Two days ago I attended TEDx Charleston, my first TED talk experience of any kind. I remember drumming my fingers on the dashboard of my college boyfriend’s car, him saying, “So I’ve been listening to these things, TED Talks, they’re really inspirational. There was this one…” Did I doze off or just start playing with my phone? I wasn’t interested in strangers’ stories, especially those broken down into short, succinct presentations. Bunch of fluff, I thought.

Fast forward five years and I’m sitting in Charleston Music Hall, taking in all of that “fluff” I’d previously ignored. TED Talks are nothing new — 30 years ago a four day conference in Calif. dedicated itself to “ideas worth spreading.” Now, TED holds two conferences a year, and all kinds of TED-related events span the globe, including TEDx talks, with the “x” designating an independently organized TED event.

The fourth annual Charleston TEDx presented 14 speakers, one poet with percussion accompaniment (Marcus Amaker and Quentin Baxter), one musical performance from Gino Castillo and Abdiel Iriarte, one comedian (Jason Groce), and a dance performance from Anuradha Murali with Mrudani School of Performing Arts, for a total of 18 presentations. The day, needless to say, was overwhelming, and, as it sets out to be, inspirational. More on that inspiration later.

Perhaps more intriguing than the speakers themselves were the audience members, sitting rapt in their seats. This year’s event sold out in four hours, with almost 1,000 attendees. At $65 a pop, tickets included a day of talks, lunch, and a post-TED reception, a pretty sweet deal if you can take the day off of work. Sweet deal or not, the commitment required of that many people, buying a ticket two months in advance, taking off work (or perhaps, making other arrangements), and sitting, politely, for four hours of presentations, is impressive.

Is it a generational thing? Should the awe I feel when I see rows upon rows of eyes watching someone else speak, not looking down at their phones, embarrass me? Perhaps. Instead, it gives me hope that our attention deficit society has not yet given in entirely to the self-obsessiveness I see — and participate in — everyday, on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram … you get the idea. There are people in the world with their eyes focused beyond themselves, intent on helping others, and more importantly, on changing others’ minds.

TEDx presenters are storytellers. They’re damned good at talking and keeping your attention, and their jokes, abrupt pauses, and raised eyebrows are not for naught. At Charleston TEDx, there was local photographer Jack Alterman, who encouraged the audience to roll down their windows and unlock their doors when traveling through life. There was Charleston’s poet laureate Marcus Amaker, who urged the audience, through carefully spoken words, to tear down the walls you don’t need. There was Lia Colabello, who asked everyone to stop using plastic straws — right now, stop using them. Lefford Fate wants to improve mental health in prisons. The list goes on and on.

What does one make of a never-ending list, of 18 pleas, presented in various art forms, to save the world? I’m generalizing there, but at their core TED talks do want you to, as some like to say, “create change” out there in the world. Two days ago attendees were asked to write a letter to themselves in the form of postcard that they would receive six months from now. The card asked you to write down one action you would take after hearing the day’s talks.

I wrote, “I would like to help someone who cannot tell their story, tell it.”

I feel strange about that promise, thinking that maybe I won’t be able to fulfill it. I worry that I won’t be able to feed hungry kids, secure my data on the internet, or educate people about heirs’ property. Like I said, overwhelming.

Speaker Kat Morgan, founder of Changeability Solutions, asked the audience to speak up when they hear something offensive, a derogatory comment towards someone of another sex, race, or lifestyle than your own. She mainly couched this request in the terms of stopping casual racism — the everyday phrases and tones people use that belittle minorities, i.e. “those people.” Morgan was captivating, telling stories from decades ago, revisiting a conversation she’d overhead in her youth. And what she asked wasn’t much — just speak up. 

So, Charleston, that’s where we are: post-TEDx talk exuberance, buzzing with all the possibilities of a better world. That cynical college self I described is still there; I have my doubts that many of those postcard actions will come to fruition.

But maybe, maybe! If we think big and act small — baby steps — we can, well, create change. Click on those links above. Consider donating to a cause, changing your actions, or even just changing your mind. And if you need help telling your story, please let me know.

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