Teri Orr: Grateful for the gift of ‘ideas worth spreading’
This is intended to be both a love letter and a thank you. After all these years I still have no idea who you are. You changed my life — in the most profound way — at the most needed time and you gave me the world. During these days with extra time for reflection — I needed to try and reach you — at least try writing to you — here. I have no idea if you even read this column or where you live. But here goes…
Last Sunday — one of those Google reminders you can forget to delete — popped up. My Delta flight to Vancouver would be leaving at 11 that morning. Only, of course it wasn’t leaving and neither was I. The reminder was painful since I had completely put out of my mind this was to have been my annual trip to the (now-canceled) TED conference. The one week a year where I clear all of my obligations to make certain I am present to absorb — ideas worth spreading. And after 12 years — still I have no idea who nominated me to be part of the community.
TED began at the MIT Media Lab in the ’80s when folks were just figuring out all the ways their computers might be used. Richard Saul Wurman and Nicholas Negroponte decided to meet in secret and ask tech folks, doctors, engineers, people in Hollywood, musicians, book designers, layout folks from publishing houses — just how they were using their devices and how they could learn from each other. Technology, Entertainment and Design were the key elements — and TED was born. They met back east in secret for years and then in Monterey, California, and around 2001 they sold their for-profit venture to a Brit named Chris Anderson, who made it a nonprofit. In 2006 June Cohen — who had been working at Wired magazine jumped over to help TED grow and suggested they take their library of video talks from the conferences and put some online. Share them at no cost. It would be a perfect way to show their commitment to “Ideas Worth Spreading.” And somewhere in ’06 a leader in the arts community — I met at a conference in Canada — sent me a link to hear/see Sir Ken Robinson talk about education. And everything changed. That talk is now one of the most viewed in the history of TED. In the fall of 2007, I received an invitation to be part of an experimental group who would meet in Aspen — while the main TED conference — in Monterey — happened and would be simulcast — with a sprinkling of our own live speakers. TED Active was born.
Author Dave Eggers won the TED prize that year and he spoke about his wish — we help teachers by creating after-school and on school time places where writing and reading would be the focus. I traveled to San Francisco and saw his successful Pirate Supply Store — 826 Valencia Street where his tutoring program was wildly oversubscribed that day and I volunteered on the spot. And then I came back and convinced my board we needed to try and model that in Park City. For more than 10 years we operated the Mega Genius Supply Store and IQ HQ — which was a front for a free after-school literacy tutoring program. We had crazy generous donors who gave that us that space. And we had thousands of kids and hundreds of volunteers who made it a magical place.
The enthusiasm from the new crop of folks in ’08 pushed TED to try and let us create own versions in our own hometowns. I think my friend Mary was first at UCLA. After that the Gates Foundation wanted to try a health-based session from Berlin and they picked 100 satellite locations to partner with for TEDxChange. Park City was chosen to be a host. Which we held in our Genius store space on Swede Alley. Then we went down the street for a private late long lunch with about 60 people at different tables talking mostly about why it mattered to educate young women and girls around the world. We have been granted licenses now over for a decade to present TEDxYouth, TEDxWomen, TEDxOilSpill and TEDXLive. Thousands of local folks have been become a part of that extended TED community.
I learned they wipe the slate clean after each TED — there is no guarantee you will be invited back. They never printed any code of conduct but it was implied — you participated in everything — try all the vegetables. You didn’t approach the shiniest people in the room and ask for a selfie. You did not exchange business cards. You were there to learn from the speakers and each other. Aspen switched to Palm Springs. Then a handful of us were invited after the Arab Spring to Qatar. Because the Emir’s third wife’s favorite daughter had bought a part of the Tribeca Film Festival to become the Doha Film Festival. She wanted to invite folks from North America — through TED — to have an event in her country. Some of us pushed back — if we were going to be in that part of the world we wanted the community to look more like the world — so it was agreed the all-expense-paid trip (except for individual airfares to get there) would double and about 800 of us from different points on the planet would spend 10 days in the Middle East.
TED has sent me to Africa and Scotland and Banff. I have friends all over who are hard at work with ideas worth spreading. Being a member of the community changed the programming I did at the Eccles Center just when I thought I had done all I could do with dance, theater and music. I added provocative speakers and new voices in music and new ways of seeing the world without ever leaving our town. Some of my closest friends are folks I met at TED. They have come to Park City to ski and attend Sundance and even had films they produced premiere at the festival. The world got smaller for me because of TED. More connected. And now in this pandemic time, we reach out and check on each other with early-morning and late-night messaging.
I never finished college. I dropped out to major in motherhood. Being invited into the TED community was like a PhD program that had been curated perfectly for me. It brought travel and learning and friendships beyond measure.
So if you are out there and reading this, dear sponsor, please know how very grateful I am for the gift of knowledge that you opened for me at a time when I was giving up. I hope you have seen all the ways I tried to take to heart the message of “ideas worth spreading.” You gave me new eyes to see with and hope for the planet and friends with giant hearts. It is a gift I am forever grateful for all the Sundays in any 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.
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“Our community is fluid,” columnist Teri Orr writes. “Yet our actions are increasing rigid … and honestly — tired and stuck and unimaginative and nowhere near … .”