TEDxMidd Talks “Playing the Game”

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TEDxMidd Talks “Playing the Game”

Gabbie Santos '17 discusses his transgender identity and experiences at TEDx.

Gabbie Santos '17 discusses his transgender identity and experiences at TEDx.

Gabbie Santos '17 discusses his transgender identity and experiences at TEDx.

Gabbie Santos '17 discusses his transgender identity and experiences at TEDx.

By Sabine Poux, Contributing Writer

What is feminist glaciology? How should we talk about intersectionality? Can graffiti bring people together? Is there a solution to mass incarceration?

These are just some of the many questions that were addressed at the TEDxMiddlebury event on Sunday, Nov. 13. The event, hosted in the Mahaney Center for the Arts (MCA), brought together seven live and two previously recorded speakers in three hour-long sessions. The speakers’ topics covered a range of ideas but all fit under the umbrella theme of “Playing the Game.”

The theme encompassed the different ways in which we navigate and play “the game,” and to each speaker this meant something different. Some interpretations were abstract while some were literal, creating a fascinatingly diverse arrangement of talks.

The conference was a function of TEDx, a branch of the TED conferences. TEDx offers independently organized events that amplify the sharing of “ideas worth spreading” in communities. The informative and entertaining TEDx talks, covering a wide range of subjects, allow speakers to communicate to the audience their novel ideas and passions in an enthralling way.

The student-run TEDxMiddlebury board, a branch of the Center for Creativity, Innovation & Social Entrepreneurship (CCISE), was the brain behind the conference. The TEDxMiddlebury volunteers and board members worked extremely hard to choose the theme, contact potential speakers and organize the event. Their efforts were evident in the enormous success of the event.

This year’s TEDxMiddlebury event was split into three sessions. Each speaker spoke for 18 minutes, and many used projected images to supplement their talks. The talks were followed by student-led discussions, as audience members commented and reflected on the speakers’ talks.

The afternoon began with Kaamila Mohamed’s talk, entitled “Intersecting Identities and Space Making.” Mohamed referenced their identity as a black genderqueer Muslim to show how these identities do not need to exist in separate spheres. Instead, they drew upon intersectionality to find peace with themself, and promoted a powerful message about self-acceptance and love.

Mohamed was followed by Sarah Finnie Robinson, a Breadloaf School of English alumnus. In her talk, “The Game of Our Lives,” Robinson referred to the election and other recent political and environmental contexts in order to destroy the idea that climate change is a belief and not a fact. She praised the College for its environmental efforts, but acknowledged that there is more that needs to be done.

Reshma Saujani came next with her pre-recorded talk, “Teach Girls Bravery, Not Perfection.” Saujani is the Founder and CEO of the tech organization, Girls Who Code. In her discussion, Saujani criticized society for teaching girls to be perfect but failing to encourage female bravery and ambition. She cited this as a source of the deficit of girls in STEM careers, and encouraged a shift in the way we address girls and their work.

After a 15-minute break we heard from Will Kasso, with his talk entitled “Colors.” Kasso, who grew up in the inner city of Trenton, New Jersey, used art as a way to escape the criminal activity of his neighborhood in his youth. Through graffiti, he not only found a community of artists, but also a profession he loved — he is now a professional visual artist. While on stage, Kasso did a live painting, and his talk was so well-received by the audience that it earned a standing ovation.

Adam Foss’s pre-recorded talk, “A Prosecutor’s Vision for a Better Justice System” came next. Foss, a prosecutor in Boston, discussed the importance of keeping people out of jail. Offering real and educational solutions, he said, will end the self-fulfilling prophecy of returning to jail over and over again throughout one’s life and will break individuals out of the prison system and propel them into more productive lifestyles.

Next came speaker Mattie Brice, with “Using Play for Everyday Activism.” Brice discussed using video games for change and how she has engineered video games to help her friends understand her battles with depression. In this way, video games have been an important avenue of social action for her.

