Fearless risk-taking: Notes from Session 4 of TEDWomen 2017: Suspend

Jacqueline Novogratz hosts this session of TEDWomen 2017 — about the risks we take to create the world we want. . Photo: Stacie McChesney / TED

The suspension bridge, says Acumen founder and session host Jacqueline Novogratz, provides the perfect metaphor for the leadership we need to see in this “fractured, divided, too often cynical world.” Why? Because its structure balances a strong, deep, unwavering foundation with its ability to stretch across vast distances to connect and bring close. That’s precisely what we need to see in today’s moral leaders, says Novogratz. And that’s what we’re set to hear in this TEDWomen session, “Suspend.”

Shameem Akhtar is an education activist in her home of Pakistan, where she advocates for the education of women and girls. She speaks at TEDWomen 2017 in New Orleans. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

To learn is to be free. Shameem Akhtar lived as a boy for most of her childhood, due to her uncle’s savvy thinking around the oppressive restrictions often placed on girls in their native Pakistani culture. She experienced the privileges and freedoms of being a boy — playing outside and, most important, going to school. An immutable passion was lit to study and learn, and be free, and she fought both to attend university and to take a job, in a culture where most women are expected to stay home. And then a funny thing happened; people noticed she was sending money home. “Over time, other parents begin sending their daughters to school,” she says. “Today, not a single girl from my village is out of school.” Change is slow and there is still much work to be done, but Akhtar is now a passionate advocate for girls’ rights and education. “The road is not easy, the destination is not close, but I have dreams in my eyes and I am not going to look back now,” she concludes, to great applause from an appreciative audience. (Note: this is Akhtar’s first visit to the United States. She arrived in New Orleans on Halloween. Talk about culture shock.)

Lera Boroditsky studies how our language habits shape how we think and see the world, sharing amazing examples from many cultures. She speaks at TEDWomen 2017 in New Orleans. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

Does language shape how we think? Globally, there are about 7,000 languages spoken, all with different sounds, vocabularies and structures. “It begs the question, does the language we speak shape the way we think?” asks cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky. It’s a long-standing (like, thousands of years), ongoing debate, but Boroditsky shares five examples from new research suggesting that the answer is … yes. For example, the Pormpuraaw, an Aboriginal tribe in Australia, use cardinal directions instead of words like left or right, helping them to stay better oriented than we used to think humans ever could be. “The beauty of linguistic diversity is that it reveals to us just how ingenious and how flexible the human mind is,” says Boroditsky. “Human minds have invented not one cognitive universe, but 7,000.”

Turning prison into a bridge to a better life. Six years ago, Teresa Njoroge was convicted of a financial crime — the end of a long string of false accusations against her, increasing attempts to bribe her, and a corrupt justice system in her home in Kenya. As the gates of Langata Women Maximum Prison closed behind her, she knew she was in for the toughest year of her life. But what she did not expect, she says, was the women, and their stories, she encountered there. “I realized,” she said, “that it wasn’t crime that put these women in prison. Far from it. It begun with lack of education, whose supply and quality is not equal for all, and a lack of economic opportunities, which pushes them to petty survival crimes.” Once she got out, she co-founded Clean Start, an organization that helps women and men of Kenya reconnect with life and opportunities after serving prison time. “We cheer them on,” she says, and “we never lose sight of who they are: men and women full of unleashed potential.”

“You Found Me.” Cellist and chanteuse Helen Gillet mixes her classical training, New Orleans-based jazz roots and free improvisational skills to perform her own eclectic musical fusion. Her powerful and innovative performance provides a dreamy, melodious change of pace for the audience.

Dixon Chibanda speaks from a Friendship Bench — a community-based mental health tool that brings care to thousands of people in Zimbabwe. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

Granny power. Dixon Chibanda used to be a rock star, but he’s here to share thoughts and insights as one of Zimbabwe’s 12 psychiatrists. That’s right. 12 — for a population of some 14 million. Realizing, sadly, that the country would never be able to scale traditional methods to treat those with mental health issues, Chibanda helped to develop a beautiful solution powered by a limitless resource. In 2006, he launched friendship benches, (wo)manned by grandmothers who are trained in evidence-based talk therapy (and themselves supported via their mobile phones). People who want to talk, are directed to seek their first line of treatment at a local bench. It’s so simple — and it works. “Today, hundreds of highly competent grandmothers who understand the basics of cognitive behavior therapy are working in over 70 communities across the country,” says Chibanda: More than 30,000 people received treatment at a friendship bench in Zimbabwe last year. Extraordinary.

