Last week, I had the amazing opportunity to attend the TEDWomen 2018 conference in Palm Springs, CA. Across three days, over 40 talks, and one improv workshop, plus time in between spent eating and drinking with women attending from across the globe, I received enough input to last a while (and enough to make me spend Saturday in my pajamas).
One of my new TED friends said it best, that it will take some time for our experience to marinate, before we truly can appreciate what we experienced and how we will bring back what we saw and heard to our own lives. I think that’s true: it’s hard to know where, exactly, this buzz of inspiration and motivation will lead. It’s a general buzz, for me—I’m not immediately sure where I’ll apply it. And that’s what needs to marinate.
In the immediate, It’s easy to get caught in a trap of either self-defeat (well, I don’t have a pet project that is saving the world so what good am I) or self-importance (my new life goal is to give a TED talk so I’m going to start writing it now and force my way into that narrative). I turn to the observations I made about the group of presenters as a whole to stop those lines of thinking and return to following where that buzz may take me.
I very much doubt that any of the presenters were sitting around five or ten years ago, thinking, “I really want to give a TED talk someday.” Especially not Lindy Lou Isonhood, a grandmother from Mississippi who spoke about her life-changing experience of being a juror on a capital murder trial. Instead, they all seemed to share four characteristics that shaped their stories.
First, they all have an intense curiosity about the world around them, and this curiosity drives them to always ask why, especially when it comes to the status quo. Why are things the way they are, and is that really the best way for them to be? Why do we act the way we act, and if I understand that, what are the implications? Throw in a little courage and bravery into the mix, and you have women who then also ask, How can I change the way things are? For the speakers, this curiosity ranged from why we think sloths are slothful (Lucy Cooke) to why fascist and autocratic rulers can come to and stay in power (Farida Nabourema). From why we talk about grief the way we do/don’t (Nora McInerny) to why black girls are over-represented in disciplinary actions in schools (Monique W. Morris). From how climate change is linked to gender equity (Katharine Wilkinson) to how toxic masculinity leads men down dangerous paths (Eldra Jackson III).
Based on this curiosity, they looked for a need. Or maybe a need found them based on their circumstances. Marian Wright Edelman of the Children Defense Fund told us that if you “follow the need, you’ll never be without something to do.” The point is, they didn’t stop at, “Huh, that’s interesting,” when they satisfied their curiosity. They turned it into solving a problem, to addressing that need. These identified needs spanned from the local—the need for building supplies in Gaza (Majd Mashharawi) and the need for a safe school for girls otherwise destined for FGM and child marriages in Kenya (Kakenya Ntaiya)—to the global—the need to understand the science of gender (Karissa Sanbonmatsu) and the need to change the narrative of how women and minorities are represented in history (Ariana Curtis). Cecile Richards is beginning to see that there is a need for a women’s political revolution.
No one was trying to solve every problem from every angle. They all understood their expertise or their project was one slice of a much larger solution. Seeing so many people doing what they could, where they could, made it clear that if we all put our energy into the one or few things that really get our blood boiling, that really spark our curiosity and keep us up at night, those small acts combine together into a wave. As singer/songwriter Ane Brun told us, “Find the place where you can add your single drop to the flood.” These drops included improving standards for domestic workers (Ai-jen Poo), improving bias in robotic systems (Ayanna Howard), and building a movement based on community and dialogue using art (Aja Monet and philip agnew). All speakers combined their curiosity, their expertise, and their desire to make a change into a potent elixir that pushes boundaries and nudges the world to a better place. With enough nudging, there is an earthquake.
Finally, they stood on this stage in front of hundreds of strangers and were vulnerable. None more so than Tarana Burke, founder of the Me Too movement, who told us, “I am numb,” before she told us that “trauma halts possibility, movements create possibility.” And Stacey Abrams, who admitted to eating ice cream on her couch before coming back to the “why” of what she wants. Emily Quinn shared intimate details about being intersex, Fire Chief Jan Radar choked up describing the struggles of first responders in the midst of the opioid epidemic in Huntington, West Virginia, and Soraya Chemaly confided in us how she uses anger to inspire us all to understand that “anger is the emotion that best protects us from injustice.”
I had moments before this conference worried I would get there and hear these speakers and be around so many smart women that I’d start to doubt myself and have major imposter syndrome (What am I doing with my life, I don’t belong here, etc.). Instead, I found myself inspired and surrounded by women who were all after the same thing: doing what they could in their own lives to leave the world a better place than they found it.
As Tarana Burke said, “This isn’t a moment, this is a movement.”
This is a movement about what’s possible.