TEDxPortland: A City Determined to Lead a Global Movement

Carl Jung coined the term synchronicity in the 1920s, defining the concept as a “meaningful coincidence.” And as I immersed myself in TEDx Portland’s 2017 production, I felt myself at the center of just such an occurrence—an intuition the event organizers so obviously recognized as well when they decided the theme of this year’s talks.

In their seventh year, TEDxPortland’s team must have been asking themselves what message the world presently needed the most. Amidst a time when travel bans, racism, sexism, nationalism, homophobia and other divisive ideologies seem to be on the rise, the progressive city found easy synchronicity with a symbol that has long stood for unity and love, a symbol the rainy city knows well, one which coincidentally also shines brightly in 7 colors to represent the 7th year of TEDx: the rainbow, the visible light spectrum.

Thus, Spectrum: “A celebratory gathering that honors the light in all of us.”

A bold theme for a city recently declared the “Whitest City In America” by The Atlantic. But one look at the list of performers and presenters and it was clear the organizers had taken every step they could to create a diverse lineup.

A short film was shown regarding transgender rights; an all-female rock band performed; a band of performers with disabilities brought the audience to their feet (as well as bringing this writer to tears). There were self-declared “Blatinos” and proud Mexican-Americans sharing their stories; one presenter who came from a family of immigrants made it clear he stood against any concept of walls, and that his family would happily employee Syrian refugees if the chance arose; Black, Asian, Indian, Latino, White, Young, Old, Male, Female, and everyone in between—all seemed to be included as TEDx yearned to send a message of inclusivity out into the world.

And this message was clear from the beginning, as Luis Vargas started off the show with a message about the importance of travel, asking that we stop caring so much about materialism and instead focus on experience—especially the travel version that opens your eyes to new cultures and provides you with a greater appreciation for the things we all have in common, regardless of which way the prism of light may dance upon our skin or how the words might flow from our tongues.

He told us worrisome stats about our addiction to work and being “busy,” letting us know that, on average, American’s have a total of 169 million unused vacation days each year; that only 35% of American’s have passports, and that only 30% of those that do actually go beyond Mexico and Canada. These facts sparked a realization: 1) either American’s are so overworked and underpaid that they can’t afford to leave the continent, which is a tremendous fault in our government’s handling of the job market, or 2) American’s have no desire to go outside of their comfort zone and interact with different types of people and cultures, which is still likely a fault of the government who’ve painted a vivid image of a burning world full of criminals and terrorists.

This failure to manifest interest outside our borders was further showcased by Marla Smith-Nilson’s impassioned talk about the devastating impacts that are resulting from an inaccessibility to clean drinking water in sub-Saharan Africa. I reveled in the humanistic pleas being made, excited by the altruistic drive; and yet, the notion brought an irony to mind: how can we go about fixing the drinking water of a faraway continent when we’ve had one of our own cities drinking poisoned water for years now?

I believe these self-reflected questions are the point of TED, though, and this kind of progressive curiosity on a bigger scale can often give us the perspective regarding the smaller, more local issues.

And this is where Stephen Green came in touting the brilliance of thinking small, proudly announcing that 83% of all Portland businesses have 10 or less employees, a profound testament to the city’s attempt to maintain its local economy and neighborhood-feeling despite an abundance of global attention. For example, even with TED being the massive brand it is, 95% of the 60+ sponsors for TEDxPortland were local companies.

It wasn’t all streamlined and on point, though, as some of the curation seemed to suffer from the thematic attempt to appease all varieties of audience. Some of the talks, for instance, seemed quite underwhelming in terms of their “big idea” value, a result that likely came from a focus set more on fulfilling a sort of “affirmative action” checklist rather than pushing the envelope of thought. One presenter in particular also seemed to embody the very privilege and naivety of other people’s struggles that the whole event seemed an attempt to counter. But even when the message felt like a weak attempt to appeal to a certain audience or a contrived success story, the underlying message still held strong and pure, delivering to the audience a sense of curiosity, determination, empowerment, and inspiration. And even if one wanted to be cynical about a particular performance or two (like I initially found myself doing), host David Rae’s opening statement called into profound clarity the silliness of such a notion, as he pointed out that “this is real,” going on to explain that just because these people are on stage doesn’t mean that they won’t stumble over their words or make mistakes, and it certainly doesn’t mean they’re not flawed.

It was a reminder that no message or speech can encompass the full range of perspectives relative to the topic, because no one person can experience every possible facet of the human condition. And to me, that is the takeaway of TEDxPortland: Spectrum—that we are all beautiful and worthy of acceptance and a voice, no matter what kind of light we carry, no matter the flaws that may be perceived due to first impressions. As Emma Mcilroy alluded to in her closing presentation, it’s time we put aside the jaded adult that lives attached to pre-conceived notions and instead start viewing the world with a childlike perspective, looking beyond the surface and finding the beauty in the mundane.

Because if we don’t, we’ll miss the chance to enjoy the light we’re all capable of sharing to brighten each other’s lives. And in a time when countries all over the world are choosing isolationism and divisiveness, leading to more and more conflict and suffering, we need cities like Portland standing up for unity and a compassionate sharing of ideas, these urban beacons that let others throughout the world know they won’t be alone in the movement towards a more humanistic species.