Let’s talk shit (to solve our sanitation problems). Lindsay Stradley says our collective squeamishness at talking about waste is causing huge problems. For instance, not having an adult word for “poop” greatly diminishes our ability to talk responsibly or effectively about sewage and waste systems. She outlines how her Nairobi-based organization, Sanergy, uses an economic sanitation solution model that puts money back into the pockets of the citizens, dignity back into the hearts of those living in areas with poor sanitation and a lack of clean, safe toilets — and takes waste out of communities for the greater good.

Steph Speirs is a solar entrepreneur whose own story upends the stereotypes about business leaders. She speaks at TEDWomen 2017 in New Orleans. Photo: Stacie McChesney / TED

Entrepreneurship that chips away at inequality. “My mom taught us that the American Dream wasn’t about the acquisition of stuff,” says solar entrepreneur Steph Speirs. “The American Dream was about choice, the choice to choose what you want to do — and with that choice comes dignity.” Many of the world’s most intractable problems, however, come down to a lack of choice. Consider energy. “Most people don’t think clean energy is an option,” she says, but the reality is that the cost of solar is lower than it’s ever been and could save people money if they could just access it. “The people who need energy savings the most, low-income renters like my mom, they’re going to be the least likely to get it right now,” she says. Through her company Solstice, Speirs and her colleagues are trying to get solar power to every American. “We can use our knowledge, our words and our time to chip away at inequality,” she says.

What’s your Ironman? Born in Bombay, Minda Dentler contracted polio before her first birthday, paralyzing her from the hips down. Adopted by an American family, she moved to Spokane, Washington, where she received medical treatment to walk with braces — and to learn she could do almost anything she could set her mind to. Which might be why, as an adult, she decided to compete in the Ironman triathlon in Kona, Hawaii: a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, followed up with a full 26.2-mile marathon. Her first attempt was technically a failure … and a year later, she came back and completed the race. “For the first time in its 35-year history, a female wheelchair athlete completed the Ironman World Championship. It wasn’t just any female athlete; it was me, a paralyzed orphan from India,” she says. Having conquered both Kona and polio, she now has a new Ironman ahead: attempting to eradicate the disease that paralyzed her.

Minda Dentler conquered the legendary Ironman triathlon in Kona, Hawaii — and now she’s set to conquer polio. She speaks at TEDWomen 2017 in New Orleans. Photo: Stacie McChesney / TED


Be fierce, claim power: Notes from Session 5 of TEDWomen: Burn

Singer/songwriter Judith Hill performs “Strange Fruit” to begin Session 5 of TEDWomen 2017, a hard look at hard things. Photo: Stacie McChesney / TED

There’s a theme of Bridges that plays through this conference — and one of the things we sometimes need to do with bridges is burn them, to move forward with no option of going backward in time or space. In this session, hosted by documentary film aficionado Jess Search, we listen to hard truths about taking the steps we need to take — without looking back.

A strange and bitter crop. The session begins with Judith Hill’s richly textured performance of “Strange Fruit,” a protest song made famous by Billie Holliday. Contrasting traditional Deep South imagery of magnolia blossoms and gentle breezes with the brutal legacy of lynching, the lyrics drive home the still-unexamined history of racial terrorism in the 20th-century American South: “Southern trees bear strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”

When Gretchen Carlson reported her own sexual harassment at work, it sparked an outpouring of thousands of women’s stories — and inspired her to speak up even more to create safer places to work. She speaks at TEDWomen 2017 in New Orleans. Photo: Stacie McChesney / TED

We have to be fierce. Gretchen Carlson is a veteran TV journalist and host who won the title of Miss America in the late ’80s, representing her home state with a smile and a plan to land a dream job in media. But again and again in her year wearing the crown, this young woman encountered men who pushed unwanted sexual advances on her: the TV executive who stuck his tongue down her throat; the LA publicist who grabbed her by the neck in a car backseat. “Only recently did I realize these incidents weren’t just harassment – they were assault,” she says now. “But like so many survivors, I thought: ‘I’ve got this. I’m okay. Just move on, Gretchen.’” Fast-forward to 2016, when her story of workplace harassment at Fox News broke. It was one of the scariest days of her life — but it also brought an outpouring of women’s stories, a flood of honesty that inspired her to do more and has led to her new book. Onstage, she lays out three things we can all do to create safer places to work — from acting as allies to fighting against binding arbitration clauses in workplace contracts. Because here’s the breaking news, “the untold, shocking truth about women and sexual harassment: Women want to work in a safe, welcoming and harassment-free environment,” she says. A pause. “That’s it.”

