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TEDxHarrisburg Highlights Local Speakers

by Megan Waardenburg

Most adults, when reflecting on their college experience, say the element of college they miss the most is the environment filled with opportunities to learn. As students, we take advantage of the extensive resources allocated to our education. Outside school, people don’t have nearly as many. Students and adults alike have taken to TED Talks, videos from a company dedicated to delivering concise and effective talks focused on technology, entertainment, and design, by individuals who are passionate about their topics spreading an understanding of their ideas.

Local events, called TEDx events, are organized by residents of the host city to allow locals to speak to their own cities. The organizer of TEDxHarrisburg, Ashleigh Pollart, took interest in TED Talks, and began the process of registering for the event. The process included obtaining a license, creating a committee of volunteers, and reviewing applications for speakers. Speakers were narrowed down based on their public speaking abilities, the fit of their topic into the overarching theme, and the combination of opinions from the committee. The list was narrowed down from approximately 65 applicants to 12, who were granted the opportunity to speak to the audience at the event.

The common theme between all the talks was Harrisburg’s ability to thrive. “It’s what we want Harrisburg to do,” Pollart expressed in regards to her reason for choosing the theme. The goal is to encourage members of the community to aim for success. Harrisburg, in past decades, has been viewed from surrounding areas as dangerous or disappointing. On the contrary, Harrisburg is experiencing a renaissance, entailing a growth in culture from local art to improving education. The TEDxHarrisburg conference featured 12 individuals influencing and encouraging this movement in the city.

Speakers ranged from educators to entrepreneurs, and from authors to pastors. The lineup represented a diverse selection of residents of Harrisburg with a variety of professions and viewpoints. An emphasis was placed on professional development, as it often applies to workers regardless of their occupation.

The event was organized into four sessions, each with three speakers accompanied by a previous talk from other TEDx events. Between sessions were optional breakout sessions that were more interactive and community focused than the talks.

Brant Hansen Radio Host, Author “Forgiveness in an Age of Anger”

The first speaker in the lineup was Brant Hansen, a radio host and author, who spoke about “Forgiveness in an Age of Anger”. Hansen pointed to the culture we foster of distraught emotions. From politics to driving down the road, we all expect to be angered. Despite the argument for good anger and bad anger that claims that anger can fuel a passion for creating change, Hansen challenged his audience to pose the question “Does this [anger] help me fight injustice?”. Though many believe they can justify a “yes”, anger often clouds judgement too far to make it effective. 

Lynn Shiner Author “The ABC’s of Dealing with Death”

Lynn Shiner, an author, spoke next on “The ABC’s of Dealing with Death”. Shiner shared her experience in an abusive relationship. She spoke about her emotions tied to keeping her children safe by staying in the relationship. Shortly after she was able to divorce him, her ex husband had killed her children on Christmas morning. Shiner addressed the most important ways to help those dealing with death by avoiding cliches, being a good listener, and conversing about the event.

Tika Ram Dhungana Social Worker “Refugees are not the Garbage, they are the Assets”

Following Shiner’s talk, Tika Ram Dhungana delivered a talk entitled “Refugees are not the Garbage, they are the Assets”. Dhungana migrated to the United States from Bhutan, a country located between Northeastern India and Tibet, with his parents as a result of religious conflict. He discussed the deplorable conditions of refugee camps, and the subpar nature of schools within the camps. In order to improve the future of refugees, particularly children, it is necessary for us to address the issue of discrimination against refugees. 

Stephanie A. Jirard Educator “Ordinary People do Extraordinary Things”

The next session began with Stephanie A. Jirard, a former attorney and current professor, who spoke on how “Ordinary People do Extraordinary Things”. Jirard encouraged the audience to be authentic, as well as view others as simply people to gain confidence. Using personal stories in which she was able to do extraordinary things herself, Jirard pushed the audience to reconsider their dedication to their comfort zones. 

