Society and Culture

TED Talks: A Platform for Social Change?

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When I learned I had the opportunity to go to TedxPennsylvaniaAvenue, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The event promised a noteworthy variety of speakers ranging from senior staffers at the White House to the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, all promising to open up a number of enlightening discussions. The event fulfilled that promise and more, by bringing up questions about important societal issues such as youth prisons, the benefits of Medicaid, being homeless in America, and urban youth development programs. As we struggle to address these ideas in our society, forums like TED are becoming increasingly important.

Held in the Newsuem’s Forum theater on June 24, an audience of about 500 gathered to listen to some of the world’s most innovative thinkers and doers share their ideas centered around the topic of “What Works?” at the local, national, and international levels. Some of the more prominent speakers included Elizabeth Birch (former president of the Human Rights Campaign), Paul Ryan (R-WI), Loretta Sanchez (D-CA), and Robert Rubin (former Secretary of the Treasury and former chairman of Citigroup). With catered meals and special musical guests in between speakers, TEDxPennAve goers were able to take in each speaker at their leisure throughout the day. During lunch, I stood and took in an exhibit inspired by TED Senior Fellow Candy Chang. An artist, designer, and urban planner, Chang created an interactive wall on the side of a home in New Orleans for people to share their hopes and dreams. It prompted people to think about their secrets and wishes and to share them. Chang explained her inspiration:

This neglected space became a constructive one, and people’s hopes and dreams made me laugh out loud, tear up, and they consoled me during my own tough times. It’s about knowing you’re not alone; it’s about understanding our neighbors in new and enlightening ways; it’s about making space for reflection and contemplation, and remembering what really matters most to us as we grow and change.

Image courtesy of Katherine via Flickr

Image courtesy of Katherine via Flickr

I added my secrets and wishes to one of the boards in the exhibit, forced to face issues I had been ignoring. Like the talks, this exhibit really made you think and look in the mirror–adding to the overall feeling of reflection noticeable at the event. 

Another highlight was listening to Patrick McCarthy, President & CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. McCarthy’s talk centered around the issue of youth prisons. He claimed that these prisons undermine the development of young people who get into trouble with the law, expose them to grave dangers, and ultimately fail to improve public safety. McCarthy has worked for the past 23 years to reform juvenile justice systems through the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, and is launching an effort to close youth prisons. Like all of the speakers at the day’s event, McCarthy’s talk contained such strong passion and empathy for his cause that I quickly was able to understand his problem with youth prisons and found myself taking a side on an issue I honestly hadn’t thought much about beforehand.

That was a theme constant throughout the event. Each talk contained such a compelling argument, and opened up new questions I hadn’t considered. That’s essentially the goal of TED events–creating specific conversations from broad topics like “What Works?”

TED began in 1984 as a conference where technology, entertainment, and design converged. Beginning as a conference, TED now runs multiple platforms for these independent thinkers. Between 2001-2006, TED added three major additions to its organization including a sister conference known as TEDGlobal held in locations around the world, the TED Prize–which grants winners one wish to change the world, and releases many of the talks online. 

Today it exists as a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas in the form of short powerful talks discussing many topics, from science to business to globalization, in more than 100 languages. TEDx events–the x indicates that it was independently organized–help share ideas in communities around the world. Overall, the organization aims to provide a platform for speakers so that people around the globe can gain a better understanding of some of the most pressing international issues and feel a desire to help create a better future. Through these talks, audiences are exposed to speakers who are engaging in cutting edge work for numerous causes. The speakers often demonstrate constructive ways that people can help with these causes on a personal level.

For me, the impact this TED Talk had was challenging me to re-think my view of the world and brainstorm new ideas for how I can make a difference outside of my field of choice. I was reminded that no act is too small, because any energy put toward an issue can help make a difference. Each speaker did such an exceptional job of connecting diverse issues rather than creating dividing lines. This fall, a TedxTalk will be held at my school, Beloit College, and while the talks are supposed to be specific to the growth and positive change of the city of Beloit and surrounding areas, I am curious to see what other types of dialogue it will open where I live. We have a lot to change in this world–Ted Talks present an innovative platform to do so.

Angel Idowu
Angel Idowu is a member of the Beloit College Class of 2016 and was a Law Street Media Fellow for the Summer of 2015. Contact Angel at



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