Tribal attorney Tara Houska holds a piece of her cultural history — a rattle used in sacred ceremonies — while talking about the kids in the slide behind her, the Native American kids who are one of the fastest-growing new demographics in the US. Can we make life better for these kids? She speaks at TEDWomen 2017 in New Orleans. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

We are resilient. We are fierce. We are still here. “When you aren’t viewed as real people, it’s a lot easier to run over your rights,” says tribal attorney Tara Houska. As part of the bear clan from Couchiching First Nation in International Falls, Minnesota, she’s watched and experienced countless attempts to eradicate the legitimacy of her land, her people and her culture — the most recent instance being the months-long standoff at Standing Rock that resonated and rallied thousands around the world. Through systemic ignorance, violence, genocide and disregard of treaty agreements — often by governments themselves — native peoples are constantly fighting an uphill battle for fundamental rights. So let’s start addressing that ignorance, Houska suggests. Currently, there are 567 federally recognized tribes in the US alone, yet only half of all US schools mention more than a single tribe in textbooks. Education is fundamental, she says: “Change the narrative and grow. Empathize. Support. Remember we are as human beings living on this earth together. “

Mwende “FreeQuency” Katwiwa blends a poem about reproductive justice with a thoughtful discussion of Black Lives Matter — because, as she says, it is impossible to separate the two issues. She speaks at TEDWomen 2017. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

It is the artist’s job to unearth the story that other people try to bury, says Mwende “FreeQuency” Katwiwa. In a gut-wrenching, incisive talk-plus-poetry, she considers reproductive justice in America for black mothers through a poem called “The Joys of Motherhood,” which begins: “I don’t know if I have what it takes to stomach motherhood in this country.” In a world with true reproductive justice, everyone would be able to parent in safe, socially supportive environments, in healthy communities without fear of violence. But America makes no such guarantees for black mothers and their babies. As Mwende says, “[America] has taught me how some women give birth to babies and others to suspects / has taught me that this body will birth kin who are more likely to be held in prison cells than to hold college degrees.” She continues, “there is something about being black in America that has made motherhood sound like mourning.” Mwende ends the talk with a bold call to unite the reproductive justice movement with Black Lives Matter — in fact, she says, it is impossible to separate them.

Who are we without labels? Clemantine Wamariya grew up in Kigali, Rwanda, but when she was six, she was forced to flee genocide with her sister Claire. “You go from a person who’s away from home to a person with no home,” she says. “The place that’s supposed to want you has pushed you out, and no one takes you in. You are unwanted by anyone. You are a refugee.” Eventually, Clemantine and Claire came to the United States … and in a truly American twist, they were reunited with their parents live on Oprah. But her family still rarely speaks about the past. “None of us can make sense of what happened to us,” she says. Rwanda, she reminds us, is not the only country where people have turned on each other. “In order for us to stop the violence that goes on in the world, I beg you to pause. Let’s ask ourselves, who are we without words, who are we without labels? Who are we in our breath? Who are we in our heartbeat?”

Justin Baldoni shares his adventures on Instagram, where his posts about exercise draw male fans, while his posts about loving his wife and parenting his kid speak to women. He wondered: Why is that? He speaks at TEDWomen 2017. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

Taking the TED stage as himself, not as one of the many fictional men he has played, the actor, filmmaker, and social entrepreneur Justin Baldoni invites men to reject traditional norms of masculinity, to be accountable for and conscious of their actions — and to be vulnerable, express emotions, and disrupt the patriarchy. “I believe the only way that can happen,” he says, “is if men learn to not only embrace the qualities we’ve been told are “feminine” in ourselves, but to be willing to stand up, champion, and learn from the women who embody them.” And, sometimes, he adds, that means having to “shut up and listen.” As a proud feminist, Baldoni understands the privileged space he occupies within society and advocates for action-based activism. “As men, it’s time that we start to see past our privilege and recognize that we are not just part of the problem. Fellas: we are the problem. The glass ceiling exists because we put it there,” he says, “and if we want to be part of the solution, then words are no longer enough.”

