TED

“World peace will come from sitting around the table”: Chef Pierre Thiam chats with food blogger Ozoz Sokoh

Chef and cookbook author Pierre Thiam, left, sits down with food blogger Ozoz Sokoh to talk about the West African rice dish jollof — beloved in Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana and around the world. But who makes it best? They spoke during TEDGlobal 2017 in Arusha, Tanzania. Photo: Callie Giovanna / TED

Two African cooks walk into a bar; 30 seconds later they are arguing over whose country’s jollof rice is better. Or so the corny joke would go. The truth is, I really had no idea what would happen if we got Senegal-born chef Pierre Thiam (TED Talk: A Forgotten Ancient Grain That Could Help Africa Prosper) and Nigerian jollof promoter Ozoz Sokoh to sit down together for a friendly chat.

Based in New York, Pierre is a world-renowned chef who grew up in Senegal and is known for his exquisite dishes and his passion for spreading African cuisine across the world. He informed me that my interview request was the third jollof-related one he had granted in a week, the previous ones coming from the BBC and Wall Street Journal. It totally makes sense that in the heat of the jollof wars that now erupt every few weeks, mostly on Twitter, usually between Nigerians and Ghanaians, pundits are turning to a Senegalese chef for their take on the dispute. Jollof, after all, is named for the Wolof people, the largest ethnic group in Senegal; the country does have some claim.

Ozoz for her own part is an accomplished cook (she declined to be called a chef because it’s like a professional certification, apparently), food blogger and photographer, and probably one of the biggest promoters of jollof rice in Africa right now, an obsession that has since burst out of her Twitter timeline into a dedicated blog and the well-attended World Jollof Day festival. Was she down to interview Pierre about the jollof controversy? Of course. In fact, Ozoz had come from Lagos armed with homemade Nigerian spices, snacks and a jollof T-shirt for Pierre.

I apologize in advance to everyone who was spoiling for some sort of fiery showdown; this isn’t it. And I will admit to influencing their conversation slightly, by suggesting to them that the jollof question was merely an interesting pretext for a broader and infinitely more useful conversation about African cuisine that both of them were incredibly suited to have. What you are about to read is what happened next.

Ozoz: I think that it’s amazing that we’ve had all these ingredients for centuries but our preference is to default to what isn’t homegrown. You were talking about fonio yesterday, and I think there is an appreciation that we need to develop for homegrown products. Apart from fonio, what other things do to think we should be going crazy about? That are locally grown and could have transformative effects on food security.

Pierre: There are countless, you see. Millet is one of them. Sorghum is another one. The leaves too, especially in Nigeria where there are so many interesting leaf vegetables that are highly recommended for diets, and many cultures don’t know them as much as Nigeria does. So there is an opportunity there to share this knowledge. People talk about moringa, but moringa is just one of them.

Ozoz: One of my concerns is how do we get people in remote, non-urban areas to realise the value of what they have around them.

Pierre: Actually I don’t think it’s people in rural areas who have this problem. It’s people in urban areas who like to mimic the westerners’ way of eating and look down on the rural way of eating. Take fonio, for instance — you find it in Northern Nigeria and the Southern part of Senegal a lot, but in Lagos, Abuja, Dakar, you have to look for it. So the rural areas, they have it because there is a tradition. That’s what they have. And they can’t even afford the food that comes from the west. But us, we prefer to import from the west, and this is terrible for our economy. It’s terrible for our sense of pride, which is affected every day.

“I think there are many rituals that we’ve lost,” Ozoz says, “but sitting around the table with family and friends is one that we need to reintroduce into our way of life.” She’s speaking with Pierre Thiam at TEDGlobal 2017. Photo: Callie Giovanna / TED

Ozoz: I feel like the attitude to homegrown is changing. Nok by Alara for instance, it has an amazing menu that is tribute to homegrown, just an amazing mixture of local flavours and textures. But what other things do you think we can do to grow the whole new Nigerian or West African-style cuisine — in addition to cooking, what other ways beyond the kitchen?

Pierre: It’s a very good question, because it goes beyond the kitchen. It’s not only chefs who can wage that battle. It takes many, many levels. The media is important because information is key. Many people don’t know: We have wonderful ingredients. We have superfoods. If you look at our DNA, our background, our ancestors were strong people and they were eating that food, and because of that they were taken, because of their strength. We today want to say that that food is not good enough, and we import diseases. Many of the diseases that you see today in Nigeria or Dakar are imported. Diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, hypertension … all of which are directly connected with your diet. We use a lot of cubes now in our diet, and that is directly linked to why there is a lot of hypertension, because there is a lot of sodium in them. It’s a mind shift, we have to get back to what we have.

