TEDWomen Conference Showcases Georgia leaders, Atlanta's Appeal To Global Audience
MSM President and CEO Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice was among the selected speakers at the global leadership event.
By Kristi York Wooten, Georgia Public Broadcasting
TED talks are ubiquitous on the internet. But the conference brand which stages round-robin speeches at buzz-worthy gatherings across the planet had never held an in-person marquee event in the South.
That changed last week with the arrival in Georgia of TEDWomen 2023: Two Steps Forward. The three-day event at Atlanta's Woodruff Arts Center from Oct. 11 through Oct. 13 included dozens of speakers and topics ranging from human rights, mental health and artificial intelligence to hair sculpting, fireflies — and actress Glenn Close's pup, Pip.
A bit of history: TED talks began in 1984 when Richard Saul Wurman and Harry Marks assembled speakers in Northern California to demonstrate how compact discs and 3D movie graphics worked. The name TED was an acronym for technology, entertainment and design and took a few years to ramp up, with the company eventually transitioning into a nonprofit in 2002.
The concept was transformed again in 2005 when the debut of YouTube turned TED talk videos into an international sensation. The bite-sized videos were sometimes criticized as smug or elitist, and in response, TEDx local events — often free — popped up in towns of all sizes to spotlight community issues. TED's conferences' networking, noshing, and exploring ideas have garnered a huge following, despite entrance fees ranging from $2,800 to $5,000.
TEDWomen came along in 2010, helmed by editorial director Pat Mitchell, a Georgia journalist, advocate, and author who has served as president of PBS and the Paley Center. She told GPB's Leah Fleming last year that Atlanta was the perfect new home for TEDWomen, which will be held annually in the city through 2025.
"This city mirrors in so many ways the inclusive value, the diversity value, the global value, the innovation, entrepreneurship, all the things that we like to focus on and the TED talks that are given at TEDWomen," she said.
This year, the Atlanta conference was hosted by Mitchell, TED's head of curation Helen Walters, and activist, filmmaker, and entrepreneur Maya Penn. The 1,200 attendees from 49 countries (the largest TEDWomen audience yet) were a testament to the power of listening and collaboration at a time when there's so much division and tragedy in our war-torn world.
Georgia leaders in the spotlight
TEDWomen 2023 included speakers from across the state, including Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, Carter Center CEO Paige Alexander, and Tracie Revis, a Georgia attorney who serves as Director of Advocacy for the Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve Initiative, including Middle Georgia and Muscogee (Creek) citizens working together to expand the current site of the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park into Georgia’s first National Park and Preserve.
Revis recounted a visit from U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous secretary, who had come to view land near Macon that had been slated for industrial use. "I watched the secretary bend down and place her hand on an erosion scar, and it was in that moment that she knew what I had come to understand," Revis said. "And she said, 'They are still here. Your ancestors are still here.'"
Representation of historically Black colleges and universities
Morehouse School of Medicine President and CEO Valerie Montgomery Rice, MD, gave a TEDWomen talk about health equity within health care and medical research. Spelman College president Helene Gayle hosted one of the breakout dinners for participants, and Mahogany-N-Motion, a student-run women's dance group from Spelman performed on the Atlanta Symphony Hall stage with a brass band.
An appeal to help Ukraine
Oleksandra Matviichuk leads the Center for Civil Liberties in Kyiv, which shared the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize for documenting war crimes against Ukrainian civilians perpetrated by Russian soldiers in occupied areas. "There is a huge difference between, 'Let's help Ukraine not to fail' and 'Let's help Ukraine win fast,'" she said during her talk, in a tearful plea for weapons and resources. "After all, you don't need to be Ukrainian to support freedom and Ukraine, you just need to be a human."
Acknowledgement of the Israel-Hamas war
Before host Helen Waters introduced New York artist and writer Maira Kalman, she said Kalman had shared with her that she had been experiencing "unfathomable sorrow" in the days since the attack on Israel by Hamas on Oct. 7 and subsequent violence.
Kalman was born in Tel Aviv, Israel, and when she took the stage for her talk, she said she missed the "normal days" of arguing on the phone with her cousin in Israel over honey cakes. A celebrated painter whose work is characterized by dark humor, she said her talk would continue as it had been written before the attack, because she did not want to dwell on the morose.
Mental health advocacy
Pat Mitchell interviewed multi-Academy Award-nominated actress Glenn Close about her advocacy work to fight stigma against mental illness. Close shared about her family members who have suffered from bipolar disorder and her communications with the parents of a U.S. veteran of the war in Afghanistan who died from alcohol poisoning this month after not receiving treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Close's ties to Atlanta include advocating along with former first lady Rosalynn Carter for better access to mental health care and filming several movies in Georgia. Close's Havanese emotional support dog, Pip, made an appearance onstage to wild cheers after the discussion. Her — and Pip's — travels in the state are often shared on Pip's Instagram account.
Welcoming the world to Atlanta
In an interview with GPB after the conclusion of the conference Friday afternoon, Mitchell said she was proud to bring an international audience to her home state and to the city of Atlanta. The TED event transformed the block along Peachtree Street and 15th Street in Midtown, adding lighting, outdoor seating, and a gateway welcoming attendees into the Woodruff Arts Center, some of which the city may want to consider for its own residents in the future.
Mitchell said her role as editorial director included suggesting speakers for the event, which often happens organically through her work with women and nonprofit organizations around the world. This year, that included Chantale Zuzi Leader, who fled violence in her home country of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and now works to empower girls and women there.
She said planning had been in the works for several years to bring TEDWomen to Atlanta, and that the inclusion of Georgia speakers wasn't merely to showcase leaders who live here but to recognize that Atlanta businesses and culture fit well within the global impact of TED.
"It was a challenge for us in the beginning, when we first started talking about it, to make sure that the Atlanta press and the Atlanta community understood it wasn't a local conference and that it wouldn't be just all Atlanta speakers," Mitchell said. "It turns out Atlanta has so many extraordinary people, ideas and leaders that we could have put the whole thing on with [just] Atlanta women and men. But that's not what we do. As you can see, it's an incredibly global representation. And that's very important to me."
The TEDWomen 2024 conference is scheduled to return to Atlanta in October 2024.