaners, elder-care attendants and other low-paid laborers to whom many people entrust their loved ones and their homes. Their lack of status is tied to gender and race, as domestic workers are overwhelmingly women of color, says Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA). For the past two decades, NDWA has pressed state legislatures to pass laws protecting such employees from discrimination and harassment and granting them basic benefits like paid time off and days of rest. But despite mistreatment and outright abuse, the workers she’s met are unstinting in their devotion to the people they’re hired to nurture, “to care no matter what.” In June 2018, Poo and other allies stood vigil at a border processing center in Texas, where they saw separated migrant children herded onto buses, their hands reaching through the windows for help. She recalls thinking, “If domestic workers were in charge, this never would have happened. Our humanity would never be so disposable that they would be treated this way.” She concludes: “We live in a time of moral choices. Everywhere we turn is full of moral choices, whether it’s at the border, at the ballot box, in our workplaces or in our homes. As you go about your day and you encounter these moral choices … think like a domestic worker who shows up and cares no matter what.”

Can women change the world? “¡Si se puede!” — “Yes we can!” Helen Keller once pointed out that while science has been able to cure many evils, it has found no remedy for the worst human evil of all: apathy. And legendary civil rights activist Dolores Huerta believes that this evil cripples those who should wield the most power: women. Why do so many women become apathetic? Huerta believes that they’re traumatized by aggression, taught to be victims, and are so overwhelmed by their emotive duties that they feel they don’t have the resources to become activists or to make demands of elected officials. But if the world is going to change, women must not only vote, they also must get others to vote — and vote people-centric activists into power. According to Huerta (building on an idea of Coretta Scott King), we will never have peace in the world until feminists take power. “We have power. Poor people have power. Every citizen has power, but in order to achieve the peace that we all yearn for, then we’ve all got to get involved.”

One woman’s story of perseverance. In a powerful personal talk, education advocate Ashweetha Shetty describes how she fought societal assumptions in her rural community in India — and ultimately found purpose creating opportunities for others through her foundation, Bodhi Tree. Throughout her life, Shetty felt boxed into the traditional domestic role assigned to her and other women in her village; she was told that because she was a poor rural girl, she wasn’t worthy of education. But she persisted, defying norms to graduate from college and land a prestigious year-long fellowship in Delhi. Now, she works to empower rural girls to pursue education and reclaim their voices and passions. Through Bodhi Tree, Shetty is determined to help create “a world where a girl like me is no longer a liability or a burden but a person of use, a person of value, a person of worthiness.”

“To address climate change, we must make gender equity a reality,” says Katharine Wilkinson of Project Drawdown. “And in the face of a seemingly impossible challenge, women and girls are a fierce source of possibility.” (Photo: Marla Aufmuth / TED)

Women and girls can heal mother earth. Author and environmentalist Katharine Wilkinson believes in the potential of girls and women to fight climate change — that by rising up to fight, emissions can be brought down. As vice president of communication and engagement at Project Drawdown, Wilkinson has spent the past several years studying how we can reverse global warming — and how climate change disproportionately affects women and girls. But if we can gain ground on gender equity, we also gain ground on addressing global warming. She outlines three key areas to tackle in order to fight global warming and empower women. First, we must support women smallholders — women who grow food on small areas of land with little resources. If we give these women access to better resources, their farm yields could increase by as much as 30 percent. Better farming on smaller plots could cause emissions from deforestation to drop. Wilkinson’s second solution is education. When women and girls are educated, they have more control over their health and finances, as well as the ability to succeed in a climate-changing world, she says. Educated women also marry later in life and have fewer children. Finally, Wilkinson calls for access to voluntary and high-quality reproductive healthcare. Giving more women control over the size of their family may mean one billion fewer people inhabiting Earth in 2050. “We need to break the silence around the condition of our planet,” Wilkinson says. “To address climate change, we must make gender equity a reality. And in the face of a seemingly impossible challenge, women and girls are a fierce source of possibility.”