Ozoz: You are right, the media plays a really important role. So jollof rice. Obviously, everyone says Nigerian Jollof is the best 🙂 what do you think?

Pierre: I hear you. When I’m in Nigeria, I eat Nigerian jollof, that’s for sure. And I enjoy it. When I’m in Ghana, I love Ghanaian jollof too. This is the great thing about jollof, jollof is a dish that’s like all these different cultures and countries just owning it. Jollof means Senegal [ed: the name derives from “Wolof“], but that doesn’t mean we own it. That is the way Africa is, food transcends borders, you know, and jollof has obviously transcended borders in a way that is powerful. This war is beautiful.

Ozoz: So you think Jollof can promote world peace?

Pierre: Absolutely. I think world peace will come from sitting around the table.

Pierre Thiam says: “When I’m in Nigeria, I eat Nigerian jollof, that’s for sure. And I enjoy it. When I’m in Ghana, I love Ghanaian jollof too. That is the way Africa is: food transcends borders.” Photo: Callie Giovanna / TED

Ozoz: I think there are many rituals that we’ve lost, but sitting around the table with family and friends is one that we need to reintroduce into our way of life.

Pierre: It is key. Simple moments like this on a daily basis can make a huge difference. And jollof rice is a symbolic dish that it’s great that everyone claims

Ozoz: it’s so refreshing to hear you say that — it’s a testament to your open and giving nature

Pierre: That’s what food is about: sharing. In Africa you go to a household and people offer you food. Food is something we don’t keep to ourselves, we have to share it. If you go to a household in Lagos, you will be offered something to drink, zobo, it’s a symbolic thing.

Ozoz: I was really, really fascinated to read modern recipes in Senegal, modern recipes from the source to the bowl. I was really intrigued by the palm oil recipes, particularly the palm oil ice cream. Really, really intrigued, it looks really amazing and it’s on my list of things to make once I get back and I settle down. I’m gonna get organic palm oil, the best quality that I can find

Pierre: That’s the best ice cream I’ve ever had.

Ozoz: It looks the part.

Pierre: I want to hear what you have to say when you make it.

Ozoz: Tell about how you developed this recipe. Were you sleeping? Was it midnight? How did it come to you?

Pierre: At first I wanted to have something vegan, something without dairy — as you can see, there is no dairy in that recipe. But when you eat it, you don’t taste that there is no dairy, it’s got the richness of the palm oil. There’s coconut milk, there is palm oil, and there is lime zest, which really brings the acidity. So you have a perfect balance, which is what you are really looking for. Creating new recipes is like chemistry. Your kitchen is your lab, and you just get creative and have fun with it.

Ozoz: I find myself thinking a lot about my memory bank…my taste bank. There are certain things I eat that transport me to a time, a place…what are some of the things that are in your memory bank, and can you share a bit about why they are there?

Pierre: Well, it usually goes back to childhood. The memories of food are powerful, and it can come from anything. Like a whiff that takes you back to your grandmother’s, the dishes that she would cook for you when you were a kid. So for me, I’m gonna come back to palm oil and okro, those are the ingredients that are very powerful to me and take me back to those moments of innocence. It’s very emotional when I get into that zone. A lot of my creations come from there, and those traditions. And that is why traditions are important. I think that any African chef before looking to the future has to go back into the past and remember what was served to them in their childhood — or do some research into the traditions and get a better grasp of the future.

Ozoz: If you were a spice, what would you be?

Pierre: Probably ginger, because I like the heat of it. Especially Nigerian ginger. I like it because it can bring the sensation of heat without being too overpowering like pepper.

Ozoz: If you were a fruit, what would your be?

Pierre: A fruit, huh? I love papaya, because I can use it as a dessert, or as a tenderiser when I’m cooking meat. I love green papaya that I can put in a salad, with red onions and chili and lime juice, that becomes a snack. It’s very versatile.

Ozoz: I think the future of food in Africa has a lot to do with collaboration. How do we grow this collective of voices around it, writers, food photographers, chefs… In the US, for instance, there are associations, foundations, but I’m not sure if those constructs would suit African needs. What should we thinking about if we are to take the appreciation of our food history and practice of the culture to the next level?

