On Saturday, April 14, the inaugural TEDxDrewUniversity conference went down at Drew University in Madison, NJ, under the banner of Life as We Don’t Know It. Six diverse, insightful, animated speakers and roughly 100 attendees gathered in the university’s concert hall to explore a panoply of contemporary ideas and concepts that often seem black-and-white to us, but upon closer examination reveal themselves to be more so gray areas from which we can potentially extract groundbreaking, progressive concepts and ideas we’ve yet to imagine. TEDxDrewUniversity was organized by a remarkably affable and efficient team of Drew students led by TED Translator Gabriel Lima. Hosting duties were carried out by The Princeton Review’s editor-in-chief, the incomparable Robert Franek, who both delivered a spirited welcome to the audience and provided the speakers with equally lively introductions.
The first session of the conference took place in the late morning and featured three speakers: Michael DePalma, an entrepreneur and a health technologist; Dr. Kate Ott, a writer and an associate professor of Christian Social Ethics at Drew University Theological School (also known as the Theo School); and Olivia Blondheim, a marine biologist and an ocean conservationist currently studying biology and Spanish at Drew.
Diving right into one of the most urgent problems almost all of us face today—data privacy—Michael’s talk proposed that we undertake grassroots measures to ensure that each of us exercises complete control over her digital data—control that’s founded on what Michael called “decentralization with order,” which would effectively replace the data-handling middlemen we currently rely on with “smart contracts” and crypto-currencies.
Dr. Ott followed Michael with a talk that addressed present women’s-rights movements (like metoo.), particularly in light of the recent, continuing revelations of sexual assault and harassment allegedly committed against women by a seemingly endless litany of famous, high-profile, influential men. Her call for new forms of women’s empowerment that are rooted in a rebalancing of gender power dynamics in all spheres of life could not come at a more necessary time.
Before the midday lunch break, Olivia Blondheim directed our attention to the health of our oceans’ ecosystems, warning that many of the world’s fisheries could collapse by the year 2050 if we don’t drastically change how we extract and consume our oceans’ resources. She also discussed how we can observe the behaviors of sea creatures like pyrosomes to determine the status of our oceans’ well-being.
After a leisurely catered lunch, everybody reassembled in the concert hall for the conference’s second session. Before the next speaker took the stage, the audience was treated to an excellent a capella choir set by a group of Drew students—a performance that segued nicely into the fourth talk.
“The New-Age African Artist”: That’s what Cynthia Amoah, a spoken-word poet-performer and writer, delineated through an impassioned mix of her own poems and stories that touched on her dual identities (Cynthia has spent much of her life in the U.S., but she’s originally from Ghana, West Africa), her journey to poetry, and the responsibility of artists like herself to engage with subjects such as identity, race, gender and social justice. In this day and age, as we continue to witness governments and elites wage assault after assault on our civil liberties and those of countless individuals worldwide, it’s more vital than ever that we listen to voices like Cynthia’s—voices demanding a holistic humanism to serve as an antidote to the dangerous policies that would rather have us fall in line behind racism, xenophobia, sexism, war-mongering, anti-intellectualism and a bevy of other destructive ideologies.
Educator, consultant and nonprofit leader Ulcca Joshi Hansen hit the stage next to highlight and advocate for “student-centered learning experiences that celebrate and maximize the unique potential of individual children regardless of their background, circumstances, physical or cognitive differences.” She homed in on the need for more schools that focus on imbuing students with a strong sense of belonging and purpose, as well as on the necessity of providing young people with viable ways to connect with their communities.
Finally, to cap off the first annual TEDxDrewUniversity conference, Ross Michaels, a music producer, artist manager and an original founder and the co-president of Park Avenue Artists, gave an animated, witty, unflinching talk about trusting our gut instincts and following them fearlessly to our goals. “Feeling is the human business,” Ross emphasized, as he shared several candid anecdotes about the key experiences in his life that led him to this realization—and eventually to become a cultivator and curator of feeling through music. (One of these stories involved a rough breakup and the restorative power of the raw emotion expressed in Phil Collins’ iconic song “In the Air Tonight”.) “Feel every situation you find yourself in,” Ross said, “and don’t discard what you intuit as your true path, no matter who tries to dissuade you.” Excellent advice, especially now, when so many voices and distractions from every direction make it easier than ever for us to submit to the status quo.
And an excellent note on which to close a conference that was a resounding success. The novel ideas put forth by the speakers brought into clearer resolution many important gray areas in our lives, and the departing audience was undeniably invigorated to reexamine the human experience through more perceptive lenses. Here’s to building on this success at next year’s gathering!