Passion, purpose and advocacy. Marian Wright Edelman started the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) 45 years ago. She’s been on the front lines fighting for children ever since. In conversation with Pat Mitchell, Wright Edelman discusses her upbringing in the segregated American South, the beginning of the CDF and how growing older has made her more radical. “God runs a full-employment economy, and if you just follow the need, you’ll never lack for purpose in life,” Wright Edelman says, echoing the call to action she heard her father repeat growing up. After working with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the Poor People’s Campaign for two years, Wright Edelman started the CDF, and since then the Fund has taken up causes borne out of the experiences Wright Edelman had growing up — things like immunization against preventable diseases and unequal access to education. Now she sees her purpose as drawing attention to injustice wherever it harms children and building a better world for the next generation. “We are not finished,” she says. “We are not ever going to feel finished until we end child poverty in the richest nation on earth.”

Mariachi band Flor de Toloache wrapped the opening session of TEDWomen 2018 with heartfelt music played from the soul. (Photo: Marla Aufmuth / TED)

Mariachi that will put a spell on you. Named after the Mexican medicinal flower (also known for its use in love potions), Latin Grammy-winning mariachi band Flor de Toloache wrapped the opening session of TEDWomen 2018 with heartfelt music played from the soul. Between songs, the all-female group shared the tale of how they came together in New York City, connected by passion and the desire to create a sound that both celebrates and expands the genre and tradition of mariachi. Their soaring, bilingual vocals and masterful playing brought the stage to life with light, sincerity and spell-binding melodies.


Getting started: Notes from Session 2 of TEDWomen 2018

Amanda Williams explores the colors of her hometown neighborhood in Chicago — including the colors of historic redlining — in a bold project called “Color(ed) Theory.” She speaks at TEDWomen 2018: Showing Up, on November 29, 2018, in Palm Springs. (Photo: Callie Giovanna / TED)

In an early morning session hosted by podcaster and TED2017 speaker Manoush Zomorodi, six speakers — Lucy Cooke, Ayanna Howard, Nivruti Rai, Monique W. Morris, Karissa Sanbonmatsu and Amanda Williams — brought us insights from the worlds of AI, robotics, epigenetics, education, and the wonderfully slow world of the sloth.

Sustainability lessons from the sloth. Sloths have a reputation for being languorous and lazy — they’re named after one of the seven deadly sins, after all. But they are misunderstood, says zoologist Lucy Cooke, who has spent more than a decade documenting the strange lives of the world’s slowest mammal. She’s come away with an important insight: “Learning the truth about the sloth may help save us and the planet we both call home,” she says. Sloths come from an ancient line of mammals that has been around for more than 40 million years (compared to around 300,000 years for humans). The secret to their success lies in their slow, sustainable and, well, slothful existence — which is more mindful than lazy, Cooke says. For instance, sloths have a massive four-chambered stomach and an unbelievably slow metabolism, sometimes taking up to one month to process a single leaf. This pace lets them eat many varieties of leaves, including some that would poison other, faster-digesting animals. They also have more neck bones than any other mammal — even giraffes — allowing them to turn their heads up to 270 degrees to graze without having to waste energy moving their body. Cooke thinks we can take a lesson from the sloth’s playbook: While we might not be able to lower our metabolism, we can slow down, reduce waste, and be more economical with our energy. If we can do this, we just might have a chance to hang around as long as the sloth.

Building robots that are friends, not foes. Robots aren’t perfect — after all, their algorithms are trained by flawed humans. AI can inherit our biases; an AI might recognize a man with a spatula as a woman, or a woman driving a car as a man. Roboticist Ayanna Howard asks: Why do we rely on biased algorithms to run our robots, and how do we fix them? We have an emotional connection to these robotic systems, Howard suggests. They take the chaos that is in our life and make it a little bit manageable — and thus, we treat them as authority figures, and allow them to pressure us to making emotional decisions. But there is hope. We can train robots to be better than us, and we can hold robot creators accountable for their creations. It’s not really the robots that we fear, Howard says — at the end of the day, we fear ourselves. She implores us to create a better future where robots are our friends, not foes.

