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Tedx conferences help Detroit write new narrative

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — “If you’re seeking a butt to kick into action, start with your own.” So began the 2015 installment of TedxDetroit, with an estimated 2,500 attendees taking in the words of conference organizer Charlie Wollborg.

Wollborg, who owns Curve Detroit, a marketing firm in Pontiac, had been a fan of Ted Talks. When the TED organization put out a call in 2009 for organizers who would start local versions, Wollborg responded and was selected.

“Who’s going to run it?” he asked. You are, the organization said.

“Who’s going to help?” he asked. The team you put together, they said.

In Detroit, this is the seventh annual iteration of the popular technology, engineering and design conferences that have existed in some form going back to 1984.

Back in 2009, when TedxDetroit packed 300 people into a small auditorium at Lawrence Tech University in Southfield, it was tough to come across news headlines that didn’t depict Detroit as “burning, bleeding and bankrupt,” said Wollborg, on Thursday at the Fox Theatre.

Detroit based TEDx conferences were meant to help disrupt that narrative.

Slow Roll founder Jason Hall, the band Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. (now known simply as JR JR) and Veronika Scott, founder of The Empowerment Plan, which connects homeless women with job opportunities, are among past speakers at TEDx Detroit before their work met mainstream success. Scott is also a 2015 Forbes 30 under 30 honoree.

“Our job is to shine a light on people who are doing something cool,” Wollborg said, while making clear he took no credit for past speakers’ success. “If we can act as fertilizer, great.”

Detroiter Aaron Foley, author of “How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass,” Cathy Olkin of NASA, and Alden Kane, a high school senior at the University of Detroit-Jesuit who last year invented a baby stroller that people in wheelchairs could use, are scheduled to speak this year.

“If you had the world’s attention for a few minutes, what would you share?”

That question is the challenge TEDx presents its speakers. It’s one Gary Abud Jr., a science teacher at Grosse Pointe North, will respond to be explaining what educators can learn from DJs.

Abud noted the “meteoric rise” in popularity of techno music among young people in the 30 years since its founding in Detroit.

“That really seems like a great place to look for lessons on how to engage kids,” Abud said. “DJs make an epic experience for their listeners — experiential, participatory, image rich, and connected.”

Teachers, he said, must find ways to help their students feel connected to and participants in what they’re learning. Putting those lessons from how DJs approach their work into practice is part of the reason Abud was chosen as Michigan Teacher of the Year in 2013-14 by the Michigan Department of Education in just his sixth year in the field.

Janet Tyler, executive producer of TEDx Detroit, grew up in southwest Detroit before her family moved to Dearborn. Part of the excitement of the conference, she said, is not only connecting with people who care for the city, but connecting attendees with the city by bringing them to regional “gems” they may not have visited in years.

Chris Lambert, of LifeRemodeled, was scheduled to speak in the third session of the day on “remodeling lives, one neighborhood at a time.” He attended the conference with his mentee, Jamell Mitchell of Detroit.

Mitchell, 22, lost his job as a janitor in February 2014. He started working a construction apprenticeship at LifeRemodeled on the recommendation of his father, who pitched his son to the organization as being outgoing and drug-free, early in the year.

The former city bus rider now has a truck and is on the path to getting a home, success he credits to his father, Lambert and other mentors. Mitchell now has meaningful work and the chance to secure his family’s future as his skills blossom.

Starting in November, Mitchell will be working sales in what Lambert called “a very large construction materials” firm.

“There’s a lot of opportunities with these guys that I wouldn’t be able to get if I was working the janitor job,” Mitchell said.

As for the future of the conference, as it approaches its 10th year, Wollborg said, “I’d like to do it at Belle Isle.”