“I was a bully.” This powerful admission early in Sally Kohn‘s talk hits hard. She’s always been told she was a nice person who gets along with all types of people, but the political pundit was haunted by a memory from grade school of mercilessly bullying another kid, with cruel words that stayed fresh in her mind long after every other fact about fifth grade was forgotten. That memory, along with a noticeable increase in recent hateful thoughts in the world at large, made her question the way people described her and even how she thought of herself: “What if I wasn’t a nice person at all — but really just a hateful monster?” She wanted to understand this early episode of bullying in her life within the broader context of hate and its growing influence in the world, and she began to ask questions. One serious truth she found as she literally wrote a book about hate (“Spoiler: I’m against it”): It isn’t enough to fight against big hateful expressions and actions, but also the small, everyday ones too.

In confronting her own history as a bully, Sally Kohn examines the continuum of hate — and finds that even the smallest act can be part of that continuum. On the other hand, she says, change is possible. She speaks at TEDWomen 2017. Photo: Stacie McChesney / TED


Breathe and push: Notes from Session 6: Rebuild

Leah Chase is 94 years old and she spent the morning, as she always does, cooking at her restaurant. She brings lessons from a life of activism and speaking up (and cooking) to the stage at TEDWomen 2017 in New Orleans. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

We’ve spent the past few days together thinking on big ideas, hard problems and new visions for what the world might be. What will tie it all together? This session on rebuilding — on facing tough questions and finding the inner (and exterior) resources we need to move forward.

Embrace your emotional truth. How we deal with our inner world drives everything, says psychologist Susan David. Every aspect of how we love, how we live, parent and lead is influenced by our emotional agility, how well we approach our emotions with curiosity, courage and compassion. But we need to strip away the toxic rigidity of categorizing emotions as overwhelmingly good or bad,  pushing away the “bad” ones or pretending they don’t exist. And in our society, we’ve adopted a damaging mentality of forcing positivity as a new form of moral correctness. “It’s tyranny of positivity, and it’s cruel, unkind and ineffective,” says David. “We do it to ourselves and we do it to others.” This systematic avoidance and invalidation of our true feelings doesn’t equip us to deal with the world as it is. Yet, how do we conquer something so daunting and painful? David suggests when you feel a strong feeling, to not immediately run for the emotional exists. When she was struggling, journaling provided a way to work through feelings in a healthy and ultimately life-changing way. Tough emotions are a part of our contract with life, she says. It’s up to us to handle them and ourselves with mercy and grace.

It starts with talking — and eating — together. By the time she took the stage by storm, the Queen of Creole Cuisine, Leah Chase, had already started cooking the lunch at her famous restaurant Dooky Chase. Though 94 years old, the activist and restaurateur radiates more life than an eager child, talking about the incredible group of people she has met throughout her life. She laughs at her children for asking her not to be political and proudly states, “You have to be political today. You have to be involved. You have to be part of the system. Look how it was when we couldn’t be a part of the system.” Chase knows too well the progress that has been made for women just in her lifetime — and how much more there is to do. In the midst of the civil rights movement, Dooky Chase served as a space where white and black people came together, where activists planned protests, and where the police entered but did not disturb. To her, it begins with talking, with sitting next to each other and discussing differences and commonalities. Still bustling today, Dooky Chase represents more than a place where people eat: It is symbolic of political transformation as it has “changed the course of America over gumbo and some fried chicken.” And, just in case anyone is concerned that she will retire anytime soon, Chase assures us that so long as she’s living, she will also be doing.

Musimbi Kanyoro is head of the Global Fund for Women, funneling money worldwide into making lives better. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

Promoting equal generosity. Like so many of the speakers who’ve stood on the TED Women stage this week, Musimbi Kanyoro is the child of a dynamo. Says Kanyoro of her mother, who lived in a farming village in western Kenya: “she was a little bit like Melinda Gates, but with a lot less money.” Her mother supported the education of scores of children and organized the community, especially the women, to solve problems. She embodied isirika, a Maragoli word that means “caring, together, for one another” or “equal generosity.” Today Kanyoro practices isirika on a much larger scale as president and CEO of the Global Fund for Women, one of the world’s leading foundations for gender equality. There are a few principles of isirika that she encourages people to follow: embrace and recognize each other’s common humanity; value each person’s ideas, skills and contributions, no matter how small; those who possess more also enjoy the privilege to give more. “What would happen if we made isirika into our default?” Kanyoro wonders. “What could we achieve for each other? For humanity?” Let’s find out — together.