Pierre: I think that this conversation is important to have…like chef’s meetings. It could be around events. For instance, this November I’m inviting chefs to Saint-Louis, in Senegal. And they are coming from across Africa, from Cameroon, Morocco, Cote d’Ivoire, South Africa, and they are coming to this event as part of the Saint-Louis Forum. Each of us will come with our own traditions and approach to food.

Ozoz: You are absolutely right, that coming together, exchange of ideas, discussions …

Bankole in the background: blogging, food festivals…

Ozoz: Yes. We talked about the role of media earlier. Writing, podcasts, videos, how-tos, documentaries, it’s a whole range.

Pierre: And it’s the right time, right now, we have a lot of tools at our disposal. We don’t need big networks to broadcast this, we can do it ourselves and reach millions of people. As Africans, we have a unique opportunity to tell our story. African cuisine is ready to be explored, we’ve got so much to offer from each country and so many different cultures with different flavors.

Surrounded by mounds of fresh ingredients, Pierre Thiam preps fonio sushi rolls to share onstage at TEDGlobal 2017. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

 

Ozoz: Quick fire round. Zobo or tamarind?

Pierre: Zobo.

Ozoz: What do you always have in your fridge?

Pierre: Oh boy…I don’t have much in my fridge…

Ozoz: What food can’t you live without?

Pierre: Uh? This is going to sound clichéd but I really love my fonio on a regular basis.

Ozoz: I don’t mind that. Foraging or fishing?

Pierre: Fishing.

Ozoz: Cumin or coriander seeds?

Pierre: Cumin.

Ozoz: Rain or sun?

Pierre: Sun.

Ozoz: Pancakes or French toast?

Pierre: French toast.

Ozoz: Food writing or photography?

Pierre: Both. Actually photography is very important, but good food writing can transport you to places in your imagination, which is more difficult to capture with photography.

Ozoz: Cilantro or parsley?

Pierre: Cilantro.

Ozoz: Last one. Nigerian jollof or Ghanaian jollof?

Pierre: Senegalese …

To share with Pierre, Ozoz brought a package of homemade spice mixes from Nigeria, including yaji spice, a peanut-based mixture of smoky and spicy aromatics that’s traditionally used to make suja, a popular street food. Photo: Callie Giovanna / TED

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This is how to make Pierre Thiam’s fonio sushi

Pierre Thiam’s fonio sushi recipe wraps chunks of fresh vegetables in a mixture of the ancient fonio grain and sweet potato.  Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

If you’ve seen Pierre Thiam’s TED Talk about fonio, then you saw that part when he actually handed food out to the audience, yes? For those who didn’t know to sit in the front rows to receive that blessing (or couldn’t be there in the first place), and don’t mind rolling up their sleeves in the kitchen, Pierre has shared the recipe and cooking instructions for anyone who would like to re-create his fonio sushi.

No, I haven’t tried it yet, but if you can procure all the ingredients, especially the fonio, obviously, it looks super easy to make! Here we go.

To make Fonio Sweet Potato and Okra Sushi, you are going to need:

1 cup cooked fonio
1 cooked and mashed sweet potato
1 tbsp. rice vinegar
Salt to taste
1 carrot, cut into sticks and blanched
1 cucumber, seeded and cut into sticks
2 cups young okra, trimmed on both ends, blanched and shocked in iced water
1 package nori seaweed sheets, toasted

In a large bowl, combine cooked fonio, sweet potato and rice vinegar. Season with salt. Lay a bamboo sushi mat on a smooth surface, and lay out seaweed sheet on sushi mat. Using a paddle or your hands, lay out the fonio-sweet potato mixture evenly and thinly, leaving about 2 inches of the seaweed edge farthest from you uncovered.

Lay out the fonio mixture evenly on top of the nori rice sheet, leaving space at the far end for rolling. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

Lay cucumber sticks in a row at the edge nearest you. Lay out a row of carrot sticks next, then a row of okra. Moisten the far edge of the nori with fingers dipped in water. Take the edge closest to you and roll the nori sheet as tightly as possible until you have one complete roll.

Lay out a row of cucumber, a row of carrot and a row of okra, then carefully roll everything together, using the bamboo mat for support. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

Press the moistened edge against the roll to seal, and place the roll seam side down. Run your knife under warm water, to prevent sticking, and carefully slice the roll into 6–8 pieces.

