TEDxUofM’s annual TED-style conference, held on Friday in the Power Center, focused on change — both creating it and responding to it.
The conference featured more than 10 TED-style talks from Ann Arbor community members including Business Administration prof. Wayne Baker, attorney Khawla Wakkaf and LSA junior Sam McMullen.
Reciprocity was the focus of Baker’s talk, in which he examined the paradox of people continualy asking one another for what they need. To examine reciprocity he created and studied a “reciprocity ring.” Participants in the ring could ask for help and others could pay it forward.
“When we first started doing this, I thought that giving was going to be the problem,” Baker said. “That’s not true. Generosity isn’t the problem — most people are willing to help. The real problem is getting people to ask for what they need.”
Baker is currently working at an Ann Arbor startup company to create a reciprocity app, based on his research with the reciprocity ring. The app would allow users to ask for help from other users for various problems, Baker said.
“I think the app has real potential to create a big, positive impact on the world by spreading the practice of paying it forward far and wide,” he said.
Following Baker’s lecture the audience was instructed to break into groups of four to create their own reciprocity ring. They were then challenged to ask for specific, tangible requests that had to be delivered within an allotted amount of time.
Engineering senior Emma Hyde said she attended the event because she herself has seen many TED and TEDx talks online and wanted to see one in person.
“Just being able to come this year was kind of a must-do before I graduate,” Hyde said. “For me as a person it’s always really important to hear about different perspectives.”
Wakkaf delivered a lecture on the current state of the Syrian people and how citizens of the world ought to use their voices for people who don’t have the opportunity to speak for themselves. The region is currently in the middle of a civil war, which has resulted in over 250,000 deaths and displaced over 6 million, according to the United Nations.
She told the story of her friend — a student at the University of Aleppo — who had to complete his studies in the face of constant violence, once walking to class half an hour after three of his neighbors had been killed by a bomb dropped in front of his apartment building.
Wakkaf said after reflecting on her and her friends’ experiences, she knew she had to create positive change, but not for the whole world and not all at once.
“I don’t have to carry the world on my shoulders,” Wakkaf said. “All I need to do is to make small improvement in my own corner of the world.”
She also spoke about the experience of growing up and becoming disenchanted with the possibility of making a difference in the world, but said the solution was realizing how to be content with making a difference in your own community.
“We can’t always travel thousands of miles in order to help someone,” she said. “But what we can do is open our eyes to the reality that suffering exists around us, because to change an ugly reality we first need to acknowledge its existence.”
LSA sophomore Kristy Allen, who is one of TEDxUofM’s three co-directors, said TEDxUofM chooses its speakers based on whom the staff members know and what new perspectives those people might be able to bring to the conference.
“It’s very much so based on our team just talking to people in the community and meeting people that they feel have interesting ideas,” Allen said.
Allen also noted TEDxUofM’s sense of community, and how it serves to connect individuals in new ways.
“We seek to create events that encourage an atmosphere that allows for barriers to be broken and people to interact on different levels and have conversations that you wouldn’t normally have and think about realms that you normally wouldn’t have considered,” she said.
LSA junior Sam McMullen was also a featured TEDxUofM speaker, talking about seven months in which he attempted to live a trash-free life. He encouraged the audience to embrace the challenging nature of tackling climate change through conscious lifestyle choices.
McMullen said his experience with living a trash-free life wasn't easy, and his effort couldn't be completed alone.
“By living without trash, I had to enlist the help of everyone around me,” McMullen said. "My professors had to agree to let me send in homework via e-mail. My wait staff had to remember not to put the straw in the water.”
By asking for outside help, McMullen felt he was at times imposing his personal beliefs onto others. He said it got easier once he checked his ego and acknowledged the fact that what he was requesting was unorthodox.
“The beautiful thing about this whole thing is that once people have been an accomplice to an act of trashless-ness, they start to think about their own impact,” he said. “We’re confronted with this massive issue where cause and effect are completely separated. And if you live in the developed world like I do, you’re probably never going to see the whole impact that your lifestyle actually has.”
Following the conference was a reception at the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum, where conference participants were provided with dinner and an opportunity to discuss the day’s talks.
At the reception, University Psychology Prof. Thad Polk said he decided to deliver a TED-style talk because he himself is a fan of TED talks.
“I’ve watched a lot of TED talks and I’m just very inspired by people sharing big ideas,” Polk said. “When I was invited I was very honored and jumped at the chance.”
Polk said he thought students were drawn to TED-style talks because of their unique format and speaker intimacy.
“It seems like TED talks have captured a particularly compelling way to distill key ideas,” Polk said. “The speakers really try to condense down to, say, 12 to 15 minutes just one key idea and then focus on presenting it in a really passionate and compelling way and it’s extremely effective.”
Among conference attendees was LSA junior Reid Klootwyk, who went to the TEDxUofM conference to see old ideas in a new light. Klootwyk said the TED-style talk that most resonated with him was one regarding mental health and awareness by political science lecturer Lynn River.
“I realize that it’s a problem that affects a lot of students and a lot of people in general,” Klootwyk said. “It affects everyone, and it’s really important to know.”
He added that he walked away impressed knowing students could help create and manage high profile events like the TEDx conference.
“Students can put on a big-time event like this and bring people not only from the University, but all around campus together and share perspectives on all sorts of different ideas,” he said.