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Baltimore

My First TEDx Event

I attended my first TEDx event in early January, and weeks later I am still processing how to translate what I felt into an experience that anyone can relate to. There’s no doubt this conference helped shape the trajectory of what this year and beyond could look like for me, as I bridge the gap between the communities I serve and those who I want to help.

Attending any type of networking event for me immediately fills me with a combination of anxiety and excitement. Being an introvert amplifies the tension I feel throughout my body whenever the thought of engaging in small talk with someone at a conference comes to mind. I’ve learned, however, this anxiety I feel—when faced—takes me places I didn’t expect. To lessen those intense feelings, I did everything I could to prepare for my arrival.

Two days before the event, I received an email with reminders on where to park, how to register and what to bring. There were even sample questions to ask if this was your first time attending a TEDx conference. Great!

I thought about how this interaction would go:

Stranger: “Who are you looking forward to seeing the most?”

Me: Slangston Hughes!

Stranger: ::silence::

Me: yeah, he’s a black guy that does spoken word around Baltimore and I love spoken word. Also worth noting, I’m not familiar with anyone else, so that’s why I’m looking forward to him the most. What about you?

Stranger: oh cool, nice to meet you! Bye.

Being an introvert amplifies the tension I feel throughout my body whenever the thought of engaging in small talk with someone at a conference comes to mind. I’ve learned, however, this anxiety I feel—when faced—takes me places I didn’t expect.

This scenario felt like a piece of chalk screeching across a board or styrofoam rubbing up against something. I cringed at the thought. So, to avoid all small talk, I did the next best thing: ordered business cards. I spent an asinine amount of money designing these cards and had them delivered within two days; so when I want someone to go away they can at least contact me in a more intimate setting that I’m comfortable and familiar with.

I arrived at Morgan State University, greeted by people who didn’t look like me. For those unfamiliar with this school, Morgan is a Historically Black College & University located in Baltimore City and for those unfamiliar with me, I’m a black woman.

Understanding the nature of TEDx, the perceptions that I have of this conference, and the types of people that attend, I wasn’t surprised to see hundreds of white people walking into the auditorium. I thought in this case my assumptions would be false considering the campus I was on. I was wrong.

The first volunteer I saw was a white male who greeted the crowd in the parking lot prior to entering the building. He made it clear where to go to register just in case we weren’t immediately confronted by the hundreds of people in line once we entered. Once I was inside and on the second floor, I noticed a host of other volunteers—more black and brown people—which made me think, “Well it is 30 degrees outside, so that makes sense.” Yet, while in line I counted just four people who I could give the nod [1] to.

If it weren’t for the pictures, awards and letters of recognition displayed throughout the hallway leading up to the registration tables, I doubt anyone would have thought black people actually attended this school.

(The conference was held while students & faculty were on winter break; which for valid reasons, according to the curator “allowed for attendees to have access to free parking.” In my head, this allowed attendees to feel safe given the perception of what society portrays of having a bunch of black people in one area as a threat. But I digress).

The more I saw people who look like me, the calmer I became as I made my way to the auditorium to take a seat. Many people were in groups and the few people who came solo like I did, sat in the corners and sides of the auditorium.

Without regard, I made my way to the center section about 50 feet away from the stage.

The conference was broken into three sessions throughout the span of the day: The Future, The Urban and The Human. In essence, the curator took the audience from a broad perspective of who we are and where we came from to where we are in present day.

We were greeted by two prominent and influential black men from Morgan State University, Omar Muhammed and David Wilson. Both shared personal stories on how they got to where they are now and what they’ve created to help those in their communities.

Omar is the Director of the Entrepreneurial Assistance and Development Center [2] at Morgan whose mission is to “connect budding & existing entrepreneurs to resources for venture management & growth.” He explains his mission as the leader and founder of E.M.A.G.E. Baltimore, an organization to help young African-American males experience entrepreneurship in order to grow their own enterprises and their communities.

David Wilson is the President of Morgan State University and he proudly told us some facts about his school. For example, they’re #3 in the U.S. for producing black engineers and #1 in the U.S. for producing black females with undergraduate degrees in engineering. He grew up on a cotton farm with goals to attend college, even though his dad told him college is just for white folks. The day he told his father that he was going to college, was the day his dad gave him a $5 bill and told him to spend this money wisely. This led to the creation and primary foundation behind Morgan’s Five Dollar Scholarship Fund [3]. He was proud about his accomplishments, proud of his school, and made it a point to highlight the best aspects of Morgan to the predominately white audience.