Neaten up the edges, then slice the roll, using a damp knife to prevent sticking. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

Serve with soy sauce and wasabi, and garnish with spice if you like; when preparing the sushi for the TEDGlobal audience, Pierre used dehydrated dawadawa. This recipe serves four. Enjoy.

Pierre Thiam garnishes his fonio sushi with dehydrated dawadawa for spice and color. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

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The big idea: 3 reasons to be kind to educators

Any dedicated educator can tell you: A teaching job extends far beyond the hours of the school day. Molding the minds of future leaders while simultaneously ferrying them across the rapids of childhood and adolescence — and dealing with the economics of the job — is a calling not for the faint of heart. Here are three solid reasons to give teachers the love and support they deserve.

1. Being a teacher is tough (just about everywhere)

Loving teaching and being a teacher are two different, but not mutually exclusive things when money can play a deciding factor. Teachers from around the world struggle with similar financial issues, no matter their longitude or latitude. Through our TED-Ed network, we caught with up 17 public school teachers from Kildare to Kathmandu, Johannesburg to Oslo and beyond, on how their salary influences their livelihood.

“I took a pay cut to become a teacher. It is a calling, not a job. Teaching is a privilege that is not for the infirm of purpose or seekers of large pay-stub totals. If I didn’t wake up before my alarm so I can get to school early, I’d be worried. The fact is that I do wake each morning excited for what the day holds for my classroom — the challenges as much as the triumphs — which for some can be a simple as reading a first sentence.”

—  a 6th grade teacher from Markham, Canada


“I am happy but financially strapped. I don’t eat at restaurants; I can’t afford it. I am not a demanding guy, so my income seems sufficient for now, but I can’t sustain my life on it.”

— a computer teacher from Kathmandu, Nepal


“Though I love my job, the stress that comes with it along with the stress of money problems sometimes makes me consider leaving, even though I don’t think I would feel as fulfilled as I do right now. We scrape by, and make the best of what we have, and we are happy for now.”

— an elementary school music teacher from Georgia, United States

Many teach for love of education, to shape the minds of the coming generations; not for the love of money.

2. Educators don’t just teach, they manage a flurry of feelings

As kids age into their late teens, they simultaneously embark on an emotional journey that often plays out during school hours. Heartbreak, arguments with friends, troubled home life, struggles with mental health and schoolwork, never-before-experienced emotions, and numerous other factors typically crop up during and in-between classes. Without a parent or guardian at hand, it’s left to the teachers and school staff to tend to the emotional well-being of students.

Amid administrative duties, endless grading and planning lessons that may forever impact the students they teach, educators must manage a room full of budding young adults who aren’t always ready to sit quietly and be taught. Patience and consideration is tested on a daily basis, no matter how much love a teacher has for their craft and their students. Stress is inevitable in any job, of course. But there’s opportunity for a special, haunting stress to form — one born from the knowledge that the future’s sitting just feet from the chalkboard, in its most formative years; to not acknowledge these demands, within limits, is to not recognize teachers as human beings first.

In addition to all of this, some believe educators should start teaching emotions in grade school. The RULER program, which is used in over a thousand schools in the US and abroad, is currently one of the most prominent tools for teaching emotions that breaks down the skill into five convenient steps:

Recognizing emotions in oneself and others

Understanding the causes and consequences of emotions

Labeling emotional experiences with an accurate and diverse vocabulary

Expressing and

Regulating emotions in ways that promote growth

Educator Nadia Lopez (TED Talk: Why open a school? To close a prison)  has her own tips for dealing with emotions that’ve already begun to bubble over. Lopez opened Mott Hall Bridges Academy in Brooklyn, New York (you may recognize the name from Humans of New York), and she did so with a simple goal: for her school to be a haven and guiding light for young scholars. As principal, she dedicates her life to what she sees in the future of each of her students. Sometimes, that means acting as the emotional bridge or traffic control as kids learn about not just what they should know, but more about who they are and what they stand for.

Lopez shares some of her favorite ways to dial down conflict with administrators, her scholars and staff — applicable in situations far beyond the classroom — broken down into 6 bite-sized tips.

