Arts & Culture

TEDx holds third Providence conference

Conversations about health, civic duty, education headline conference line-up

Contributing Writer
Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The TEDxProvidence 2014 conference this weekend brought together community leaders from Rhode Island to share their perspectives on themes of health and wellness, civic engagement and education.

The events, which took place Saturday at the Rhode Island School of Design Auditorium, marked the third year of the annual conference.

Local speakers included footwear and furniture designer Martin Keen; Adrienne Gagnon, a design educator for DownCity Design; and Alyson McGregor, assistant professor of emergency medicine at the Alpert Medical School. Speakers were nominated by the community and then chosen by members of the Providence Speaking Society.

“It’s a process that requires much deliberation in order to curate an event that will be interesting for everyone,” said Peter Haas, TEDxProvidence event coordinator.

“This year, 90 people were nominated to speak, which is a record number of nominees,” said Michael Gazdacko, another event coordinator.

Each year’s themes are chosen based on dominant ideas among previous years’ nominees, who are used as a “guide to where the community is interested,” Haas said.

The conference commenced with talks on health and wellness. Keen spoke about body-conscious design and how furniture needs to reflect the body’s natural posture.

“When we sit down, we tend to shut down,” Keen said. His company, Focal Upright, aims to change the way people sit while at work.

Next, McGregor’s talk examined how women’s health has been compromised by its societal definition. She said conceptions of women’s health should move beyond “bikini health” — the idea that sex characteristics are the only difference between women’s and men’s health.

“I gave this talk to a National Emergency Medicine conference in 2007. There were two people in the audience. People weren’t ready to hear it,” McGregor told The Herald. “Last year, I gave the same talk, and there were over a hundred people.”

Subsequent discussions of health included an analysis of how to bring “play” into the workplace and a personal story of overcoming mental illness, after which the talks progressed toward civic engagement. One speaker shared her experience during the Central Falls recovery after the city fell into bankruptcy. Nick Horton, a prison reformer, spoke about his 9 Yards program, which uses education as a tool to help prevent released prisoners from being reincarcerated.

During the education session, Don Miller, the principal at Charles E. Shea Senior High School in Pawtucket, spoke about how relationships between students and faculty are the key to our education system.

Gagnon spoke about how young people can bring creativity and innovation to their education through design.

“It’s important to get a sense of all the important things in the world and by sitting you down to tell these stories, that’s how we curate all these ideas,” Gagnon told The Herald. “There are people doing interesting things locally and internationally.”

Three-hundred seventy-five tickets were sold this year to TEDxProvidence, 80 of which were student tickets.

Though the numbers are consistent with 2013’s event, Haas said he believed that the scheduling overlap with the A Better World By Design conference may have kept TEDx from selling out completely, adding that the two conferences may attract a similar audience.

“Between now and our first year, we’ve gotten more professional in presentation,” Haas said. By moving the event from the Friedman Auditorium to the RISD Auditorium, coordinators and speakers were able to showcase more complex audio and visual media. “We did have a few technical errors this year, which we will correct for next year,” Haas said.

For Haas, the most rewarding part of the TEDx experience is “seeing the joy in speakers’ eyes when they’re up there. At the end of (each) speech, the audience’s applause is validation that this is something the community wants.”

“Horton’s talk on prison reform was fascinating. He presented a great argument for rehabilitation-based programs,” said attendee Mitchell Johnson ’18.

“It was a community for people to share ideas that are shaping Providence, and what’s amazing is that so much of it stems from the universities here,” Johnson said. For example, Gagnon graduated from RISD, and McGregor currently holds a position at Alpert Medical School.

“We are getting the process for TEDxProvidence 2015 started in the next few weeks. We want to get students involved — we have needs in graphic design, audio and visual production, promotion and more,” Haas said.

Next year’s TEDxProvidence will be held on April 25. Themes slated for discussion will include the environment, finance and entertainment.

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