Deanna Van Buren speaks at TEDWomen 2017 — Bridges, November 1-3, 2017, Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

Building spaces for justice. The day a 5-year-old Deanna Van Buren was sent home for punching the boy who called her the N-word, she also designed her first healing space. That forest refuge built out of foliage, righteous fury and her mom’s blankets was the first step on a path to architecture school and — following a revelatory visit to a bleak Pennsylvania prison — her current calling designing restorative justice centers. Restorative justice, Deanna explains, is an alternative system that treats crime as a “breach of relationships,” in which “all stakeholders come together to repair the breach.” Prisons and courthouses, on the other hand, are designed for the punitive approach favored by a justice system focused on mass incarceration. With help and ideas from incarcerated men and women as well as from organizations like the Center for Court Innovation, Deanna designed replacements for these unforgiving institutions via restorative justice and economics centers like Restore Oakland, peacemaking spaces in schools, and mobile villages that bring resources to under-resourced communities. These dynamic spaces provide safe venues for dialogue, healing and reconciliation; employment and job training; and social services to help keep people from entering the justice system in the first place. Invoking Cornel West’s belief that “Justice is what love looks like in public,” Deanna concludes by envisioning a future without prisons and by asking a final question: “What would a restorative justice city look like?”

Poet Sunni Patterson and dancer Chanice Holmes perform at TEDWomen 2017 in New Orleans. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED


They wanted her / but if they knew her. In an inferno of words and accompanied by the entrancing moves of dancer Chanice Holmes, poet Sunni Patterson sets the TEDWomen stage ablaze with a magicked ode to Black women, wild and untamed despite conscious (and failed) attempts to subdue them. “This winding Niger river of a woman / one who is unafraid to tear away / only to roam and then become the wind,“ recites Patterson. “She who speaks in gusts and cyclones / blasting us back to high ground, high consciousness / she turns and so does the world.”

Anjali Kumar is a “none” — a person with no professed religion, but lots of questions. She explored them onstage at TEDWomen 2017. Photo: Stacie McChesney / TED

A failed mission to find God. Sometimes a journey of discovery reveals truths we did not expect to find. More than 50 million people in the United States identify themselves as “none,” or not affiliated with a particular religion, but author and attorney AnjaliKumar found that most believe that there is a God, “We’re just not sure who it is.” With that in mind, Kumar went on a mission to define her own version of spirituality. Eschewing “big box” religions, Kumar spent time with witches in New York, a shaman in Peru and even placed a call to God from Burning Man, but it wasn’t until word spread of her planned trip to see an infamous “healer” in Brazil, did she make a truly remarkable discovery about humankind. Kumar‘s inbox was flooded with requests from friends and strangers, asking her to make requests on their behalf. Despite the diversity of people behind the requests, they generally agreed on what they wanted: good health, happiness and love. So although people may identify themselves with a multitude of identities or even as a “none,” Kumar found that when faced with any version of God, how we differ is less important than how we are the same.

Secrets of the Great Migration. Journalist Isabel Wilkerson tells the story of the Great Migration, the outpouring of 6 million African Americans from the Jim Crow South to cities in the North and West, between World War I and the 1970s. “This was the first time in American history that American citizens had to flee the land of their birth just to be recognized as the citizens that they had always been,” she says. It was also the first time in American history that the lowest caste people signaled they had options and were willing to take them, and the first time they had a chance to choose for themselves what they would do with their innate talents. “These people, by their actions, were able to do what the powers that be, North and South, could not or would not do,” she says, “They freed themselves.”

Isabel Wilkerson explores the greatest hidden story of the 20th century — the Great Migration of African Americans to cities of the north for work, safety and escape from Jim Crow. Photo: Stacie McChesney / TED

Revolutionary love is the call of our times. “If you cringe when people say love is the answer — I do too. I’m a lawyer.” Valarie Kaur closes the TEDWomen conference with a blockbuster talk about the revolutionary power of love, the “sweet labor” of actively working to make the world better, to hear each others’ stories, to help us see no one as a stranger. This struggle became personal to her when she gave birth to a son “in a time white nationalists call their great awakening, when far right-wing movements are on the rise around the globe, when hate crimes against Muslims and Sikhs are the highest they have been since 9/11. My son is growing up a little brown boy in a nation more dangerous for him than the one I was given. I will not be able to protect him when others see his body as a terrorist.” How can we begin to live in this world, how can we find the strength to make change? Do like the midwife says: Breathe. Then … push.