  • Be vulnerable. Though it may seem counterintuitive, being open and honest with your team during challenging times demonstrates a sense of trust that can develop into mutual respect.
  • Be aware. Stop and ask, “Why isn’t this working?”
  • Center yourself. Being calm is so important that Lopez tries to spend at least 15 minutes each day enjoying uninterrupted silence.
  • Manage mediation. No yelling, wait to speak your turn, respect a person’s turn to explain their side.
  • Listen deeply and actively. In tense discussions, it’s important to acknowledge the feelings of each party involved and use reflective language to show that they’ve been heard.
  • Acknowledge, respect and thank. Repeat. A simple email, text or brief handwritten (ideally, hand-delivered) note has the power to touch deeply and stave away challenging occurrences.

3. Yes, teachers help kids, but sometimes they need help too

Teachers often spend hundreds of dollars on school supplies over the course of a school year. There are many options that allow parents and other charitable individuals to support classrooms near and far. Organizations like Donors Choose allow any interested party to choose an inspiring project and donate any amount.

Or, you can always take part in chiseling down fees in your own backyard.

If you’re interested in doing more, here’s a nice list of other ways you can help you educators, if time and/or resources are available.

Let’s be honest, most people have at least one story about their favorite teacher that’s left a lasting impression, shaped a lifelong interest, or helped them get through a tough time. That educator’s compassion and dedication may have even brought you to where you are now. Love is a main ingredient in what makes those memories stick — one that helped principal Linda Cliatt-Wayman (TED Talk: How to fix a broken school? Lead fearlessly, love hard) successfully turn around three schools.

As she says to her students everyday and a mantra for many educators to their kids:

Check out the TED-Ed blog for more education-based love and let’s celebrate educators!

teacher writing on chalkboard, linking to TED Talks by inspiring teachers

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Can cities have compassion? A Q&A with OluTimehin Adegbeye following her blockbuster TED Talk

For 12 spellbinding minutes, OluTimehin Adegbeye gave us a moving, challenging talk on cities and communities — and who gets to belong. She spoke at TEDGlobal 2017 on August 30 in Arusha, Tanzania. Photo: Bret Hartman / TED

Urban gentrification in Lagos is displacing hundreds of thousands of people who do not fit into the administration’s resplendent vision for the future. Their crime? Poverty. In what was one of the most moving talks of TEDGlobal 2017, OluTimehin Adegbeye calls us to consider the human cost of progress, specifically for the former inhabitants of Otodo Gbame, a coastal Lagos fishing community that was forcefully demolished to make way for a prime beachfront development. In 12 minutes of fearless oratory, punctuated with ironic humor and stories, Adegbeye makes the case for why cities must have consciences. We asked for more details about the Otodo Gbame situation, and how to think about creating cities that don’t leave their people behind.

How did you come to be invested in the subject of cities pushing out the poor? Was it before or after Otodo Gbame?

Definitely after Otodo Gbame. I had been vaguely aware of some of the anti-poor policies and actions taken by successive governments in Lagos, but the demolition of Otodo Gbame was the first incident that really woke me up to the injustice and urgency of the situation.

My initial involvement was the result of feelings of helplessness; I didn’t know what I could do, so I volunteered to write about it. But the more stories I heard in trying to write, the clearer it became to me how the structures that allowed anti-poor violence to exist unchallenged were not all that different or separate from those that allowed misogyny, or any other kind of violence really, to thrive. So my involvement became less about a desire to ‘help’ others and more about trying to dismantle systems that hurt me too, whether directly or by allowing me to be complicit in unchecked violence.

You are an activist with many causes. Why did you choose this one to be the subject of your talk?

I chose this topic because of the urgency of the situation. The demolitions and forced, systematic evictions in Lagos are happening with increasing regularity under the current government, so my hope is that the talk will lead to increased scrutiny of the actors who are responsible for these displacements, and eventually the abandonment of a model of “development” which prioritizes profits over people.

You said that these forced evictions are unconstitutional, but they happen anyway. I’m aware that there was a court ruling in favor of the displaced Otodo Gbame residents. Are you close enough to the situation to describe the current legal status of the issue? Will those people see some sort of vindication at some point? Or is justice too much to hope for?

The latest update I have is that the Lagos state government is appealing the ruling in favor of Otodo Gbame and other waterfront communities. I’m not sure what the grounds of the appeal are/will be, but since the people of Otodo Gbame have still been neither compensated nor resettled, it doesn’t seem like the executive is particularly interested in justice.

There are certain agencies within the government who have announced intentions to collaborate with informal settlements and waterfront communities to pursue in-situ upgrading, but very little if any concrete action has come of this.

Do you think the Lagos state government hears, feels this at all? Have you seen any reactions or indications that they do?