Building AI “guardian angels.” Imagine an extra brain that knows us better than we know ourselves, that exists “with us, beside us, experiencing our world with us … always connected, always processing, always watching.” Nivruti Rai believes that AI systems could become these kinds of guardian angels. She and her research team have analyzed mountains of traffic data In India, where vehicles of every type and speed compete with humans (and animals) for road space. Machine-learning algorithms thrive on regular, repetitive data, but Indian roadways are loaded with “corner cases” — one-in-a-million incidents that present major obstacles to comprehending complex traffic systems. Rai is using these to her advantage, building an open-source database that includes corner cases to help train safer, more robust autonomous driving algorithms. If AI systems can safely navigate India’s traffic patterns, then they surely can solve other complex problems, she says — as long as we have a sufficiently robust data set.

Education is freedom work. “Around the world, black girls are struggling to be seen, working to be free and fighting to be included in the landscape of promise that a safe educational space provides,” says author and social justice scholar Monique W. Morris. In America, she tells us, black girls are seven times more likely than others to get suspended and three times more likely to be sent to juvenile court; they are overrepresented across the spectrum of disciplinary action in schools. Age compression is partly to blame — studies show that people perceive black girls as older (and less in need of protection) than they actually are — and their very appearance can be targeted for punishment, like the group of high-schoolers in South Africa who were penalized for wearing their hair in its natural state. (“Where can we be black if we can’t be black in Africa?” the girls asked.) Morris advises parents to start conversations with schools so that practices that harm black girls are eliminated. If schools are to be places of healing, she says, they’ll need fewer police officers and more counselors. “If we commit to this notion of education as freedom work, we can shift educational conditions so that no girl — even the most vulnerable among us –will get pushed out of school,” Morris says. “And that’s a win for all of us.”

Karissa Sanbonmatsu is a geneticist who explores what information we store in our genes — including surprising information about gender. She speaks at TEDWomen 2018: Showing Up, on November 29, 2018, in Palm Springs. (Photo: Callie Giovanna / TED)

What does it mean to be a woman? A scientist’s perspective. Biology researcher Karissa Sanbonmatsu studies DNA and why it gets itself all tied up in knots: the bends and folds that affect our lives on a fundamental level. As a scientist and trans woman, she and several other women across scientific disciplines are using epigenetics to search for the biomarkers that define gender on a molecular level by observing these twisty DNA structures. “One of the stunning things about our cells is that the components inside them are actually biodegradable,” she says. “They dissolve and then they’re rebuilt each day — kind of like a traveling carnival.” It’s this discovery that’s led to several others, specifically insights during pregnancy. Hormones, it turns out, trigger the formation of knots that can alter how we process life events, as well as the biological sex and brain development between trimesters — meaning that gender may develop separately in the womb. Asking what it means to be a woman, when people come in so many shapes and sizes, may not be the right question, says Sanbonmatsu. “Maybe becoming a woman means accepting ourselves for who we really are and acknowledging the same for each other.”

The intersection of color, race and space. Growing up in segregated Chicago, artist Amanda Williams thought that color could not be separated from race. As she puts it: “Racism is my city’s vivid hue.” While studying color theory in college, Williams learned about Josef Albers’ theory of color, which holds that the way we view color is actually subjective, relational, each color affected by its neighbor. Williams used this theory to understand the redlining in her neighborhood: In the 1930s, the federal government created a color-coding system for neighborhoods, and black neighborhoods, marked as “red,” didn’t receive federal housing loans. In response to this unfair characterization, Williams decided to create her own color palette, one that would speak to the people in her neighborhood. The result was “Color(ed) Theory,” a two-year art project that projected her own palette onto her neighborhood. She started by gathering stories and memories to reveal colors uniquely understood by black people. She then went for the biggest canvas she could find: houses, specifically ones that were going to be demolished. The boldly painted houses provoked a fresh reaction from the people around her and beyond. “Color(ed) Theory made unmistakably visible, the uncomfortable questions that institutions and governments have to ask themselves about why they do what they do,” says Williams. “They ask equally difficult questions of myself and my neighborhood counterparts about our value systems and what our path to collective agency needs to be.”


