TED is a movement dedicated to spreading good ideas. It began in San Francisco in 1984 and has since morphed into a global clearinghouse of free knowledge and inspiration made up of people who believe that communication can change the world. Its message is articulated through a number of forums and events, including independently organised TEDx events run by local volunteers.
The last time I had been involved in a TED was in 2011 in Iraq. TEDx Baghdad was the first conversation of its kind in the country and it brought together hundreds of men and women, young and old, bloggers, artists, inventors and athletes of all denominations and faiths. Their common goal was to stand up against the currents of ignorant butchery sweeping Iraq to discuss how art, beauty, architecture and technology could bring their ancient civilisation back up off its knees.
So I was already a TEDdite when I headed off to the National Museum on Friday for TEDx Canberra Women 2013, one of 221 TEDx Women events in 59 countries being organized on that day. The theme of this year’s event was “Invented Here”, a global celebration of women’s ability to shape their worlds. It began with a stream from the main TED Women event in San Francisco before moving on showcase five Canberra women whose thoughts, wit and innovation challenged the audience to rethink perspectives on technology and democracy, our rights to our DNA, asylum seekers and refugees, and, er, tits.
Highlights of the San Francisco session, which featured seven women presenting the theme “To Be is To Do”, were a 13 year-old environmental entrepreneur, Maya Penn, and a 64 year-old athlete, Diana Nyad.
Maya set up her own business when she was just 8 years old and now runs a fashion business selling eco-friendly clothes and accessories. She also has an environmental non-for-profit and donates up to 20% of her commercial profit to environmental organisations. Why does she do this? “Because we live in a big, beautiful, diverse world and that makes me even more passionate to save it.”
In September this year Diana became the first person to swim the 110 miles between Cuba and Florida without a shark cage, a journey that lasted 53 hours but began in 1978, the year of the first of her five attempts. At 64 years old she resonated with pride, youth and vitality. “Age is just a number – I am just beginning my prime.”
Diana’s charisma and humour brought applause from the 40 or so people in the Canberra audience as we segued into Australia mode. First up was Pia Waugh, an “open data ninja” who has spent the last two decades promoting technology-enabled government transparency. Pia is currently working as a Director of Coordination and Gov 2.0 for the Australian Government – “within the machine” she notes cheekily. She spoke passionately about the role of technology in empowering the individual to hold government to account, and of the responsibility that digitally literate citizens had to migrate online and clear up the expensive time of public service staff to deal with our more vulnerable, complex or disengaged members of the community.
2013 and beyond is the era of democratic singularity, said Pia, a time when power was shifting from institutions to individuals. “We all have a responsibility to share in the co-creation of the future,” she told the audience. “How do you change the world? Find your own kryptonite and become a superhero!”
Lawyer and medical expert Wendy Bonython also spoke about the need for individuals to assert agency, but this time of a more fundamental nature. Her presentation opened with the face of an anonymous man whose features and genetic predispositions had been gleaned from a single cigarette butt casually thrown to the ground. “The human rights implications of genetic privacy are an intergenerational challenge,” she said. “At a time when we are all talking about the privacy rights of an individual no one is talking about something far more fundamental – the rights over our own genetic coding.”
Wendy painted a grim picture in which privacy rights were being negotiated by commercial interests in a legal and policy vacuum. Big businesses, such as 23andMe (“the largest ancestry service in the world”) are seeking to create global commercial DNA databases with no clear protocols or guidelines on genetic privacy, thus threatening individual autonomy and dignity.
“Our human rights are inalienable and we must be respected as people and not as physical attributes or data files,” said Wendy. “We are all stakeholders in this issue because we all have unique DNA and rights to the privacy of that DNA.”
Wendy urged the audience to lobby for an international genetic privacy law, pointing to the anonymous face on the slide screen. “This man, somewhere, smoked his cigarette and threw the butt away. The genetic pointers from the DNA in his saliva can give us his appearance, ethnicity, age and health predispositions. Does he know about this? Does he realize that someone somewhere knows more about him than perhaps he even does? That he has an elevated risk of a certain disease or a predisposition towards alcoholism? If someone defames me or leaks intellectual property, I can sue and move on. But if someone leaks my DNA attributes, what can I do? DNA is who I am and I cannot change it.”
Change, re-invention and the courage to take a conversation by the horns and grapple it to the ground were the subjects of Maz Hakim’s (pictured above right) presentation. Born in a refugee camp in Pakistan 26 years ago she, her parents and three siblings were given asylum in Australia and Maz has since campaigned for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. “Australia made me, I was invented here and I am so grateful for the chance and the choices I was given.”
Maz spoke movingly about her cousin of the same age, Fariah, who still lives in a tiny village north of Kabul. “Fariah gets up every morning to feed her eight siblings. She is not allowed to go to school or even to leave the compound. Me, I get up and my biggest concern is whether to eat toast or cereal that morning. I get in my car and drive to work each day, confident in my future.”
As Maz spoke I suddenly remembered an incident outside Mazar-e Sherif, in the north of Afghanistan. I had been part of a UN mission to assess food and crop supplies in rural communities and we were sitting under a mulberry tree listening to the elders outlining their most pressing needs. Men and boys crowded closely, scrutinizing the foreigners with clear-eyed frankness. Girls served tea and fresh mulberries. It was a bucolic scene. Suddenly a young lad, not more than eight years old, gave a cry and grabbed a nearby stick. He began to beat a small girl, who could not have been more than six. This was not a playful thwack but a sustained and cruel beating on her arms and head. No one spoke and after a few seconds it was over and the boy threw the stick down. The girl ran into the house and the meeting continued. The tea had been too hot, was the response to the UN question about the incident.
I looked at the image of Fariah, or rather the Fariah-shaped space covered by a faded burkha, and at Maz, young, vivacious and with her whole life ahead of her.
“That could have been my life. But my parents were brave, determined and resilient. These are the qualities that any country wants in its citizens, isn’t it?”
By now the audience is spellbound.
“So when I hear people talk about ‘sending them back to where they came from’, I take it personally. The life that Fariah leads now, that could have been my life. When people talk about refugees and asylum seekers they are talking about me. I am a refugee but I was lucky. And I want to use my luck to change the conversation about refugees and asylum seekers. What are you going to do with yours?”
It had been a pretty intense afternoon so far, even with a tea break. Thankfully comic relief was on its way in the form of Sparrow-Folk, an offbeat theatrical/musical act by Juliet Moody and Catherine Crowley. The pair combine street theatre with ukulele in their signature genre, glam-folk, and they ended TEDx Canberra Women with a hilarious song about society’s hardwired condescension towards breasts.
I left the meeting room and walked into the museum where the tagline, “All Our Stories” was prominently displayed. TEDx Canberra Women was over for another year but the stories continue. We have a duty to listen to these voices and rethink our perceptions of the women who share and shape our world.
Photographs from TEDxCanberra’s Flickr page.
Jacky Sutton landed in Canberra on a skilled migrant visa last year after almost two decades working with the United Nations in war zones around the world. Up until October she was working in Baghdad with the Iraqi election commission and before that she was working with journalists and bloggers in Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza and Iran. She started out with BBC World Service and Vatican Radio before moving into the development aid sector. She arrived in Canberra on Melbourne Cup Day – “It was like a nuclear winter – there was no one here!” – but is now enrolled as a research scholar at the Centre of Arabic and Islamic Studies at ANU and otherwise keeping busy with Vegan ACT, HerCanberra and two rescue cats called Shirin and Narla.View all Jacky Sutton posts.