Maybe this shouldn’t be a big deal, but to have two black men—essentially the faces of Morgan State University—be the opening presenters of this conference, had me all up in my feelings.

Maybe this shouldn’t be a big deal, but to have two black men—essentially the faces of Morgan State University—be the opening presenters of this conference, had me all up in my feelings.

Sarge Salman, the curator of TEDxBaltimore since 2013, made it known he didn’t want to host a “feel-good” and “fluffy” conference. He intentionally designed the structure and picked speakers who not only push buttons with their innovative ideas, but also invoked feelings that may make somebody uncomfortable. He made sure to curate this event to offer insight into opportunities that we can no longer afford to miss.

There were 18 speakers, but the ones who stood out to me the most were the ones who were able to identify the importance of empathizing with those they want to help.

“The Future” session included speakers working in industries like rocket science, regenerative medicine and astrophysics. The theme, and what stood out to me the most, was seeing the bigger picture that we are all created from the same force. There’s a continuous cycle of life and death, with everything and everyone being a manifestation of what came before them. Once we realize that we’re all connected (to the universe and stars and ‘woo-woo’ stuff), we become free and at peace with what is. It’s only with this realization that we can feel there is no longer a fight within ourselves or with each other. Our position is to learn how to live between the spaces and polarities that arise internally and within our societies. No matter how diverse we are, we all come from the same place. It’s through diversity that ideas can collide to spark innovation.

We then shifted from a uniformed culture to a more diverse one comes with challenges. Aprille Ericsson is a black woman, from Brooklyn, using her knowledge as a rocket scientist to bridge the gap between where we are now and where we’re heading. In her talk, she took us from Earth to Mars in less than 13 minutes and explained that transitions, in history and in life, are never 100% smooth. She foresees the biggest transition decade (and possibly the most challenging) we’ll see as it relates to space travel will be in the 2020s. She believes we not only must prepare ourselves to be ready for what comes with those transitions, but we must also embrace the different ideas that will help us navigate through each transition to get to the goal of landing on Mars.

Given that this conference is primarily based on science & technology, a lot of the speakers seemed to be very type-A, stick-to-the-script type of students. You know, the ones who planned their entire schooling from age 10, did everything they were supposed to do, got excellent grades, went on to get PhDs and became directors and chairmen of really important organizations. They’re the ones who’ve created this academic bucket list of sorts, but failed to ever study or navigate the moral principles [4] of what it means to identify with your peers.

If we’re ever to see change in our communities, we need to be able to relate to the people that are in position to actually enforce these changes. If there isn’t an emotional attachment to action, then what’s the purpose?

If we’re ever to see change in our communities, we need to be able to relate to the people that are in position to actually enforce these changes. If there isn’t an emotional attachment to action, then what’s the purpose?

Some of the speakers seemed to struggle with telling a story from a S.T.E.M. approach mixed with empathy and intuition. For me, the ones who nailed it were those who made me feel what they went through. People like James Page, VP of Diversity & Inclusion at Johns Hopkins University, taught me what it’s like being a father of a black boy growing up in America. He explained how diversity has failed us because a vast majority of people have lived within confined boxes that contain dangerous perspectives and behaviors that keep some people oppressed. He was the first speaker to move me to tears—I’m talking nose dripping, pass me the entire box of Kleenex type of tears. He reminded me to think and live beyond the gaze of perception, for this is the only way to learn how to relate and work with people that don’t necessarily share our same views.

Before the first session of speakers started, the curator gave a shout out to the groups in attendance. Some local private schools, an entire school district from Pennsylvania (whose curriculum includes attending a TEDx conference), and staff from Baltimore City Public schools.

BCPS has been under the radar for school shutdowns [5] and when Alec Ross, a white guy from West Virginia, started talking about the similarities of the kids he taught at a Baltimore inner city school to those in his small home-town in West Virginia, he started to pause in his thoughts. It’s as if he was afraid to say out loud every reason why he left teaching. He was afraid to speak his truth and blatantly say that the Baltimore City School system is what is failing these kids, because he knew there were people in the audience that represented this organization.

