Students, alumni drive TEDxWUSTL

Courtesy of Aditi Gupta
Seven speakers and one group of musicians told stories of identity, social issues and pursuing ambitions at the inaugural TEDxWUSTL conference.

The theme of this year’s TEDxWUSTL conference, presented to a crowd capped at 200 people in Steinberg Auditorium Saturday, was “Cultivate the Intellect.”

TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, began in 1984 as a conference to assemble great thinkers from those three fields to present their ideas. TED now hosts two annual conferences, and TEDTalks posted online have drawn millions of views. Independently planned TEDx conferences are among several of the other TED programs introduced since the organization’s founding.

Sophomore Elliot Louthen brought TEDx to the University, starting on the process last year.

“I looked into going to one of the main TED conferences and realized that they cost $6,500 to go, and there’s only two a year and you have to be invited, so I’m like, there’s no way I’m doing that,” Louthen said.

He learned about TEDx conferences hosted by schools like Harvard, Stanford, USC and Northwestern.

“All these great schools have them, and they were having great members of their communities share ideas,” Louthen said.

TEDx became a student group in the fall semester and earned Treasury funding, but the challenge for Louthen and the team of 16 fellow students he eventually assembled was convincing speakers to talk for free.

“You want a diversity of opinions and mindsets and talks, and given their backgrounds…they’re all pretty unique—no one really touches on each other’s fields, so that’s the one big thing,” Louthen said of the speakers.

Five of the seven speakers were members of the Washington University community. Two of them were seniors, environmental activist Maddy Salzman and slam poet Freeman Word; two alumni, slam poet Aaron Samuels and educational activist Michael Carter; and Associate Dean of Students Jill Stratton.

The other two speakers were former St. Louis alderman Kacie Starr Triplett and Hugh Scully, a Canadian surgeon who has worked in motorsports for years.  

The rap duo of juniors Jason Onugha and Chizom Okebugwu, who together form Rhyme n Reason, performed with musicians Satcher Hsieh and Rhett Koonce.

Samuels, who founded WU-SLam in 2008 and graduated in 2011, led off the conference with a poem and afterward asked the audience members to think of the five identities they each brought with them to the performance.

Having grown up half-black and half-Jewish in Providence, R.I., Samuels takes issue with the motto “be yourself.”

“I respectfully disagree with that statement…because we know that at any given time, we are a multiplicity of identities,” Samuels said before closing with a second poem.

Salzman, an environmental policy major, followed by urging exposure, empathy and enterprise in environmental issues, arguing that hers is not a radical cause but a logical and necessary one. She mentioned Maldives, whose government officials held a conference underwater to highlight the possibility that rising sea levels may eventually submerge their nation.

Salzman also discussed chemical plants in East St. Louis that pollute the air with mercury, leading to an infant mortality rate double the national average. She said environmentalism should be integrated into all fields, whether government, investment banking or urban planning.

Triplett discussed her path from being the first black female to represent her district and one of the youngest elected officials in the history of St. Louis to stepping down and pursuing the cause of fighting homelessness.

Triplett dreamed of becoming St. Louis mayor and seemed on her way to accomplishing the goal after being elected at age 26 to represent the 6th Ward. But after five years serving in the position to which she believes God led her, Triplett said she felt another calling.

She resigned from office in November 2012 to work for the Behavior Health Network of Greater St. Louis, feeling that moving up the political ladder at the expense of her talents would be an affront to her faith. Triplett urged students to take the same heed of their inner voices when making life decisions.

Scully had his own inner reckoning in 1974, when Formula One driver and personal friend Helmuth Koinigg was decapitated in a horrific crash at the United States Grand Prix. After calling Koinigg’s wife in Austria to break the news, Scully did some serious contemplation.

“You either have to stay in this and try to make a difference, or you have to leave,” he recalled.

Scully decided to make a difference, and safety standards in Formula One, IndyCar and NASCAR racing have improved drastically since.

After Scully’s talk and an intermission, Rhyme n Reason’s four songs were followed by Stratton, whom Louthen introduced as the “single person in this room who loves her job the most.”

Stratton tossed chocolate candies into the crowd before discussing positive psychology. She described studies showing that 50 percent of happiness comes from a set point such as genetic makeup, only 10 percent from circumstance and 40 percent from intentional acts like chasing dreams.

Carter, who graduated in 2010, is the founder of Strive for College, which seeks to help the roughly 400,000 American students who are eligible for college but do not enroll annually to realize the opportunity of a higher education.

Growing up in Silicon Valley, Calif., Carter did not realize the privilege of his own position until transferring from a private to a public high school. He was an Annika Rodriguez Scholar at the University but dealt with repeated rejections while seeking Strive for College funding until finally breaking through.

Like Carter, sophomore Paolo Fornasini is part of the Rodriguez Scholars Program, and he is also on the executive board of Strive for College.

“It was really good to see the background of the organization and what was behind the whole movement to get that going,” Fornasini said.  “And after hearing him talk and hearing his motivations, it’s really going to change the way I see the organization going forward and how I’m going to push for us to grow and develop.”

Word closed the event with remarks on morality, asking students to “revile evil acts for the evil, not the individual” and reflect on what has caused past evils in the world.

Word said that even the heroes of history have “moral blind spots,” citing Mahatma Gandhi’s racism toward blacks in South Africa and that villains like Adolf Hitler were inspired by their own morality systems. Word said he believes that by extending our kinship circles wider rather than distancing ourselves from these supposed “villains,” we can understand the roots of their horrific actions and prevent future atrocities.

“I really liked Freeman Word,” freshman Alani Douglas said. “I just thought he’s very compelling, he’s definitely one that made you hang onto every word. I thought it was just very interesting that an undergraduate has such a broad worldview and a pretty good sense of self.”

Louthen is already looking ahead to next year’s TEDx event.

“We’re stoked for TEDxWUSTL ’14,” Louthen said. “It’s already going to be in the works two weeks from now.”