Breaking out: Notes from Session 3 of TEDWomen 2018

“I have seen a world where women are denied, and I have also seen what can happen when you invest in the potential of half of your population,” says activist Shad Begum. She speaks at TEDWomen 2018: Showing Up, on November 29, 2018, in Palm Springs, California. (Photo: Marla Aufmuth / TED)

In session 3 of TEDWomen 2018, hosted by social justice documentarian Jess Search, a lineup of speakers and performers — Eldra Jackson, Shad Begum, Emily Quinn, Shohini GhoseClimbing PoeTree, Maeve Higgins and Lindy Lou Isonhood — explored toxic masculinity, quantum computing, immigration, the death penalty and much more.

Eldra Jackson III shares his work breaking the cycle of emotional illiteracy that allows men to victimize others. He speaks at TEDWomen 2018: Showing Up, on November 29, 2018, in Palm Springs, California. (Photo: Callie Giovanna / TED)

An empathetic cure for toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity is a disease that victimizes both its targets and its perpetrators, says educator Eldra Jackson III. Growing up, he had a “chronic case” of it — “so much so that [he] spent 24 years of a life sentence in prison for kidnapping, robbery and attempted murder.” As a teen, Jackson’s heroes were athletes and gangsters. So when sports didn’t work out as a career path, he gravitated toward what seemed the only other option: a life of crime. Jackson landed in jail, “where I didn’t care how I lived or if I died,” he says. He found a cure for this disease through Inner Circle, an organization founded by Patrick Nolan to combat gang violence in the prison yard. Through an exercise called Circle Time — “men sitting with men and cutting through the bullshit and challenging structural ways of thinking” — Jackson learned that “characteristics usually defined as weaknesses are parts of the whole, healthy man.” Today, as a free man, Jackson teaches his own sons what he has learned, and in doing so, he seeks to “eradicate the cycle of emotional illiteracy and groupthink that allows our males to continue to victimize others.”

Strengthening women’s leadership in Pakistan and beyond. Pakistani activist Shad Begum has spent her life working for the right of every woman to live to her full potential. “When women show up, things get better for everyone,” Begum says. “Yet I have found all too often women underestimate their own strength, potential and self-respect.” To counteract this troubling reality, Begum has invested in women’s leadership — first by founding the Association for Behaviour and Knowledge Transformation in 1994 and then by running for public office in Dir, Pakistan, in 2001 — and winning. Her fellow male councilors told her to buy sewing machines for the local women; instead she advocated for what she knew they really wanted: more access to clean drinking water. In the years since, Begum’s seen change happening at the local level as women find their place in the political process. She helped train 300 women and youth candidates for the 2015 local elections: 50 percent of them won and are now sitting in the local councils. And perhaps even more promising: While fewer than one hundred women voted in Dir’s 2013 general elections and 2015 local elections, more than 93,000 women turned out to vote in the 2018 general elections. “I have seen a world where women are denied, and I have also seen what can happen when you invest in the potential of half of your population,” Begum says. Now it’s time to keep making that investment.

“If there are infinite ways for our bodies to look, our minds to think, personalities to act — wouldn’t it make sense that there’s that much variety in biological sex, too?” asks intersex activist Emily Quinn. She speaks at TEDWomen 2018: Showing Up, on November 29, 2018, in Palm Springs. (Photo: Marla Aufmuth / TED)

Let’s talk about (biological) sex. We put people in boxes based on their genitalia, says intersex activist Emily Quinn, as if what’s between somebody’s legs tells you anything about that person — their kindness, generosity, humor. As an intersex individual who was born with both a vagina and and testicles, Quinn has been told since she was a child (and still as an adult) that her biology puts her at risk — despite the fact that a surgery to remove her genitals would most likely do more physical and emotional harm than good. Quinn asks: What constitutes a man, a woman? Does lacking or having certain organs disqualify a person from being who they are? Much like gender, biological sex exists on a spectrum and shouldn’t be boiled down to just male and female, she suggests. There are so many other human traits that have more than two options — think: hair color, eye color, complexion, height, even noses. Globally, intersex people aren’t rare or new; they’ve existed throughout every culture in history and represent about 2 percent of the global population — the same percentage as genetic redheads. (For scale, 2 percent is roughly about 150 million people, more than the entire population of Russia.) “If there are infinite ways for our bodies to look, our minds to think, personalities to act — wouldn’t it make sense that there’s that much variety in biological sex, too?” Quinn asks.