Despite his hesitation, his underlying message was understood: when there is a lack of opportunity, there is a lack of hope. He attempted to state that in order to prepare the youth for the future and the industries that will be thriving in 10, 20 years down the road (data analytics, cyber security and genomics), we have to create our own systems, because the current ones we are in are failing our children. I wanted to shout “no one is being held accountable for their actions!” and he was afraid to say this; when this is precisely what needed to be said out loud FOR THE PEOPLE IN THE BACK. Literally.

In order for anyone to pay attention to the message you’re trying to get across, you need to disrupt the lies – the narratives of those unwilling to listen.

The curator had a Q&A session between the speaking sessions. He talked about getting a license to be a curator and how he couldn’t have executed this event without the help of his volunteers. He also stated some facts: “(the speakers) are 60% women, 40% black.” I raised my hand, and asked, “why aren’t there more people in the audience who look like me or the speakers?”

Sarge hesitated, then explained he also was in charge of marketing and posted some advertisement in the City Paper. I’m 90% sure the 40 black and brown people that attended didn’t hear about this conference from the City Paper, and if they did, great!

My point? If you’re the curator of an event that wants to identify the culture and pulse of the community, then market and target the audience that you’re trying to help – in addition to those (white folks) who will already be here and may know very little about the essence of the community that needs help.

Sarge also mentioned that it’s up to the speakers to also encourage people to purchase tickets. I was upset to know that there weren’t more people who look like me in the audience to hear about organizations and people willing to help those in our communities.

It’s because of this observation I realized we need to curate the events that we want and are longing to attend. We need to be able to create safe spaces for people like us to learn, engage and surround ourselves with; yet at the same time, we need to collaborate in order to seek the change we want to see.

It’s because of this observation I realized we need to curate the events that we want and are longing to attend. We need to be able to create safe spaces for people like us to learn, engage and surround ourselves with; yet at the same time, we need to collaborate in order to seek the change we want to see.

There’s a type of pain and discomfort that arises when you recognize the injustices that people in our world face. Feeling this type of pain, and acknowledging that it exists, is the first step to healing. If you’re feeling indifferent or nothing at all, however, then I’d be worried. If you can’t feel pain then you’ll never be able to start the healing process.

We need those who look like us to lead; those who have done the internal work to be fully present and show up to be their best selves. I’m not just talking about yoga instructors or therapists, but people who have learned to transform their anger into action to improve our communities.

I foresee a community of healers, with those willing to do the work understand there will be challenges and are prepared to face them. Those who have been oppressed, those longing for their voices to be heard, are fighting against what they have known to be true all along—that they matter. With this recognition, comes pain.
The way through this pain creates opportunities for our future: through the arts, through conferences like TEDx, through events like Trap Karaoke and spaces like Black Girl In Om. We need more people like us to make art and create safe spaces for us to share and implement plans to help our communities. Baltimore and communities like it are under a state of emergency. When there’s an insurmountable population of those affected by trauma, and there’s collaboration is the only way to heal.

Once this collaboration happens, there’s a sense of freedom: freedom from the chains, freedom from the oppressive structures, freedom from the mechanisms that prevent people like me from ever thriving in our society.

I am forever changed because of my experience at TEDxBaltimore. My hope is there will continue to be a shared platform of diverse audiences. Audiences not built solely with professors, directors and commissioners of specific fields, but ones who managed to spend time internally, navigating what it feels like to create the environments we want to live in.

The conference ended with wisdom and spoken word from Slangston Hughes. Everything came full circle within the last few minutes and it’s within these moments that I learned that freedom feels effortless.

If there’s a change we want to see within our communities we need to know how peace & justice feels internally in order to practice what we preach.

By the end of the conference I had given out zero business cards. I cried more happy tears than I had in ages, and felt at peace with those around me—even if they didn’t look like me. I learned that valuing autonomy and respect for life are synonymous. I learned that despite the segregation that lies within communities like Baltimore, there are people and organizations willing to help. But, the ones who truly care are those who have bridged the gap between what it means to be free and held captive within the boxes of their realities.


[1] The Nod
[2] Morgan State University’s Entrepreneurial Center
[3] The Five Dollar Scholarship Fund
[4] The Moral Bucket List
[5] Thornton calls for closing five city schools

By Sabrina Depestre

Sabrina's life mission is to inspire & empower young girls through fitness and storytelling. Over the past ten years, she’s mastered and applied a combination of development programs, events and best practices that incorporate movement and connect her local communities to a fun and new way of experiencing sports and fitness, working with the Miami HEAT and lululemon.