The Lagos state government definitely knows there has been widespread resistance and outrage, especially where Otodo Gbame is concerned. A handful of government officials, including the governor himself, have made statements attempting to explain or justify the demolitions in the wake of public outcry. However, it is anybody’s guess whether they are interested in going beyond trying to save face.

Asides TED, where else have you talked about this?

I’ve written about the demolitions for US and Norwegian publications, but TED is the only place I’ve spoken about them. I think it’s a great choice for getting the word out.

Do you have an organised campaign working on this?

The NGO I work with, the Justice and Empowerment Initiatives, at justempower.org, has created a social media campaign tagged #SaveTheWaterfronts, which is specifically about the waterfront communities that are under threat in Lagos, and a broader one tagged #InclusiveLagos that comments on the threats to livelihoods, police brutality, forced migration and other actions that target marginalised groups

Who else is championing these people’s rights, and how can they be supported/helped? Are there organisations that are trusted channels for this help?

JEI has been working with waterfront communities and informal settlements in Lagos and port harcourt, Nigeria, for the past few years. Their model of legal empowerment is one I find incredibly effective for bottom-up organising, and they are a donor-funded organisation so I would definitely recommend donating to them.

Are there other communities at risk of displacement that we should be paying attention to right now?

Right now, Ago Egun Bariga, which is one of the communities you can see from Third Mainland Bridge in Lagos, is being slowly starved out by land reclamation activities that the Lagos state government contracted out to a Nigerian subsidiary of Boskalis, a Netherlands-based company. Efforts to dialogue with them have so far proved abortive. Also, another community, Abete Iwaya, was demolished just two days before I left for TED Global.

This is probably an unfair question, but do you have any thoughts about how to create more inclusive cities, cities with consciences?

I think there are many, many answers to this question that have merit — many of which have been proffered by people with greater expertise than me. But I would suggest responsiveness. Cities that take the needs of their residents into consideration as they grow will inevitably become cities with a conscience, I think. So then the question becomes who the powers-that-be consider ‘legitimate’ residents, and how that is defined. Because it’s not true that the exclusionary cities we have today don’t respond to their residents; it’s just that they respond to a very specific subset of residents. Which brings me back to the question of belonging. So maybe cities with a conscience are those that are non-discriminatory in their responsiveness.

Watch OluTimehin’s TED Talk >>

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TEDWomen update: One year on, an extraordinary story of understanding and forgiveness

Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger speak during TEDWomen 2016. Photo: Marla Aufmuth / TED

When we started TEDWomen in 2010, we felt strongly that we wanted to include a series of talks we called “Duets” in which we would forego the traditional TED Talk model and present pairs of speakers instead of solo ones.

There is no question that the Duets sessions are often among the most popular and provocative.

One such talk, given last year in San Francisco, was one that we knew was going to be controversial from the outset because it was going to take us into entirely new territory… not only at TEDWomen but also online as men and women in every part of the world are struggling to come to terms with the global epidemic of sexual violence.

In this groundbreaking duet TED Talk, we heard the story of an extraordinary partnership that developed between a victim of sexual violence and her perpetrator — as they each searched for a path to understanding and forgiveness.

I learned about Thordis Elva from an Icelandic friend who told me that a friend of hers had reconnected, after many years, with her high school boyfriend who had raped her. Not to pursue the romance which had, of course, ended immediately, but to try to make sense of what had happened so that she could stop the blaming and shaming that threatened to take over her life.

As my friend recounted the plan Thordis had come up with to begin an online dialogue with Tom (who had been an exchange student from Australia), I could begin to see the potential for a TED Talk that would reveal a new possibility for millions of victims of sexual violence. I started a phone dialogue, first with Thordis, over a period of two years, as the conversation with Tom was underway. I’d hear from her from time to time about the insights she was gaining as well as the emotional rollercoaster of their reconnection, which eventually led them to meet in person and complete a healing process that transformed both of their lives.

They were ready to share their story, knowing that the impact would be huge but somewhat unpredictable. This was new territory — a rapist standing on a stage next to the woman he raped, telling their story of reconciliation and forgiveness together, to the world.

It was a tough road getting them ready for that moment. We sent many drafts of their TED Talk back and forth, trying to condense 20 years of their lives into 16 minutes. Many times, it wasn’t clear if they and their families (both had life partners) would go forward, but the more they wrote and talked and put their discoveries about themselves and about the nature of sexual crimes, the more they felt compelled to share it, hoping that it might provide a new path to healing for others.

