Sunday in the Park
March 11, 2011
It is a line from an old Beatles song — my earworm right now: "I heard the news today, oh boy." But instead of the familiar sad, slow tempo, it comes out with the swell of cello and a primal heartbeat made by chest thumping the human voice. It comes with smiles and tears and an acute re-understanding of the price of freedom of expression. It comes on a vibrational level that is reaching formerly restricted air space and thought space and mind space on the planet. It comes from the annual gathering of the tribe at the TED conference.
Each year around 2,000 people from all over the world meet for one week to exchange ideas. To listen to astrophysicists and breakthrough medical inventors, musicians, paleontologists and teachers and chefs and guerilla artists. This year, in addition to all that, we heard from brave citizen journalists who are changing the world. Their world. Our world.
The subtext for the conference on Technical Entertainment Design advances "ideas worth spreading." You can see a library of these talks on the website TED.com. The idea of speaking truth to power was never so clear as at a pre-conference day in a desert workshop when a young man from the Middle East stood up to talk about what he was doing to spread ideas in his corner of the world. "In our region we think of it as revolutions worth spreading," he said. "Ideas," he continued with a wisdom seldom seen in thirty-year-olds, "are the new oil and the new soil."
As with all things TED, you are hit with wave after wave of emotions and information that layer and never settle but bubble up as you start to connect your own dots along the way. The next day, still pre-conference, during a backstage tour with our same small group, we were included in presentations from TED Fellows — those young people making dramatic contributions. We heard about art projects, medical breakthroughs, astounding discoveries.
And then we were asked to put our cameras away. More than asked. We were told that any recording of the next Fellow would put her life in danger. Out on stage came a young woman in jeans and a hoodie. She lives in the Middle East. She is a whisper over twenty. She has created her own trusted news source that is now being used by such established media as the Guardian and The New York Times. It is called crowdvoice.org. On this site you hear and see protests happening in real time. With brave men and women talking to the camera and telling us about human-rights violations not only throughout the Middle East but in Africa and China. I was in awe of her poise, her humor and ultimately by her extraordinary bravery, brought on by her desire to simply tell the truth.
The next morning, when the conference officially started, we were already questioning how we could to process the volume of new ideas that would come our way. So when Wadah Khanfar, the head of Al Jazeera, took the stage to share how his news source gathered and disseminated information in the Middle East, we were ready to hear about the biggest news story of our lifetimes.
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In an impassioned 18 minutes he spoke about his reporters and cameramen being in the square in Egypt at the height of the revolution. And how, one evening, he received a call on his cell phone from a man in the square. The man implored him to not let the cameramen leave at night. To keep filming. "That light lets people know they are being watched. Without it, there will be genocide." And so he changed his plans and made his tired, small staff continue to record the protest through out the night.
He spoke of the unimagined joy of a people who have never known anything but life under a dictator. How throughout the Middle East there was an awakening and a deep abiding desire of people to control their own destiny in a democratic fashion. And he implored us, cautioned us, demanded us, to let them discover and grow their own form of government, by the people and for the people of that region.
In all my years of journalism there has been the refrain: Our job is to shine light in dark corners. It usually means backroom politics, or land developments, or unfair working conditions. The idea of keeping the light on in dark corners of the world is breathtaking. Hearing from the brave people who are risking their lives to do so filled me with wonder and awe. I heard the news today, oh boy! And I’m still trying to process it this Sunday in the Park …
Teri Orr is the director of the Park City Performing Arts Foundation that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts. She is also a former editor of The Park Record.