Valarie Kaur asks us to re-imagine the power of love at TEDWomen 2017. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED


Gallery: Just about to open doors at TEDWomen 2017 at the Orpheum Theater

Rehearsal days involve a lot of laptop time as our video and stage teams fine-tune the details to create the amazing experience that will be TEDWomen 2017 in New Orleans. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

We’re about to open the doors for the audience to join TEDWomen in New Orleans — three days of powerful talks from women and men that take on the issues breaking now and share soul-deep ideas for creating better lives going forward. TEDWomen is happening in an astonishing theater, new to us and freshly renovated but nearly a century old. In itself it’s a story of renewal and rejuvenation: Flooded during Katrina, the theater was meticulously restored and reopened in 2015. During our rehearsal and setup says, we’re pretty unabashedly taking hundreds of pictures of this glorious interior — which is about to rock with the sounds of the Lake Area Girls Choir backing the Broadway star Deborah Cox.

Photographer Ryan Lash captures this amazing theater from three angles — from the top of the house, from the first balcony, and a reverse shot from backstage capturing yet another impromptu crew meeting on the red circle.

The speaker’s-eye view from the red circle, looking out at the audience seating at the Orpheum Theater in New Orleans. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

Follow news from TEDWomen in a bunch of ways — here on the TED Blog, on @TEDTalks, on the hashtag #tedwomen. Tune in for some amazing Facebook Live interviews with four speakers throughout Thursday and Friday. And of course, look for talks from TEDWomen that will post on TED.com throughout the year to come!


The power of showing up: Notes from Session 1 of TEDWomen 2017: Build

Vocalist Deborah Cox and the Lake Area Girls Choir blow the roof off to kick-start TEDWomen 2017: Bridges, November 1-3, 2017, Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans. Photo: Stacie McChesney / TED

“We build them, we cross them, sometimes we burn them.” TED Content Director Kelly Stoetzel kicks off TEDWomen 2017 with an explanation of how she and conference curator Pat Mitchell developed this year’s rich conference theme, Bridges. “Over the next three days we’ll hear talks from artists and architects, entrepreneurs, scientists and activists,” she continues — the usual TED fare, in other words, given a special TEDWomen twist. In this session, “Build,” we find ideas of power, empathy, ingenuity and radical humanity, to name a few. So let’s get cracking.

I’m every woman. This fall, the powerhouse vocalist Deborah Cox is starring in the national tour of The Bodyguard, a musical based on a movie starring the late great Whitney Houston, who sings a song first popularized by the great Chaka Khan that was co-written by the songwriting legend Valerie Simpson (of Ashford & Simpson)  … That chain of strong women’s voices just got 50 voices stronger, as Cox opens with a stunning take on “I’m Every Woman,” joined by the young women of the Lake Area Girls Choir. Their combined voices rock the audience right out of their seats, echoing up through the balconies of the historic Orpheum Theater.

Be the first domino. Self-proclaimed professional troublemaker Luvvie Ajayi tamed her fears by conquering them in the boldest ways possible — deep-sea diving, skydiving and ziplining across forests. In this, the first full talk of the conference, she encourages others to do the same, to be the first domino causing a chain reaction. “Being the first domino is doing or saying what is difficult, because that is usually when it’s needed,” she says. However, she adds, we can’t simply rely on those who have traditionally spoken up and out to ignite social change. Instead, she call for us all to fearlessly embrace who we are as a revolutionary act, to become fellow troublemakers and speak truth to power despite trepidation.