The weird world of quantum computing. What if you read about a computer that could “teleport” data across space and time, was physically impossible to hack and could simulate biological systems down to their subatomic particles? You’d probably think you were reading a science-fiction novel — but in fact, these are just a few of the real-life possibilities of quantum computers. Computer scientist Shohini Ghose works with quantum computers that store data not as binary zeros and ones, but as a spectrum of probabilities that a particular bit of information is true or false. And if you find that confusing, “don’t worry — you’re getting it.” The best way of understanding these strange devices is to realize that a quantum computer “is not just a more powerful version of our current computers,” she says — it’s something else entirely, “just like a light bulb is not a more powerful candle.” And like the light bulb, quantum computers will one day illuminate technological horizons we can barely imagine. As Ghose puts it: “The future is fundamentally uncertain, and to me, that is certainly exciting.”

A dazzling performance of poetry and song. Alixa Garcia and Naima Penniman of Climbing PoeTree mesmerize the audience with their poems “Being Human” and “Awakening.” In “Being Human,” they explore wonder and imagination, pairing awe-inducing spoken word with a flute and beatboxing performance that defies genres. “We believe creativity is the antidote to destruction,” Penniman says in between pieces. Supported by musicians Claudia Cuentas and Tonya Abernathy, they close out with “Awakening,” combining stunning vocals and ukulele in a powerful tribute to humanity’s fight for truth, justice and freedom.

The “good immigrant” trap. Irish comedian, writer and podcaster Maeve Higgins grew up learning about those who left Ireland, fleeing famine, oppression and seeking a new life. In 2014, she left Ireland herself, moving to Brooklyn on an O1 visa, which is designated for “aliens of extraordinary ability,” or those who have achieved in their fields. Since then, she’s travelled around the US, hearing stories of immigrants who have left their old homes behind in search of a new life. She’s found a pattern in these stories: We divide immigrants into good and bad. While people were celebrating the immigrants of the French national football team during their World Cup win this summer, for instance, migrants were drowning in the Mediterranean, while US politicians shut down the borders their ancestors passed through. This year, the US is on track to accept the fewest refugees in its history, Higgins says. Immigrants are being divided up by what they’re worth — some get O1 visas, while others are shut out. “People should not be considered valuable just because they do something of value to us,” Higgins says. “When we dehumanize another, we dehumanize ourselves. People are valuable because they are people. The moment we forget that, or deny it, terrible things happen.”

A new outlook on the death penalty. Human rights activist Lindy Lou Isonhood comes from a conservative Christian family in a conservative US state — but she’s here to tell us that the death penalty has new opponents. A native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, where the death penalty is “an unspoken part of the culture,” Isonhood was selected to be a juror in a murder case, and voted “yes” to giving a man named Bobby Wilcher the death penalty. After the case, the people around her told her to move on, but she couldn’t; it haunted her that she had sentenced a fellow human to die. She became a “silent survivor,” coping with PTSD on her own — until 12 years later, when Wilcher’s execution date was set. Searching for peace, Isonhood visited Wilcher in jail and apologized for her part in his sentencing. Wilcher forgave her, and after he was granted a last-minute stay, the two kept talking; in the months before his eventual execution, they became friends. After his execution, Isonhood sought out her fellow jury members because she had to know: Was she the only one who had been so deeply affected? What she found: “All those years, and I finally realized I was not the only disillusioned juror.” Now she’s found inspiration in her granddaughters, she says: “Because of my experience, they’re now more equipped to stand on their own and think for themselves.” Out of a dark situation, a sense of hope for the next generation.