I was almost as nervous as they were when they took the stage in San Francisco, knowing that it was potentially explosive to have a confessed perpetrator of a sexual crime standing in front of an audience who most certainly included many victims of similar violence. One of every three women experiences sexual violence in her lifetime.

The audience was quiet and leaned into the experience of hearing this unique story told with authenticity and conviction. They stood to applaud when the talk ended and both Thordis and Tom broke into tears backstage.

Here’s the talk if you haven’t seen it:

TEDWomen was Thordis and Tom’s first experience talking publicly together about what had happened between them. Since delivering it last October, a lot has happened. They wrote a book based on their talk — their journey from violence to understanding to forgiveness — and the video has been viewed over 3.2 million times on the TED website.

I caught up with them over email earlier this month. After releasing their book, South of Forgiveness, this spring, they spent two months traveling to Australia, Britain, Japan, Sweden, Iceland, the USA, Germany and Poland to promote it. They’ve been interviewed on the BBC, CBS, and NPR, and featured in Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Teen Vogue, The London Times, the Evening Standard, and Spiegel Online, to name just a few.

Thordis tells me that the book has received many favorable reviews, including one review in the UK Sunday Times she particularly appreciated that said: “Hats off to Elva and Stranger for a brave journey that might well change lives.”

“Public speaking has been a major part of what I do for the past decade and in the months to come, I’ll be speaking to a wide range of people — including police officers, shelter workers and politicians — about sexual violence, breaking the silence that surrounds it, healing from it and lifting the shame from survivors.

I’ve also been tending to my other passion, which is battling online abuse, including the non-consensual distribution of nude photos.”

Their talk has provoked strong reactions — for instance, after a petition drive this spring, a scheduled talk in London was cancelled, and instead became a more intimate facilitated conversation. As their journey shows, we are still learning how to have this discussion.

This fall, Thordis is releasing a short film for teenagers, “reminding them of the importance of consent in any type of intimate or sexual situation, whether it is online or offline.”

Tom says that “speaking to the TEDWomen audience was an unforgettable and profound experience, and the times since have been equally unforgettable and profound, also educative, at times difficult, and inspiring…”

“One woman shared with me her truth of being a survivor of rape. She must have had to steel herself to come up to me in person, but her powerful words “keep talking” have stayed with me. A face to face conversation with a man whose daughter was gang raped left me speechless, as did his verbalized support for the intention of our TED talk and book.”

I am grateful that they were willing to share their story with us at TEDWomen. As Thordis says, it’s important to get these stories out into the open and to give rape survivors the space to talk about their experiences. Being open to talking honestly about our global rape culture can be a big step towards changing the dynamics that are perpetuating it. In the United States alone, RAINN estimates there are over 300,000 victims of rape and sexual assault each year. Of those, 63% go unreported and only 0.6% of rapists are incarcerated. The statute of limitations had passed for Thordis to bring charges against Tom, but as she makes clear, her pupose was not to punish him but to try to understand him and the culture that contributed to his actions against her.

Tom noted that “very few people who have spoken to me about the TED talk haven’t, in some way, been personally affected by a man’s sexual violence. This reality has underlined to me the collective encumbrance we share, as men, to vocally address this subject, grow understandings, and promote new identities and stories that lift up the healthy and self-connected elements of manhood.”

He says he’s worked with many groups working on the issue to find the right language to engage other men in reflective conversations about masculinity and perceptions of manhood. “Such conversations,” he says, “are where I’m taking the lessons, knowledge and experiences I have gained, to build future collaborations and simply to continue the listening and talking.”

They hope their story will change lives and by all accounts, it already has. Thordis says, “I continually get messages from people all over the world who have found hope, inspiration and healing in our TED talk. It continues to be a humbling, life-changing experience.”


This year, TEDWomen will be held November 1–3 in New Orleans. The theme is Bridges: We build them, we cross them, and sometimes we even burn them. We’ll explore the many aspects of this year’s theme through curated TED Talks, including a session of memorable pairings to be announced earlySeptember. The hosts of this year’s duet session will be a married couple who have just completed two years of interviews with partners and they will add their insights, too, about how good partnerships come together and stay together…something they call “plus wonder’ and that’s how we think of our Duet sessions—it’s a plus-one TEDTalk.

Registration for TEDWomen 2017 is open, so if you haven’t registered yet, click this link and apply today — space is limited and I don’t want you to miss out.

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