Rethinking our Perceptions and Embracing Change

by Maja Staka

Saturday afternoon, Kathryn Lennon, a planner with the City of Edmonton’s CITYlab team, walked onstage to face a crowd of faces shrouded in darkness. Her smile was warm, and her voice unwavering. Pointing towards the PowerPoint behind her, she seemed eager to continue. “So whenever I visit a new city, I end up in Chinatown because I find that there’s a sense of familiarity there, a connection that’s truly about the connection of food and community,” she said. Continuing along the same vein, Kathryn cited a few poems from her student days in Waterloo, when she was disconnected from her family and discovered mooncakes and other Chinese delicacies as delicate threads to her identity. Kathryn believes this connection between multiculturalism, food and community is vital as it connects us to our ancestors. But what happens when we forget how to make soup dumplings or roll Baba’s pierogi dough? Do we lose a part of ourselves?

This and many other questions were raised during the second annual TEDxUAlberta – a meeting of minds that is more social gathering than abstract lecture and which caters to people from every possible community and creed. In fact, this universality is the very backbone of the TEDx speaker series which was designed to help communities, individuals and organizations connect and learn from one another by sparking dialogs that are intricately associated with each conference location. TEDx events are independently planned and operated so that anyone, including businesses, universities and youth groups can apply for a TEDx license.

In this spirit, TEDxUAlberta was founded in 2015 with the intention of promoting the exchange of ideas and the creation of innovative solutions to a variety of challenges within the academic community and beyond. As Yasmin Rafiei, founder and President of TEDxUAlberta explains, the organizers didn’t want a conference, but a story. Instead of an M.C., they wanted a narrator and, instead of a set of disjointed lectures, they wanted their listeners to go through the ebb and flow of a journey.

What came about this mission was simply beautiful. Although the grouping of talks seemed random from the start, each presentation managed to fuse the concept of “rebooting” into conversations about belonging, trauma, storytelling and facing our worst fears.

Many speakers were seasoned, some less-so, fumbling with their mikes and ardently trying to read the lines on the small screen sitting four feet away from them. But none of that mattered. Every single presenter was able to create a strong and lasting connection with the crowd.

Shawn Kanungo, a corporate strategist with Deloitte, was a clear favorite, managing to keep the hordes laughing for the entirety of his fifteen minutes on stage. “So what do I teach my daughter about the future? […] How do I prevent her from dating guys like John Stamos?” He said. “I will teach her the importance of finding secrets. Netflix discovered the secret of the television industry by asking a simple question. Why do you have to wait a week for a new television show to come out? Netflix challenged this secret and discovered secrets about our consumption habits. You need to break innovation down, transform the way you think about it”. Clutching his mike, Kanungo ended with an enticing plea. “There are millions of secrets out there, just waiting for you. Please go find them. We need you to”.

Jared Smith, the co-founder of the growth marketing firm Incite and a proud graduate of the University of Alberta School of Business, had a different request for the crowd. “My challenge for you is to not seek out happy moments, but to seek out tough moments”. For Jared, these words are a painful reminder of his sister’s death from cancer, which he described as a mind-numbing event that completely changed his life and made him ready to take on just about anything, including a year-long training simulation with Navy Seals. Suffering, suggests the speaker, is better endured with others. “Find something tough that requires a team of people around you to solve it. Remember to cheer together […] in your moments of despair, and let others put their hands on your back”. Instead of being crushed by adversity, we must reboot the way we approach life’s challenges – and find ways to heal and grow together. “You got this”, he says with a smile, “I know you do”.

Another highlight included a passionate discussion of de-colonization by Quetzala Carson, who described a mind-blowing experience outside the very venue which hosted per on Saturday, during which a police officer approached the scholar and special needs educator to ask per if she was loitering. Shaken but unsurprised by the query, Quetzala made use of the experience to emphasize per main point. “That’s why it’s important to call up colonial violence, but to do it in a nice way, a kind way, and a loving way […] you can call someone out, but you can also call someone in and build a relationship with them. Tell them, ‘I know this’, ‘I learned this’, ‘I too was you, young padowan'”. Quetzala’s speech seeped with pain and resonated deeply with the crowd, who snapped and loudly cheered the speaker as pe urged the crowd to think about their privilege as persons standing on Treaty Six land and continue the discussion of colonial violence in every way possible. “With time”, says Quetzala, “this violence can change. It can cease to exist”.

Jesse Lipscombe, an actor, restaurant owner and black community leader echoed this sentiment of calling people in, citing an incident where the phrase “the niggers are coming” was thrown at him during the filming of a PSA for Edmonton’s downtown. Instead of ignoring the perpetrators, Jesse walked over to the car and asked the drivers why they had resorted to calling him names. They quickly drove off, leaving Jesse with both the video evidence and inspiration for #makeitawkward, a campaign which allows people to speak up safely against discrimination based on race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or gender. Jesse suggested not challenging racists physically per say, but to speak up for victims of racism by means of asking questions like, “Grandpa, I didn’t understand the humor behind that joke, could you explain? It seemed really racist, did you mean it to be?”

Both Carson and Lipscombe admitted to making their crowd uncomfortable on purpose, not out of aggression but simply to prove that a rebooting of perspectives cannot occur without a certain level of discomfort – without that “Ah-ha” recognition of our own biases and blanks in knowledge. After all, if we don’t challenge ourselves to learn and evolve as human beings, how will we ever educate others?

Dalbir Sehmby, the event’s last speaker, had perhaps the most persuasive “rebooTED” argument of the night. Dressed in a matching blue turban and blouse, the professor of English at the University of Alberta’s Faculté St. Jean mentioned stereotypes of Indian taxi drivers, then switched the ball on audience members by swapping an Indian accent for a Northern Alberta drawl. Rampant applause, of course, followed. “See, I got you”, he chuckled. “When we tell stories about one another after major traumatic events, those stories are not grounded in a nuanced reality but in stereotypes. We have a binary thinking, us vs them. […] The scapegoating functions as a solution the narrative. Instead of dealing with fear in a healthy way, we project onto some sort of Scapegoat. The first victim of 911 was a hate crime victim, a Sikh man who had just donated money to the New York Police. He was shot dead. These narratives are historical, there are no surprises there. So all these narratives exist, and we are fearful, they come up again. This is why we need to reboot our understanding of 911, our understanding of scapegoating. We need to look at acts as recent as in January of 2017, an attack on a Canadian Muslim mosque, and rethink how we approach others”.

As a whole, TEDxUAlberta2017 not only challenged us, the Edmonton community, to think about our past and future in a critical way, but to reconsider the way we approach our institutions and instantly trust the facts we are told on a daily basis. It only takes a few moments to ask someone a sincere question about their thoughts, or to interrogate a reality we once thought indispensable. Rebooting does not come without a challenge, but it is crucial in working towards a better future – for the University of Alberta community, for Edmonton, and beyond. How can you catalyze change? How can you reboot? The answers are likely simpler than you thought.

Banner photography courtesy of TEDxUAlberta.