Gathering together: Notes from Session 4 of TED2018

In a searching session of talks hosted by curator and photographer Deborah Willis and her son, artist Hank Willis Thomas (who spoke together at TEDWomen 2017), 12 speakers explored conflict, love, the environment and activism, and more. The session featured duet talks from Paula Stone Williams and Jonathan WilliamsNeha Madhira and Haley Stack, Aja Monet and phillip agnewBeth Mortimer and Tarje Nissen-Meyer, and William Barber and Liz Theoharis, as well as solo talks from Jan Rader and Yvonne Van Amerongen.

Paula Stone Williams and her son Jonathan Williams share their story of personal reckoning. “I could not ask my father to be anything other than her true self,” Jonathan says. They speak at TEDWomen 2018: Showing Up, November 29, 2018, Palm Springs, California. (Photo: Callie Giovanna / TED)

A story of redemption. Paula Stone Williams and her son Jonathan Williams know that the truth will set you free — but only after it upends your carefully constructed narrative. In a moving, deeply personal talk, they share the story of Paula’s transition from male to female. Her devotion to authenticity caused her to leave her comfort zone as a nationally known religious leader. In the process, Paula lost all of her jobs, most of her friends and was rejected by her church. “I always taught the kids that when the going gets tough, you have to take the road less traveled — the narrow path — but I had no idea how hard it would become,” she says. Jonathan faced a personal reckoning himself, questioning his childhood memories and asking himself: “Had my father even ever existed?” After a long process of reconciliation, Jonathan ultimately shifted his personal and professional outlook, turning his church into an advocate for the LGBTQ community. “I could not ask my father to be anything other than her true self,” he says. Nowadays, Jonathan’s kids lovingly refer to Paula with a new team of endearment: “GramPaula.”

How empathy can catalyze change in the opioid crisis. Compassion and education can save lives in the opioid epidemic, says Huntington, West Virginia, fire chief Jan Rader. As she saw rising levels of drug overdoses and deaths in her city, Rader realized that, unlike rescuing someone from a fire, helping someone suffering from substance abuse disorder requires interwoven, empathy-based solutions — and she realized that first responders have an important role to play in the overdose epidemic. So she developed programs like Quick Response Team, a 72-hour post-overdose response team of recovery coaches and paramedics, and ProAct, a specialty addiction clinic. Rader also established self-care initiatives for her team of first responders, like yoga classes and on-duty massages, to help alleviate PTSD and compassion fatigue. These programs have already had a remarkable impact — Rader reports that overdoses are down 40 percent and deaths are down 50 percent. Stigma remains one of the biggest barriers in tackling the opioid crises, but when a community comes together, change can happen. “In Huntington, we are showing the rest of the country … that there is hope in this epidemic,” Rader says.

When is a free press not really free? The freedom to publish critical journalism is more important than ever. Neha Madhira and Haley Stack remind us that this should apply “to everyone, no matter where you live or how old you are.” Madhira and Stack — who work at the Eagle Nation Online, a high school newspaper in Texas — learned the hard way that student journalists “don’t have the same First Amendment rights” everyone else had. In 2017, their principal pulled three stories, on topics like a book that was removed from a class reading list, and the school’s response to National Walkout Day. He instituted “prior review” and “prior restraint” policies on all stories, banned editorials, and fired the paper’s advisor. They had no choice but to fight. Madhira says, “How were we supposed to write our paper… if we couldn’t keep writing the relevant stories that were impacting our student body?” They received an outpouring of support from around the country, which eventually persuaded the principal to overturn his policy. But this all could happen again — which is why they now lobby for New Voices, a law which would extend First Amendment protections to student journalism, and which has now passed in 14 states. Madhira and Stack hope it will pass nationwide.

Aja Monet and phillip agnew blend art and community organizing into a way to change their community. They speak at TEDWomen 2018: Showing Up, on November 29, 2018, in Palm Springs, California. (Photo: Callie Giovanna / TED)

Art as organizing. Activists and artists Aja Monet and phillip agnew connected the way many young couples meet today — on Instagram. What started on social media quickly turned into a powerful partnership they call “Love Riott.” Together, they founded Smoke Signals Studio, a space for community-based art and music in Little Haiti, Miami. As they describe it, Smoke Signals is a place “to be loved, to be heard and to be held.” It’s a place where art and organizing become the answer to anger and anxiety. Both Monet and agnew have dedicated their lives to merging arts and culture with community organizing — Monet with the Community Justice Project and agnew with the Dream Defenders. “Great art is not a monologue. Great art is a dialogue between the artist and the people,” Monet says.