Why did Luvvie Ajayi jump out of a “perfectly good plane,” she asks? To face her fear in the boldest way possible. She speaks at TEDWomen 2017: Bridges, November 1-3, 2017, Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

Footbridges that connect people with opportunity. Avery Louise Bang found her calling when she traveled in Fiji as a college student and saw communities mired in isolation because of the rivers, canyons or peaks separating them from the rest of the world. Without an easy way to cross these expanses, people struggled to send their kids to school or reach medical care. Bang resolved to help, and studied engineering before joining the Denver-based nonprofit Bridges to Prosperity, which has now built 270 bridges in more than 20 countries, connecting nearly a million people. But their work, she emphasizes, is less about constructing spans of steel, stone and mortar and more about transforming lives by giving them access to a larger world. She calls on countries and philanthropists to prioritize connecting the estimated one billion people on the planet still stranded due to geography. As she says: “Poverty due to rural isolation is a crisis we can solve in our lifetime.”

Avery Bang builds bridges — literal ones, that link isolated villages to schools, health care and markets. She speaks at TEDWomen 2017: Bridges, November 1-3, 2017, Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

Justice has geography too. Liz Ogbu is a trained architect, but she likes to say she works in spatial justice. What’s that, you ask? Well, she says, it’s a way to remember that all too often justice is impacted by geography. That’s right, she’s talking about gentrification — from the perspective of those displaced by it, not those looking to “fix” it. Ogbu questions the troubling assumption that some people (traditionally the poor or disenfranchised) will inevitably be pushed out when development and progress come knocking. “Why is it we treat culture erasure and economic displacement as inevitable?” she asks feistily. Instead, developers, architects, designers and policy makers must think differently about development, to “make a commitment to build people’s capacity to stay … to stay in their homes, to stay in their communities, to stay where they feel whole.”

Can we heal the Gulf of Mexico? Tonight, ocean expert Nancy Rabelais is speaking onstage; by Friday she’ll be back at work, diving the Gulf of Mexico to track the ominously named Dead Zone — a zone without enough oxygen in the water to support life. The Gulf has the second largest Dead Zone in the world, the size of New Jersey (“not to brag,” says Nancy), and on top of killing fish and crustaceans, it’s killing the traditional fisheries in these waters. Here’s the troubling reality: the Dead Zone is caused mainly by excessive nitrogen and phosphorous, the Mississippi-borne runoff of corn and soybean farms hundreds of miles upstream. How to help US Midwestern farmers care about shrimp fisheries in the Gulf? By speaking out and showing the connection between algae-poisoned water in Toledo, Ohio and the dying life on the bottom of the Gulf. Nancy is working to build across-the-aisle support for cleaning up the Gulf’s waters and restoring one of America’s treasures.

When Nancy Rabalais dives in the Gulf of Mexico, she sees the “dead zone” effects of farm techniques far upstream. She speaks at TEDWomen 2017: Bridges, November 1-3, 2017, Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

Justice is our responsibility. The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, says Eve Abrams, producer of Unprisoned, a podcast about the prison system. However, between one and four percent of those in prison are likely innocent. That’s 87,000 brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers — predominantly African American — unnecessarily separated from their families, their lives and dreams put on hold. Using audio footage from her interviews, Abrams shares the touching stories of those with incarcerated family members, and calls for us all to take a stand to ensure that the justice system ultimately works for everyone. “Justice is hard to come by,” she says. “If we don’t like what’s going on, it’s up to us to change it.”

Helping every mother have a healthy birth Christy Turlington Burns remembers the moment her just-born daughter was placed in her arms for the first time, a magical moment that was quickly shattered when her third stage of labor (when the placenta expels) did not go as planned. Surrounded by the best medical care, she lost almost a quart of blood as doctors and nurses worked to resolve her condition. She’s fine now — in fact, she was home with her baby within 24 hours. But as she found out, what happened to her is one of the leading causes of maternal death in the world. Burns resolved to help. Her nonprofit, Every Mother Counts, targets maternal health in a number of straightforward, practical ways. None of this is a mystery — we know how to help moms survive childbirth, and most of the interventions are low-cost and proven. Now we must find the will to do them, for every mother in the world.

Where to begin. Artist and poet Cleo Wade recites a moving poem about being an advocate for love and acceptance in a time when both seem in short supply. Interwoven with stories of individuals at the beginning or end of their lives, she shares the inherent truths that come with aging and reflects in the wisdom of a life well-lived. Wade leaves the stage with a simple yet enduring takeaway: be good to yourself, be good to others, be good to the Earth. “The world will say to you / ‘Be a better person’/ Don’t be afraid to say yes,” she says.

That’s it from TEDWomen for tonight. Up tomorrow, a whole host of more extraordinary stories and insightful ideas. Stay tuned, and night from New Orleans.