Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

TED University

This post is part of a series from the TED 2009 conference held in Long Beach, California from February 4-8th. You can read other posts in the series here, and the TED site will release video from the talk in the coming weeks or months. Because I’m putting these posts together very quickly, I will get things wrong, will misspell names and bungle details. Please feel free to use the comments thread on this post to offer corrections. You may also want to follow the conference via Twitter or through other blogs tagged as on Technorati.

Many thanks to Erik Hersman for giving me a day off yesterday. Erik did a fastastic job of documenting TED events, despite widespread internet connectivity problems at the venue. Fingers are crossed today that the bits will flow freely.

My friend – and usual twin-blogger – Bruno Giussani hosts the opening session at TED on Friday, TED University, a series of short talks by amazing people within the community. I arrived in time to hear a few inspiring talks:

- Dr. Laura Trice talks about the importance of pausing. She builds healthful, natural food – cookies and other treats. Sghe tells us about a complaint letter – someone sent her an email complaining that she was a perfectionist, anorexic overachiever – which arrived a few days after her father died of cancer. It took her a nine day pause before she was able to respond with compassion – she urges us to pause and sit with difficult issues until we’re able to respond positively, not negatively.

- Professor Rye Barcott travelled to Kiberia, Nairobi, for the first time as a graduate student at Chapel Hill, where he was a Marine ROTC. He was interested in learning about slums and what did and didn’t work in development projects in these areas. So he rented a house fo $13 a month, avoided giving money to his neighbors, but spent a long time doing interviews and listening.

He eventually ended up giving money to a neighbor, Tabitha, a widow with children who’d lost her job as a nurse. She presented him with a business plan to sell vegetables. When he returned to Kibera a year later to start a sports program called Carolina for Kibera, he discovered that she’d used the money to start a health clinic, which now serves 30,000 people a year.

This, he tells us, is participatory development.

- Dr. Sophal Ear studies how states can rebuild after war. His interest in the subject is a deeply personal one. He shows us a picture of his family in 1977 in Vietnam. As he’s Cambodian, there’s a story behind the picture. His parents, like so many others, were persecuted under Pol Pot, and made to work in rice fields.

His mother saw an opportunity to escape – she spoke a little Vietnamese, and there was an opportunity for Cambodians originally from Vietnam to pass a test and be sent to Vietnam.

The problem with this plan was that his father didn’t speak Vietnamese. But he died from malnutrition and overwork, and so his mother was able to take the test. Unfortunately, her Vietnamese was extremely poor, so she tried to strengthen her case by renaming her children with Vietnamese names. But she got the names wrong, giving the boys girl’s names and vice versa.

Through the help of a kind Vietnamese-speaking woman, she renamed her children again, had a two-day intensive Vietnamese course and was able to escape with her kids. His mother is with us today in the audience and receives a standing ovation.

Seeking closure, Dr. Ear has submitted a complaint to the Khmer Rouge Tribunal for his father’s death – the complaint has been accepted. No one can bring his father back, but he sees the ability to file and have accepted such a complaint a sign that Cambodia is moving in the right direction.

- Adrian Hong sees a contemporary genocide taking place in North Korea. He’s astounded by the fact that more than a million North Koreans died of starvation in the mid-1990s. And he tells us that “my failure is that I cannot summon the vocabulary to explain how bad things are in North Korea.” He’s worked on the front lines trying to rescue refugees, visited prisons in China to interview refugees, and is trying to figure out something – anything – that will make it possible to free more people from North Korea. He challenges us to stop a genocide for once, not just to honor the dead with another museum.

- In one of the stranger juxtapositions of the conference, Esther Chae presents an excerpt from a one-woman show, laying a proud Korean mother talking about her FBI-agent daughter, an American FBI agent, a double agent, and a proud high school student talking about greek tragedy. She’s clearly astounding, but it’s very strange to see an experimental theater piece on the heels of Hong’s impassioned plea for more attention to North Korea.

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