Using seismology to study elephants, biologist Beth Mortimer and geophysicist Tarje Nissen-Meyer are helping to fight poaching and protect wildlife. They spoke at TEDWomen 2018: Showing Up, on November 29, 2018, in Palm Springs, California. (Photo: Callie Giovanna / TED)

The enigmatic language of elephants. To study the language of elephants, one needs a seismometer — a device that measures earthquakes — which is how biologist Beth Mortimer and geophysicist Tarje Nissen-Meyer came to work together. Elephants communicate simultaneously through the land and air over long distances using infrasonic vocalizations, meaning that they make sounds deeper than the human ear can detect. “These vocalizations are as loud as 117 decibels, which is about the same volume as a Coachella rock concert,” says Nissen-Meyer. By using seismology to study wildlife, the pair is developing a noninvasive, real-time and low-cost study method that is practical in developing countries to help them fight poaching. Eventually, they’d like to go beyond elephants, and they have plans to continue eavesdropping on the silent discos of the animal kingdom, keeping an ear to the ground to help protect the world’s most vulnerable societies, precious landscapes and iconic animals.

Living a good life with dementia. How would you prefer to spend the last years of your life: in a sterile, hospital-like institution or in a comfortable home that has a supermarket, pub, theater and park within easy walking distance? The answer seems obvious now, but when the Hogeweyk dementia care center was founded by Yvonne Van Amerongen 25 years ago, it was seen as a risky break from traditional dementia care. Located near Amsterdam, Hogeweyk is a gated community consisting of 27 homes with more than 150 residents who have dementia, all overseen 24/7 by well-trained professional and volunteer staff. (The current physical village opened in 2009.) People live in groups according to shared lifestyles. One home, where Van Amerongen’s mother now lives, contains travel, music and art enthusiasts. Surprisingly, it runs on the same public funds given to other nursing homes in the Netherlands — success, Van Amerongen says, comes from making careful spending decisions. As she puts it, “Red curtains are as expensive as gray ones.” The village has attracted international visitors eager to study the model, and direct offshoots are under construction in Canada and Australia. Whether people have dementia or not, Van Amerongen says, “Everyone wants fun in life and meaning in life.”

“This is a moral uprising … a new and unsettling force of people who are repairing the breach, who refuse to give up, and refuse to settle and surrender to suffering,” says Reverend William Barber, right. Together with Reverend Liz Theoharis, at left, he speaks at TEDWomen 2018: Showing Up, November 29, 2018, Palm Springs, California. (Photo: Callie Giovanna / TED)

America’s fusion is our story. Reverends William Barber and Liz Theoharis have traveled from the Bronx to the border, from the deep South to the California coast, meeting mothers whose children died because of a lack of healthcare, homeless families whose encampments have been attacked by police and communities where there’s raw sewage in people’s yards. Closing session 4 of TEDWomen 2018, the two make a powerful call to end poverty. “America is beset by deepening poverty, ecological devastation, systemic racism and an economy harnessed to seemingly endless war,” Barber says. In a nation that boasts of being the wealthiest country in world, 51 percent of children live in food-insecure homes, and 250,000 people die every year of poverty and low wealth. “If we have a different moral imagination, if we have policy shifts guided by moral fusion, we can choose a better way,” Theoharis says. This past spring, Barber and Theoharis helped organize the largest, most expansive simultaneous wave of nonviolent civil disobedience in the 21st century and perhaps in history, re-inaugurating the Poor People’s Campaign started by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The campaign is changing the narrative around poor people, refuting the idea that it’s not possible for everyone to survive and thrive. Barber and Theoharis are organizing hearings, holding community BBQs, going door to door registering people for a movement, holding freedom schools and developing public policies that will improve people’s lives. “This is a moral uprising … a new and unsettling force of people who are repairing the breach, who refuse to give up, and refuse to settle and surrender to suffering,” Barber says.