TEDxFillmore: From Politics, Democracy & Jazz to Hip Hop, Eastern Europe & Burning Man

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Francis-Tapon at TEDxFillmore (2)Given that I’m the co-curator of a TEDx event (TEDxBerkeley), I try to support as many other TEDx Events as I can….by attending, tweeting, and when I have the time, writing about the experience.

TEDxFillmore just had their event at Yoshi’s along San Francisco’s Fillmore Street this past week.

Director, Producer & Writer Thomas Simpson (left), was the emcee and the theme was “Passing the Baton.” 

While this may mean different things to different people, typically, batons are passed in relay races. The intention is to hand off the batons from one person to another while attempting to cross the line. The baton in the case of this TEDx theme is meant figuratively and can mean past to the future, old to young, young to old, teacher to student, student to teacher and so on…

The event, curated by Chris and Moki Evans brought together six speakers to a stage set up on the main floor of Yoshi’s Jazz Club, a renowned music venue designed by award winning architect Mori Moto that features the best of local, national and international performance artists.

The line-up included founder of The Jazz & Democracy Project Dr. Wes Watkins, Catholic Roman Catholic Priest Dr. Victoria Rue, travel writer & adventure seeker Francis Tapon, poet and arts educator Dyanna Loeb, entrepreneur Harley Sitner and poet Zienab Abdelgany. All of them interesting, all of them engaging, all of them inspirational.


Dr. Wes Watkins teaches music in an integrated curriculum that uses jazz as a metaphor to bring American democracy to life and enrich the study of U.S. History in elementary, middle and high school.

“Jazz is a shared democracy, a shared experience, a shared leadership,” he says. Jazz musicians improvise and from that perspective, they live on the edge nearly all the time. They trust that you’ll go on a journey with them and you trust that that improvisation will just work and it almost always does. Dr Wes Watkins (3)

The question of “who am I” is so paramount for jazz musicians, just as much as the interaction with the audience is. “Who am I” he says, is what the musician shows us through his or her music. “Democracy is the same way,” he exerts.

“Democracy has a certain tension, created originally by our forefathers when they set up checks and balances to keep different branches of government in place. The way jazz musicians create that tension is to listen and respond.”

He quotes Miles Davis who had often said, “first listen and then play.” His belief is that government can learn a lot from jazz masters and that understanding jazz at its core can show us the way forward in American politics today.

He pointed to a few observations:

  • New technologies in play where everything is open.
  • There’s a transparent government. Bear in mind that if government transparency is only about management of mistrust, then we start to face 1984 in reverse.
  • Any unveiling is also veiling. Read what you will from this statement, but it’s profound. Just go there in the context of his thinking.

Dr Wes Watkins (1)

My favorite quote all night? In America’s earliest days, Black African Americans were in the shadow of the country’s “light.” MUSIC reflected that light says Watkins. He added, “Embedded in the music was the very core and essence of who we are.”

GOD, I loved that and it made me think of a personal guru of mine Frankie Manning (now deceased though I took more than a dozen classes from him), other jazz and dance training and experiences and over the years, and I thought how true that was/is and I’m not even part of that old Jazz era where they faced anything and everything and yet the purity of that golden age Jazz culture thrived.

Watkins never made this (aka, the above) correlation to democracy and jazz but I thought of it hours later after meeting him for the first time: Flexibility and adaptability is in the heart of every American immigrant. Jazz represents ‘that.’ Jazz resprents ‘creation’ on-the-fly and innovation in the moment, I thought, and isn’t that everything this country stands for (or stood for….see my book review on Rescue America: What Made This Country Great).

Francis-Tapon at TEDx (1)

Then, Francis Tapon took us on a journey that started with a question about how do you evaluate your life on a scale of 1-10?

Through travel, he claims that you can move that number from perhaps a 5 or 6 or even an 8 to a ten.

Okay, so it’s not easy for most of us to take off six months or even one or two months (or even weeks), particularly if we have a family we’re supporting in some way shape or form. His take away is “just get out there and do it – get present with nature and the environment, even if its 48 hours….”

In other words, transformative life experiences result in just taking the chance. AKA – seize the opportunity, whether it be hours, days, weeks, months or years. We all have our own thresholds and we likely all have a handful of dreams we’re not turning into reality.

BTW, while it is very un TED-like to give a book a plug, I’m actually in the process of reading Tapon’s latest: The Hidden Europe (behind the scenes of Eastern Europe).

Like Francis, I spent time backpacking through Eastern Europe in the late eighties and early nineties, a volatile and pivotal time for the region. He brings us a step further and cites cultural, language and anecdotal references throughout.

While I’m not finished with the book yet, I can’t wait to plough through the cultural nuances of every Eastern country one page at a time. The reading is great so far – am loving it! From history, hiking (suck it up babe, if it ain’t a 1,000 mile trail then…) and cultural insights learned to language faux pas and sexual encounters, he keeps you engaged throughout. I plan to do a book review once I have finished the delicious 736 page book.  

Below is the video of his TEDx talk:

Dyanna Loeb aka Dyna*Mic is an MC, poet and arts educator who started performing with Youth Speaks in 2001.

She has shared her words and music for international audiences, at venues including the San Francisco Opera House, the Nuyorican (NYC), and Project HeartBeat Jerusalem.