Josh Crain Pastor “How to Talk to Anyone”

Josh Crain, a pastor at a church in Dillsburg, followed up on this by discussing “How to Talk to Anyone”. He used the concept of Spiral Dynamics, a model that organizes personalities by color, to describe ways to appeal to people of any personality. Personalities labeled as beige, purple, blue, red, orange, and green tend to be persuaded or interested by certain ideas. Crain expresses that he believes young adults and teenagers can benefit from his talk as it allows us to learn how to approach anyone, as well as gain a bank of knowledge early on in life. 

Secretary Pedro A. Cortes Public Servant “Carolina to the Capitol”

Ending the last session, Secretary Pedro A. Cortes, the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, spoke about his journey from “Carolina to the Capitol”. He described his journey of living in Carolina, Puerto Rico to working hard in school in the continental United States to reach is position. His talk outlines the best career advice, particularly for young people, to follow for a successful career. 

Bailey Richert Entrepreneur “Life Crisis? Start a Business”

The second half of the event began with Bailey Richert, an entrepreneur, delivering a talk called “Life Crisis? Start a Business”. Though most of us aren’t prepared, qualified, or even aiming to start a business right now, Richert discussed the struggles she faced as a young adult in the workforce, and the need for a balanced life amidst the stress many of us will experience as a result of growing up. She encourages us to find a field we are enthusiastic about, and to find an environment where we are comfortable. 

Al Chiaradonna Banker and Educator “Life Work Integration” Following Richert, Al Chiaradonna spoke about “Life Work Integration”. He told the story of himself in school, where he was completely immersed in his work. He encouraged the audience not to balance life and work, but to integrate each onto the other. For those of us who dare planning on entering competitive professions, we can learn from his experiences in finding a way to integrate what we have to do with what we want to do into our daily lives.

Dr. Melissa Vayda Educator “What’s your Story? Family, Addiction, and the Brain”

Dr. Melissa Vayda spoke about her family’s experience with drug addiction in her talk entitled “What’s your Story? Family, Addiction, and the Brain”. Dr. Vayda spoke about her experiences with her mother’s addiction and the effects addiction has on the loved ones of addicts. She emphasized the fact that addicts did not choose to be addicted, but the fact that addiction is a hereditary brain disease. 

Dr. Eric Waters Educator “Learning is Breathing”

Beginning the last session, Dr. Eric Waters’ talk, entitled “Learning is Breathing”, where he discussed his experiences in early education. He displays the results on graduation rates, and how it is possible to alter the success of public education. He focuses on starting at “the root” of the issue, and to be deeply involved in a child’s education as opposed to “throwing money at the issue”. 

Bryan Speece Entrepreneur “Virtue of Public Art”

Bryan Speece discussed the “Virtue of Public Art” in his talk, highlighting the effect

recognizable pieces have had on art throughout history. Public art is prominent in Harrisburg, and learning to appreciate this element of the culture in our own city. He highlighted the success of his program, Murality, an app active in Vancouver, which guides people to local murals. He emphasized the impact it has had, and the necessity of art in urban areas. 

Chuck Russell Entrepreneur “Innovate Harrisburg”

To finish off the event, Chuck Russell spoke about the growth of innovation in Harrisburg, and its effect on the culture and economy in the city. He weighs the benefits and drawbacks of automated jobs, but explains the benefits it can have on those with technological skills searching for employment. 

The TEDx event displays speakers who have committed to their work and succeeded in improving their fields. While most of us may not be in the workforce just yet, we can benefit from these talks, particularly those taking place in our own area, just as much, if not more, than adults. The speakers share stories of overcoming intense challenges and create influential programs and products. Being driven towards education is one of the most powerful traits a person can possess, and TED Talks provide students inspiration to devote themselves to learning both inside and outside of school. Pollart aims to inspire young adults and teenagers by posing her introspective question; “Where would I be today if I had learned languages instead of watched TV?”.

Through watching TED Talks, students can discover their potential for success, and observe the success of others who had once been in the same position. Depending on the licensing at TED, there will likely be another TEDxHarrisburg next year, so make sure to keep an eye out before it sells out! TEDx has helped to gather innovative individuals from the area, so represent young adults and teenagers in the community by getting in events similar to TEDx.


Image by Megan Waardenburg

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