Home Nonprofit organization TEDxNorthwesternU speakers discuss building activist momentum

TEDxNorthwesternU speakers discuss building activist momentum


At the end of September 2009, Dan Cnossen woke up in a hospital bed wondering what had happened to his legs. While serving as a platoon commander for SEAL Team One in Afghanistan, Cnossen stepped on an explosive device, which caused the injury.

At the TEDxNorthwesternU talk, Cnossen discussed how to move forward while coping with unexpected setbacks in life. Six other speakers also shared their stories and insights at the annual conference at the Ryan Family Auditorium on Sunday afternoon.

The presentations were centered around the theme of the conference: momentum. After recovering from surgery, Cnossen found himself on the podium at the Paralympic Winter Games for seated biathlon and cross-country skiing medals.

“While mass and speed create physical momentum, I have come to discover that perspective and focus create life momentum,” Cnossen said.

TED is a non-profit organization that provides resources to potential conference organizers. Weinberg Jr. Tanya Bhargava, Executive Director of TEDxNorthwesternU, said the group is getting a license from TED to hold an official conference at NU.

Medill senior Tom Quinn, associate director of TEDxNorthwesternU, said the license allows the club to use the TED brand and that TED will publish the discussions online. TEDxNorthwesternU is one of the only entirely student-run TED conferences in the country, he added.

At the start of the school year, the club focused on brainstorming. Members then recruited lecturers during winter quarters, Bhargava said.

“Not every TED Talk needs to have a fascinating new idea that you come up with,” Bhargava said. “(The presentation) boils down to the experiences you have…and how that changes how you came to a conclusion.”

In his presentation, Evanston Township High School Physics professor Mark Vondracek has stressed the need for a revolution in the education system. He pointed to weaknesses in the school system, such as the achievement gap between white students and students of color.

Using metaphors from physics, Vondracek said the standardized nature of the education system prevents adults from understanding children as individuals with unique strengths and talents.

“We treat everyone’s identities as standardized,” he said. “It’s assembly-line, cookie-cutter education. This is why we need revolution, not just reforms.

Vondracek said he started Project Excite to help address these issues. The program focuses on the social-emotional side of learning and creates long-term plans for black and Hispanic students to close existing achievement gaps, he said.

Alice Kim, director of human rights practice at the University of Chicago’s Pozen Family Center for Human Rights, spoke about changing the narratives around incarceration. Her work against the death penalty led her to fight another form of punishment: life without the possibility of parole.

“We have a system that criminalizes and pathologizes black and brown people,” she said. “A prison is not just a place. It is also a long-range ideology that shapes the way each of us thinks.

Through her work, Kim met Renaldo Hudson, a former inmate who wanted to capture his own story. He turned his jail cell into a studio where he painted protest artwork that depicted his life experiences, Kim said.

Kim stressed the importance of creating platforms for those incarcerated to share their stories. A series of events called “Live From Death Row” allowed audiences across the country to hear directly from those on death row through amplified phone calls, Kim said.

“You and I have work to do if we are to end this dehumanizing mission,” she said, speaking directly to members of the public. “It starts with going through the prison walls, each and every one of us.”

Quinn said hearing speakers condense complex topics into metaphors can challenge the way people understand systems.

The discussions helped him think about the issues from different angles, he said.

“You should come out feeling like you want to challenge the speakers because that’s how we get productive dialogue,” Quinn said. “We are not trying to change mentalities, but we are trying to start a dialogue.”

E-mail: [email protected]

Twitter: @JessicaMa2025

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