The potential of TEDxDirigo

Spreading Ideas
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  May 23, 2012

There were several impressive, stick-in-your-mind talks at the TEDxDirigo: Engage conference, held last Saturday at the University of Southern Maine. This spring event, co-organized by the Portland-based Institute for Civic Leadership, featured 16 community leaders, executives, and "change-makers" (their word) giving short talks (no more than 20 minutes apiece) in their areas of passion and expertise. There was an equal representation of men and women among the presenters and there was an emphasis on local products, food, and services.

The TEDx model appeals to TED enthusiasts worldwide, who drool at the chance to mount local incarnations of the "Technology, Entertainment, Design" conferences that promote, according to their tagline, "ideas worth spreading." They are also, incidentally, ideas worth paying for, at least if you want to witness them in person — a full-price ticket to Maine's TEDxDirigo: Engage cost $100 (there were tiered discounts available and talks can be viewed for free online in the weeks and months following the event).

Last weekend, speakers waxed inspirational about regional food systems, increasing rural broadband capacity, the relationship between music and time, and how to harness creative impulses. They addressed ways to better engage teenage girls, the immigrant community, and young writers. The audience, comprising several hundred plugged-in Mainers (many of whom likely fancy themselves "change-makers" as well), was rapt, and the network-y energy between sessions was bubbling over.

There were a few presentations with particular staying power:

•Passamaquoddy Tribal Council member ELIZABETH NEPTUNE gave the most moving talk of the day. Neptune, the former director of health and human services for her Downeast tribe, works to assist other Native communities across the country in establishing effective public service systems. She offered a stark portrait of Native American life, pointing to high unemployment rates and low life expectancy. People on reservations have "the health status of a third world country," she said. Racism and oppression — in Maine and nationwide — are "the elephant in the room that people choose to ignore," she said. She defended Native American attempts to install casinos or obtain elver (baby eel) licenses. "Our goal is always the bottom line: that we need jobs."

•Two young people also made a big impact. CLAIRE HIRSCHMANN, co-founder of the Field Academy experiential school, was poised and ambitious as she outlined her effort to re-incorporate learning with life, and to combine adventure with complexity so that students ask deeper questions and reap deeper rewards. Later in the afternoon, NED SWAIN — local man-about-town, business owner, and Grunt Match co-organizer — talked about how he wants to change "the way people think about manual labor and exercise." Namely, that he wants to combine those two pursuits and thereby promote both community engagement and physical health.

•AddVerb Productions founder and director CATHY PLOURDE energized the audience with short pieces from two of her works, Out and Allied and You the Man, performed by local actors. She said "it's not enough to raise awareness" (as her pieces do about GLBTQ issues, eating disorders, and dating abuse) — activists also need to provide options for help and opportunities for change.

•And Portland artist DANIEL MINTER, who has explored African American archetypes and images in his work, urged the audience members to discover their own icons and symbols, warning that if they don't, "corporations will step in and create them for you."

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