TEDxWesleyanU will hold their third annual conference, “(Un)Knowing,” in two parts on Friday, Apr. 16 and Saturday, Apr. 17. Attendees can watch the conference live on a virtual platform called Hopin, but the speakers have all recorded their talks in advance.
Part I of “(Un)Knowing” will be presented on Friday from 4:30 to 6:00 p.m. The event will feature four speakers: Gato Nsengamungu ’23; NFL Insider for ESPN and host of “Fantasy Football Now” Field Yates ’09; Professor of Sociology, Afroamerican and African Studies, and Public Policy at the University of Michigan Alford Young Jr. ’88; and stand-up comedian and writer Abby Govindan.
Part II of the event will be streamed on Saturday from 1:00 to 2:30 p.m. and will feature five speakers: Senior Vice President and Editor-At-Large for ESPN Content Rob King ’84, Middletown Mutual Aid Organizer Emily McEvoy ’22, award-winning producer Doug Berman ’84, 2021 Jamaican Rhodes Scholar Pablo Wickham ’21, and pastry chef and television personality Candace Nelson ’96. Students can purchase tickets for the conference for $0.99 at TEDxWesleyanU.com.
TEDxWesleyanU licensee Catherine Cheng ’22 emphasized the importance of the event for sharing ideas and bringing the community together.
“TEDxWesleyanU is dedicated to finding the ideas in our local community worth sharing,” Cheng ’22 wrote in an email to The Argus. “On campus, this translates to finding ideas that can help challenge the thought bubbles that can pop up on campus. We also like to use TEDx as an opportunity to bring the Wesleyan community together both generationally (such as inviting alumni back to campus to speak, inviting alumni attendees of all years, and welcoming prospective Wes students) as well as within the political scene on campus to bring together people of different backgrounds, ideologies, perspectives.”
The nine speakers for this conference will be joined by University bands, performance groups, and clubs. These include, but are not limited to, FXT, Toxic Holiday, and Cicero Presley x Babebee. TEDxWesleyanU has also invited sponsors, including women- and minority-owned small businesses and student start-ups, who will host interactive virtual breakout room activities during the conference and share pre-recorded business information in the exhibition hall of the Memorial Chapel. Additionally, TEDxWesleyanU has launched an online merchandise store this year, featuring tote bags, sweatshirts, t-shirts, mugs, buttons, and stickers.
Cheng believes that the experience will provide a place where attendees can come together to consider the ideas presented in the various talks.
“I think that TEDxWesleyanU is so important because we can help accelerate the conversations happening already on campus,” Cheng wrote. “I think that TEDx is a place where the Wes community can come together, be [open] minded, and explore new, innovative ideas together.”
There are 22 students from all four class years involved with the TEDxWesleyanU Conference. TEDxWesleyanU has also worked alongside a production team of four University film students. To Cheng, the work of TEDxWesleyanU and the producers was considerably altered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A virtual conference is a real challenge and our team has had to completely change our approach to programming to combat Zoom fatigue and still make it a fun experience and community for our attendees,” Cheng wrote. “We spent months attending other virtual events and TEDx conference[s] to figure out best practices and we have some really exciting surprises planned for this year. We also fortunately continue to have an absolutely brilliant lineup of speakers and ideas just like past years, so I am sure that content-wise the conference will be just as enlightening as in the past.”
According to Cheng, one significant aspect of this year’s event is its theme, “(Un)Knowing.” Each presentation will address this theme in some way.
“Our theme (Un)Knowing was inspired by the unprecedented events of 2020,” Cheng wrote. “I think for many, 2020 has reminded us of the importance of innovation and adaptation when the future can be so uncertain. We associate the following with our theme: the unknown, uncharted, undiscovered, or unlearned and we are excited for our speakers to share ideas from a variety of fields that will bring us closer to that place of unknowing.”
The process for selecting this year’s TEDxWesleyanU non-student speakers started in Oct. 2020, when student members of the TEDxWesleyanU team reached out to potential speakers. This year, because the conference will be conducted virtually, there was heightened interest among the non-student speakers that TEDxWesleyanU reached out to, as more would be available to participate remotely. TEDxWesleyanU members then considered the various pitches, choosing speakers for the event. Afterwards, TEDxWesleyanU collaborated closely with the selected speakers to strengthen the content of their talks and their stage presence.
The process for selecting student speakers was different, as TEDxWesleyanU chooses student speakers through the annual TEDxWesleyanU Student Speaker Competition. The process required students to submit a written application in late 2020 and participate in a live pitch contest, during which they shared 5 minutes of their intended talk. Although traditionally, only one student speaker is chosen, TEDxWesleyanU decided to select two this year: McEvoy and Wickham. From there, the student speakers were able to work on their speeches with their peers and other members of the TEDxWesleyanU team.
“Being able to workshop your thoughts with people who might not 100 percent agree with you was really awesome,” McEvoy said. “Being able to think about your audiences, being able to think about really complex and really radical and angry and passionate ideas, and put it into something that is professional and streamlined and nice, which I’ve never really had to do before in this way, and so it was a pretty good skill to hone in on.”
Unlike McEvoy and Wikham, Nsengamungu won the Student Speaker Competition in 2020 and was prepared to give his talk at last year’s TEDxWesleyanU event before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down campus last spring.