What’s eerily odd about listening to her is her conviction to Judiasm and yet she’s kinda rapping — poetically so — in every number she performs. Dyanna-Loeb

After listening to several excerpts and looking at the way this woman dresses, you find yourself thinking “this doesn’t add up.” Stereotypes be GONE is the lesson of the day. Even when we don’t have them or think we have them or think we think that we don’t have them but do have them, we do. We’re human after all.

Despite how talented Dyanna is (and she TRULY is btw), this juxtoposition, the one that doesn’t make sense to any viewer upon first glance, is her biggest gift in my humble opinion…

Even though her poetry and songs have been featured on several releases through Youth Movement Records, where she co-founded a writing workshop for incarcerated youth in Alameda County Juvenile Hall and she has performed around the country, her work isn’t nationally known…Widely so anyway.

YET, this woman has a command of poetic language in a way that tells the traditional and the untraditional stories not to mention the hopes and fears of the Jews through rap (and poetry). All of it is so deliciously unrefined while being refined, and energetic and cool at the same time.

She has toured the Pacific Northwest to perform for Amnesty International’s Make Some Noise for Darfur benefit. Her first chapbook, “Birkat HaGomel: A Survivor’s Blessing” was published in 2010.

A snippet below of her work:

Victoria Rue wanted to make sure we understood that women priests were not copies of ‘male priests.” “We’re not interested in brocades,” she says. “Women and ‘feminine’ priests are interested in understanding that it’s not just about adding ‘women to the mix’ and calling it ‘a day.’

Rue has studied liberation, feminist, and even lesbian theology. She likes to call her degree an M-Diva degree. Still, not commonplace! (not even close)

Victoria-Rue (2)

She reminds us that the female body has been put in the closet by the Roman Catholic Church for centuries and being ‘proud of it’ as a women’ is still discouraged today. It’s 2012. Women’s bodies have repesented lust and sex for decades (okay, centuries) which …. she says, “must have been an embarrassment to a patriarchal God.” 

She continues, “Feminist patriarchal Gods don’t believe in that kind of God, a kind of God that excludes. We believe in a God that embraces equality for all.” Asserting that langage is a critical component in life (loved her btw), she cites example after example of phrases that support movement and ones that don’t – from historical times to present day.

Bulgarian-born Ivan Krastev ‘showed up’ on video only…aka, we never met the man. He humorously reminds us that the Bulargians are one of the most depressed cultures on the planet. I looked over at Francis during his talk…he smiled while I remembered stats that supported the ‘same’ in his Hidden Europe book. (I’m currently on Croatia, about half way through the book – meaning I finished the chapter on Bulgaria).

Serial entrepreneur Harley-Sitner (1)Harlvey Sitner talked to the TEDxFillmore audience about organizational behavior and community.

He started and has subsequently led a sub-community at Burning Man called “Hippo Campus.”

What was refreshing was the reminder that despite how ‘plugged in’ we think we are, we’re not all that plugged in.

In other words, we’re all islands within our own micro-communities and while they may grow to be thousands in numbers, still….only a small number of people know who we are, what we do, why we’re valuable and a step further, why contribute in a way to accelerate that community or group?

Harley talked about group behavior. Crikey, I live in Silicon Valley and on many levels, feel as if I know every “Burner — aka term given to a Burning Man attendee” on the planet….AND YET, I had not hard of Hippo Campus, a community which given the talk, would appear to be infamous worldwide.

Despite the fact that its not on my radar, according to Harley, the community not only exists, but it’s thriving and renowned. In the passing of baton-theme, he talked about how they consciously created ‘shared experiences’ as they grew in size.

KEY? Highlighting the fact that everyone has a ‘unique gift’ and that it’s up to the community to identify each person’s unique gift and to help manifest that ‘gift’ — to the world.

He notes an observation that pertains to every organizational culture I know of on the planet – transitioning a personality-led culture to an organizational-led culture is really hard….more often that not, it simply fails. Lessons learned, he cites among others, these cores:

  • Have No Drama.
  • Have Radical Accountability.
  • Identify Sexy Projects…Sexy = Helpful and Authentic. It’s All in the Terminology. (I added that part).
  • Fall Without Fear.
  • There is no Perfect Way.
  • Surface Area for Participation and Experimentation.
  • AT the end of the day, Harley reminds us that “culture transcends EVERYTHING. Culture is the DNA of the organization.” Hear hear.
  • This couldn’t be further from the truth in my own experience over the years, whether it was the size of a company like Computer Associates or Novell in its heydey or one of the umpteen start-ups I’ve launced over the past 15+ years.

Zienab-Abelgany (5)Egyptian Zienab Abdelgany surprised and delighted me. While she grew up in Irvine and went to UC Berkeley, she has always been heavily involved in organizing the Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian (AMEMSA) communities. Currently, she is researching Pro-Palestine communities and effors and has been writing poetry that spans across all of these issues.

Her sweet spot? She speaks on identity and the politics of personhood. Her energy and authenticity were wonderful.

What I loved was her encouragement is to ask away despite how stupid and culturally ill-fitting the question may appear. Asking and being genuine and authentic in your ask regardless of what it is, is the first step.

I loved her statement which I have thought of in as a myriad of other statements in so many different places.  

Additionally, musicians Therese Taylor and James Whiton sang and played.

Below are the hands of Whiton as he played a follow up jazz number appropriately following Watkin’s talk on “Where Jazz Meets Democracy.” My title, not his, but you get the point.

James-Whiton (6)

Below is a group shot of 4 out of the 6 speakers, the two curators and both musical performers.

TEDxFillmore Group Shot (9)
 

All photos credits by Renee Blodgett.