‘Finding the Heart’: Top takeaways from TEDWomen

Alyssa O’Brien

The founder of the #MeToo movement, Tarana Burke, took the stage at TEDWomen, and opened the event:

‘I’ve been trying to figure out what I was going to say here for months. Because there’s no bigger stage than TED. It felt like getting my message right in this moment was more important than anything. And so I searched and searched, for days on end, trying to find the right configuration of words. And although intellectually I could bullet-point the big ideas that I wanted to share about #MeToo and this movement that I founded, I kept falling short of finding the heart.’

These moving words launched TEDWomen 2018. It was a powerful opener, said Renee Gangemi, Head of Marketing and Content for TEDxSydney, in an interview about the three-day conference held in Palm Springs, California. She knows that words matter, and that they can move hearts and minds.

When I had the opportunity to interview Gangemi about her experiences at TEDWomen and what she brought home to Sydney, I jumped at the chance to share her personal perspective with our TEDxSydney followers.


From grass roots ideas to global actions

For Gangemi, Tarana Burke’s talk encapsulated the spirit of the event. It was ‘women showing up, being strong, being courageous in a time that’s hard and often has uneven repercussions for women versus men’.

Burke’s work is now global, inspiring women from India to Australia to start their own #MeToo movements. Burke shared with the audience that after every speaking event, individuals approach her and tell her their own stories. She said she always gives them local resources and ‘a soft reassurance that they are not alone and this is their movement too.’ ‘I tell them that we are stronger together, and that this is a movement of survivors and advocates doing things big and small every day.’

Gangemi’s top takeaway? That grass roots actions can have strong ripple effects.

She told me that TED encourages people to ‘be more innovative on a personal level’ since that ‘little seed of an idea’ or ‘one small thing to do each day can lead to a positive outcome for the whole’.

Thinking back about TEDWomen, Gangemi reflected that the event was filled with ‘stories of resilience, endurance and leadership’.

55 speakers—women, men and gender fluid presenters—shared their stories, research, passions and performances. Nearly 50 countries were represented at the 22 workshops and events. But Gangemi had three other points to bring home with her:

  1. There is hope, even in situations of despair
  2. We need to stop judging others based on physical appearance, gender category or cultural background
  3. Everyone has a story to tell, whether on or off the stage


‘Hope in horrible situations’

Gangemi, who has worked with brands that believe in purpose, described TED as a platform that assists in spreading important messages.

Majd Mashharawi,from Gaza, was one of the many TEDWomen speakers who took the positive path and focused on what can be done to improve lives in places ravaged by poverty. Mashharawi‘s talk described her latest project of brickmaking from ash composite, a building material that is cheaper, lighter and stronger than mud bricks and completely sustainable. ‘Mashharawi’s work’, reflected Gangemi, ‘is creating jobs, new housing, and now even solar. The bricks offer hope to those whose houses have been destroyed by conflict and violence’.

Gratitude for little things was a strong theme in the talks that stuck with Gangemi. The conference, she said, made her think. ‘We need to stop and acknowledge what we actually have’ she reflected. In a timely spirit for the holidays, she said she returned with a fresh appreciation for family, friends and life.


Why and how we judge others

Australia’s recent one-year anniversary of the yes-vote on gay marriage demonstrates the forward thinking of a nation questioning the need to judge others as different.

This theme emerged at TEDWomen as well, with at least two speakers identifying as gender fluid. For Gangemi, Emily Quinn’s talk on her refusal to have surgery to remove her male genitals was a remarkable example of standing strongly against restrictive gender categories and medical manipulation.

Karissa Sanbonmatsu’s talk also demonstrated resilience as she described the discrimination and harassment she has experienced as a transitioned woman. Sanbonmatsu’s ground-breaking research in epigenetics, the biological basis of gender, and how knots of DNA are in fact reformed daily.

Reflecting on these talks, Gangemi raised the critical issue of how we perceive others:

‘Why are we so set on an agenda when perceiving others? Why do we feel the need to put people into a particular box or category?’


From judging to shifting perspectives

A conference highlight for Gangemi was the TEDWomen talk by Monique Morris, who painted a picture of how black girls in America who ‘talk loud’ are ‘overrepresented along a continuum of discipline.’ Black girls are ‘experiencing schools as locations for punishment’ and treated with disciplinary actions that silence their voices and restrict their lives through what Morris called ‘age compression’.

Considered sassy and difficult, African American girls are reprimanded for expressing their views with brash voices that often hide years of abuse, invisibility and struggle. Morris advocated instead that educators lead with empathy and that schools be places of healing. ‘We need to stop targeting hairstyle or dress and stop policing young women’s bodies.’ ‘When girls feel safe, they can learn’ were powerful words with implications for education here in Australia as well.

Ai-Jen Poo’s compelling talk on undocumented workers remained memorable to Gangemi for similar reasons. Poo described how women serving as domestic helpers were reluctant to press charges against exploitative employees for fear of ‘tearing the family apart’. They didn’t want to hurt the children and sacrificed themselves instead. An inspiring role model with real impact on human lives, Ai-Jen Poo was one of ‘many people doing brave things to bring about change in the community’.


Talking—and listening—on stage and off

The power of TED as a social space, Gangemi said, is how it fosters human connection: ‘People leave their egos at the door. They are there to connect and have real relationships’.

TED is all about the art of listening and connecting.

Gangemi recalled the incredible TEDWomen talk by Lindy Lou Isonhood, who served as a juror on a capital murder trial that gave a man a death sentence. The last execution in Australia occurred in 1967, and the Federal Government abolished the death penalty in 1973. But in the U.S., jurors face the scenario of determining whether a person lives or dies. Listening carefully meant questioning the process. Is it right? How does a juror handle the consequences on her conscience?

Gangemi also described her dinner conversation with Eldra Jackson, III, whose 24-year incarceration led to the evolution of his character. They spoke over a meal about nature versus nurture and how a person can turn their life around, the topic of Jackson’s talk at TEDWomen about toxic masculinity. Imagine the impact of his hard-learned insights on the world as a whole.

Even chats with audience members at events and in between talks provided moments of connection.

Gangemi told me about listening to an audience member named Flora who spends her spare time in ‘the forgotten community’ in Watts, L.A., in order to teach people how to see possibility through education and empowerment.


Little actions have big Ripple effects:

Ultimately, the experience of TEDWomen in Palm Springs over three days confirmed for Gangemi the role that TED has in bringing people together for ideas that grow from grass roots activism to positive change at a potentially global level.

‘What can you tweak for change?’


These are important messages for us in Australia as we also have advocates for change, people with passionate ideas and a belief in the power of storytelling.


Being part of TED means being able to connect and understand, to listen and to act for change. It means ‘finding the heart’ and sharing it with the world.

Want more TED in your life? Register for a day of live talks and events at TEDxSydney on 24 May 2019. The theme? Legacy. There will be a lot to learn, and to reflect on, in May.

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