Nsengamungu’s talk is entitled “Pride, An Asset for Humility and Human Flourishing” and will explore the ways in which an individual’s community can contribute to their own success. Nsengamungu’s presentation was built off of the saying “I am because you are,” highlighting the value of community support in one’s development.
“The main motivation for me to give [the talk] was that we all have something that we are proud of,” Nsengamungu said. “Everybody’s going to tell you, ‘I’m proud of you,’ and you’re proud of yourself as well, but also in that kind of pride, to me, I think it should be a reflection that makes you appreciate all the parties involved in your success and your pride. So if you think, ‘Oh, I achieved this because this person helped me or because the institution helped me,’ the community around you is helping you to thrive.”
Nsengamungu views TEDxWesleyanU as a learning platform and emphasized that it can act as an opportunity for both the speakers and attendees to educate one another.
“TEDx, Wesleyan, and other platforms [were good places] for me to share what I think is important to me, and someone else may learn from me,” Nsengamungu said. “[The] TEDxWesleyanU audience is a learning platform because I got to learn from other people that I was competing with, at the same time [was a] platform for me to express what I think is important to me. Maybe someone may draw something out of it, so that is my hope.”
Nsengamungu is both excited and anxious about the presentation.
“I’m so excited to share my idea on a student platform,” Nsengamungu said. “But at the same time, you don’t know how your idea is going to be received, which is not under my control, but I’m so excited and can’t wait to give the world what I think is important to me.”
McEvoy’s talk, called “Covid-19 and the Liberal Tradition: The Roots of the American Failure,” will address the COVID-19 pandemic in relation to American individualism. McEvoy questions why the culture at the University is seemingly more conscious in following COVID-19 guidelines than the rest of the country. McEvoy also plans to address what culture will be like after the pandemic, emphasizing the role that direct service initiatives, including Middletown Mutual Aid, play in connecting community members with local governments or existing social services. To McEvoy, this is a delicate topic to address.
“The last thing I want to do is humanize really bad anti-vax people that are out there and are the loudest voices,” McEvoy said. “But what I do want to do is talk about: number one, what draws people to be individualist in the sense that public health is not something that they want on their radar? And number two, why do people legitimately have reasons to be skeptical of the way that their government is rolling out public health plans with not always their best interest in mind, a lot of times with the profit motive in mind?”
McEvoy is looking forward to taking a perspective that is not commonly seen in most TED Talks, including those given at TEDxWesleyanU conferences.
“I take a really anti-systemic approach to my talk, and there’s certain boundaries I don’t push because I legitimately don’t think it’s the platform for it,” McEvoy said. “But, I think I do push boundaries of the political system in ways that are not typically pushed in TED talks…. A lot of the brand is around ideas that are insightful, sure, but there’s not a whole lot of people that would openly identify as a communist that are doing TED talks. It’s not really appropriated for those reasons by many people to be against the systemic hegemony. It’s not really used for that reason, and so I thought what better way to use it?”
Overall, McEvoy is looking forward to giving her talk, but maintains that there are many beliefs on these topics.
“I’m excited, but I think that this talk doesn’t necessarily do this issue justice with it just being my story,” McEvoy said. “I think that people should do a lot of internal work about these issues and about the American tradition and the American liberal tradition and their relation to it when they hear this.”
Wickham’s talk, entitled “Seeking Solace and Success in Solitude,” takes a different approach to the COVID-19 pandemic than McEvoy’s does. Wickham’s topic emerged through his personal difficulty adjusting to COVID-19. To deal with the pandemic, Wickham relied on the focus and motivation skills that he learned during his gap year. Wickham is extremely appreciative of the TEDxWesleyanU platform, and is looking forward to sharing his thoughts and these coping mechanisms with the conference’s attendees.
“TEDx is all about ideas worth sharing so I guess my talk was something they saw worthy of sharing on this platform and for that I am grateful,” Wickham wrote in an email to The Argus.
Wickham also noted that his perspective regarding TED talks has shifted over time, and invites attendees to challenge his thoughts and ideas.
“I once thought that TED/TEDx talks were all given by people who had already figured life out, but now that I am here I know better,” Wickham wrote. “I want them to know that I, nor anyone for that matter, has all the answers so feel free to tear apart my arguments and don’t take it as gospel. I welcome those meaningful conversations with diversity of thought. My advice is not a one-size fits all solution to loneliness, so if you need to tap into additional resources that help alleviate feelings of loneliness, give yourself that chance.”
Wickham also praised TEDxWesleyanU for its platform and for how it has adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“TED talks are renowned for disseminating wonderful ideas to millions of people in a short period of time and the same can be said for the independent community events that bear the name TEDx,” Wickham wrote. “TEDxWesleyanU is a brilliant organization and it is the only one of its kind on campus. Beyond that, they successfully adapted to our present circumstances to creatively curate such thoughts, projects and accomplishments so I believe it is a wonderful platform.”
This year’s conference will be the largest oneTEDxWesleyanU has organized in the four years the organization has operated at the University. According to Cheng, this is mainly due to the work of the TEDxWesleyanU team and the virtual nature of the conference.
“We hit a milestone [this] year with over 500 tickets being purchased,” Cheng wrote. “This is our biggest event in the history of TEDxWesleyanU and a silver lining of our virtual setting has been that [it has] enabled us to expand the scope of the conference like never before.… We have all been working so hard all year to make this conference come together.”
Oliver Cope can be reached at Ocope@wesleyan.edu