Orr: The global campfire
July 6, 2016
I never attended a summer camp as a child. My single mother in California, working various different jobs as a "secretary," couldn't make it happen. I spent much of my life envying folks who told me stories of their idyllic summers at camp.
This week I have been in Banff at a kind of summer camp I could've never imagined until now. Sixty countries represented first by 350 people for two days and then joined by another 400 for the next five days. TED Summit in Banff allowed for us to slow down and engage our brains in an international setting while looking inward and outward and all around, altogether.
We were at the largest center for the arts of its kind in the world — the Banff Center, with acres and acres set in the forest surrounded by mountains with multiple theaters and workshop spaces all with glass walls. A long, sloping grassy hill and an amphitheater with a starry night backdrop. There were rivers that crisscrossed the town and ravens landing and taking off with precision. We were, after all, in the center of a national park. Some of the most beloved TED speakers of the past few years were there not to speak but to add to the flavor of the event. Nobody cared what you wore. Endless food was provided and live music was a part of every evening.
But, as you would expect from any TED event, the main attraction was the speakers. With topics ranging from orphan diseases to investigative journalism to a few impromptu open letters about Brexit, we became a global family for a week. And upon leaving, we once again felt we had stamped our global citizenship passports.
So much better than a duffel bag of popsicle stick crafts, we return with ideas. We are thinking about things we might have never considered before. Or confirmations of whispers of thoughts we felt we alone had. Or glimpses at inspirational humans working hard, very hard, to right a wrong, expose a wrong, consider what wrong even looks like.
The question I can never answer after a TED event is that "who was your favorite speaker" thingy. Or your most impactful conversation? The TED moment? Because the secret sauce of what TED cooks up is the ability to amaze and bedazzle with a fair amount of consistency. And the quiet talk about someone's child, or lover, or start-up can all seem the most important conversation you have, until it turns out, the next conversation tops that one.
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New words appear like "connect-ography." A new way of explaining how our connections create a borderless country. Expressions from other countries that ring true, like, "Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly needs to wipe his own eyes first." And explanations of the human condition that push us to reconsider what we thought we understood.
There was a young woman who appeared in a wheelchair to speak about her orphan disease that compromised her healthy life just five years ago, in her late twenties, after she was newly married. Jen Brea has a version of chronic fatigue syndrome, which was initially diagnosed as a kind of psychosomatic illness. There are days, weeks, months, when she cannot leave home. Coming to the conference to speak came at great personal cost. Before she took the stage, host Tom Reilly told us that loud noises could be jarring for her and even though we might feel like clapping (as a rule we give great audience) we needed instead to clap using American Sign Language which translates to a kind of jazz hands, high above your head. When Jen's talk concluded, we stood and silently waved our hands for minutes while she softly teared up… and so did we.
When Gerard Ryle, the director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in Washington, D.C., spoke, he told the "how" behind the release of the Panama Papers. How more than 300 journalists in 76 countries worked as a team for months in silence collaborating to verify the more than 11.5 million leaked documents representing over 40 years of corruption with tentacles in dozens of countries. It has all the makings of a breathless thriller of a movie. How they agreed they would all release the information they had about corruption in each of their countries, on the same day, at the same time. Unprecedented in the history of journalism.
But just the moments — like the night at dinner when I was seated next to a guy from Seaworld and an archeologist from Peru, and two people, just meeting, of Chinese backgrounds. When the older Chinese man asked his much younger, female seatmate if her husband also spoke Mandarin, she laughed and said no, but he can order Mandarin. When the man from Peru learns my line of work, he says he used to be the minister of culture in his country and did I know a certain Peruvian musical/dance group? I confessed I did not. So he pulls out his iPhone and clicks on YouTube and digs a pair of earphones out of his pocket and suddenly I am watching this most colorful performance, in the middle of this very fancy restaurant.
For now, here's the one thing I am certain of: I needed to have had a long life behind me to have been ready to go to camp. I'll be unpacking for months to come, starting this Sunday in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.