The conference resumed after the second break with Gabbie Santos ’17. Santos is an International Politics and Economics (IPE) major at the College. He competed for a spot at the conference against many other students and told himself that if he won he would come out to his parents — hence the title of his talk, “Go Big and Call Home.” Santos spoke of his experiences as a transgender male and critiqued the gender binary and heteronormativity that are embedded in society. Santos received a standing ovation from his peers.

“I like to imagine a block,” said Santos, “with a spectrum on it that we cut into two parts, then four, then eight and we keep cutting and cutting and cutting until the parts are so small, the divisions so thin, that when we take a step back, we can no longer tell that there any divisions at all. It begins to look like one whole block again, a fluid spectrum.”

Next, Marco Mezzavilla, a research fellow in engineering at the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering gave a talk entitled, “Wireless, Faster, Closer: 5G and Beyond.” He discussed the implications of up-and-coming 5G technology and travelled through the different generations of cell phones and Internet access. He tied these ideas to the importance of connecting worlds and how incredible it is that we can send messages across oceans “in a blink of an eye.”

Taking a different interpretation of the same theme was M. Jackson, with “Glacier, Gender, and Science: We Need More Stories of Ice.” Jackson described her experiences as a feminist glaciologist and the extensive criticism she has received towards her unique career. She discussed the necessity of having both female and male glaciologists in order to produce a well-rounded knowledge of the study. She proceeded to take this thought beyond glaciology and said it represents a greater indication of how we treat women in science and beyond.

Jackson’s talk about feminist glaciology resonated strongly with one student in particular, Georgia Grace Edwards ’18.

“I have always been obsessed with TED Talks,” said Edwards. “But I never expected to feel such a deep, meaningful level of connection like that which I experienced during M’s talk.”

“This past summer,” continued Edwards, “I worked for a helicopter company as a glacier guide on the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska, and I experienced so many of the gendered assertions that M voiced. However, in the moment, I didn’t know how to make sense of them and I didn’t understand what they meant in terms of a bigger picture.”

Jackson’s talk helped Edwards see the sexism she faced over the summer through a new lens and to realize the stigma surrounding female glacier guides.

“All my male co-workers had these big, scruffy beards and just looked like your typical rugged, Alaskan mountain men,” Edwards reflected. “And I think for tourists, that was the idea and the expectation they had in mind when they decided to come to Alaska. So no matter how many times I gave a more informative or energizing or funny tour, no matter how many times I gave my own gloves up to tourists or went the extra mile for them in any way (which the guys never did), I was never going to measure up to the masculine ideal that parallels the ‘man conquers glacier’ narrative.”

“And sure enough,” Edwards continued, “while I did make more in tips than any other female glacier guide, I did not even come close to that of my male counterparts. To have seemingly small observations like this one validated at the intersection of science and gender studies by a professional in the field of ‘feminist glaciology’ — which I had no idea even existed — was both liberating and relieving. I am incredibly grateful to Middlebury and to the TEDx team for bringing this speaker to campus, and for inspiring what may potentially become a new career goal for me.”

As Edwards’s revelation demonstrates, these talks offered unique connections between the speakers and the audience.

“TED Talks are an expression of something that you’re really into and love,” said Brice. “While I’ve always had these ideas in my head, I really got to communicate them to others, which forced me to shrink them down and make them concise and strong and factual.”

Santos added, “Speaking at TEDxMiddlebury was a very powerful experience, and I am very grateful for the opportunity. I came back from my year abroad in France, and I felt so ready and excited to share my most authentic self with our college community, especially as it is my senior year and days feel numbered. In important ways, my talk meant more to me than just any speech or any performance.”

The event’s nine individual talks were conducive to a deeply personal offering and receiving of ideas. The vulnerability of the speakers created intimacy in the theater, which made the event all the more meaningful. From climate change to video games to transexuality, the audience experienced a host of topics and was left to ruminate on a wide and range of ideas.

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