Field Report: Inside TEDx Augusta

A teenager fresh out of high school extols the importance of parents instilling values to their children. Minutes later, a distinguished public radio host belts out an aria. Not be outdone, a doctor specializing in brain trauma riffs on an electric guitar, recalling his previous life playing with Blue Oyster Cult. And for the finale, a distinguished developer explains why much of the country has lost its way building communities. Varied topics, myriad presenters, surprising moments—it must be a TED event. In this case, it’s the second annual TEDx Augusta (Georgia), held in late January. TED Talks have become ubiquitous in our culture, providing short, thought-provoking speeches at a time when Americans’ attention spans continue to shrink. Technological icons like Bill Gates are often associated with the nonprofit organization’s global and national conferences, but TEDx events are locally driven, featuring a region’s top minds. Each is a showcase for the host city. That much was evident at my first trip into the TED world. Business leaders, military members and other community leaders waited in line on a cold day outside the Imperial Theater to hear 17 speeches, each lasting less than 18 minutes. Many purchased tickets before the presenters were announced as a show of support for the event that got the official TED seal of approval after its trial run in 2014. Local pastries were served as snacks, a local coffee shop provided the caffeine and an area book store sold books about big ideas in a nearby tent. Underscoring the homegrown aspect of the one-day conference: Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver was among the speakers. “Connections” was the loose thread tying the talks together, which, of course, could be the theme of any event. Unofficial themes of social engagement, innovation, medicine/science and community involvement linked the four sessions. The overall message was simple enough: Think big. But it came from different, sometimes, surprising sources. What does young Harry Judd know about parenting, I thought? Yet his talk about adults shaping adolescents’ minds was the topic of two conversations I had over lunch. It then dawned on me: Someone still under the direct influence of parents probably is an expert on the subject. Celeste Headlee, host of the Georgia Public Broadcasting program "On Second Thought,” stressed the importance of ignoring job titles and finding your true calling. It turns out radio is only Headlee’s day job. She’s also a professional opera singer and wowed the crowd with a performance after her speech. Dr. John Rigg, who went to medical school in his 40s after a career as a professional musician, also provided entertainment in the form of a guitar solo, which is how he relives stress—a key theme of his talk on how the brain reacts to trauma. My brain is still spinning after the final discussion by Turner Simkins, a developer dedicated to the idea of sacred design. In essence, he believes cities should be built around the idea of creating an open environment for communities to come together to share thoughts and experiences. Sounds like a great idea, but one he says the country has gotten away from. Weeks after the conference, these are the four talks that remain engrained in my mind. The beauty of TEDx is another attendee from the same event could highlight talks about a different sort of hacker, recycling plastic bags into sleep sacks for the homeless and one doctor’s quest to teach a Middle Eastern country that cancer should not be a taboo word. My big takeaway: Augusta did itself proud generating ideas that people from all walks of life can act upon. TEDx’s format may not be similar to that of many conferences, but the goal is the same.