Upon being told I would have an opportunity to write about TEDxBaltimore, I did a few fist pumps and screamed loud enough to disturb the cats sitting next to me, then I googled “TEDxBaltimore” to figure out why I was getting excited.

The cats and I discover that TEDx is an independently organized TED event. Who is TED? Check him out HERE. (www.ted.com) In this case community speakers are invited to talk on the subject of “Baltimore Rewired”. The website that TEDx Baltimore “celebrates the power of ideas to positively change the world.” The cats meow in approval.

I continue the celebration by chugging water and eating as many oranges as I can. Like everyone else in Baltimore, I am a flu victim, and want to get better in time for the event. After my thirty-seventh orange of the night, I convince myself I am better. However, when my alarm goes off in the morning, my head is thumping like it was at a bad 80’s concert, in a sauna, in hell. I can’t go to the event.

Thanks to advances in technology, I have another option. There is a live stream of the event online. Although it does not compare to actually being there, I am able to absorb a majority of the information. However, there are some instances where a speaker urges the audience to interact with the people around them and I feel left out. Although I enjoyed the company of the cats, I would have preferred to meet new people.

Lance Lucas

After watching footage of a robot on mars, the first human to really catch my attention is Lance Lucas. As I blow my nose and cough out my left lung, I feel he is speaking directly to me through the computer. He says treating poverty is like treating the flu. You can try and treat sneezing or a runny nose, but ultimately you are treating the flu. You can treat violence and drug problems, but you need to get to the root of the problem, poverty.

Lucas knows all about the root of the problem. He is the founder of Digit All Systems, a program that provides underprivileged children with IT career skills through digital technologies. The program has certified thousands in an otherwise untapped population and provided hundreds of computers to Baltimore city schools. Lucas believes “The only inoculate of poverty is education” Unfortunately, the only inoculate of the flu is living like a recluse in a basement with cats for a week.

James Piper Bond

James Piper Bond, president of Living Classrooms Foundations, has a similar stance (to poverty, not the flu, although he seems like a knowledgeable guy so I am sure he is full of helpful flu remedies.) Living Classrooms provides better job training and neighborhood rehab to failing charter schools. Living Classroom eliminates barriers for success for young adults and communities through supplemental education and experiences. Apparently, some of the Living Classrooms are even located  in the historic ships around the harbor.

He talks about how the glitz of the Inner Harbor contrasts with the poverty only four to five blocks away. In my early college years, I remember accidentally getting off of the city bus to go to the inner harbor a few stops too early. I have the distinct vision of praying for my life, and then taking a deep breath of relief when I reached the harbor. I think that might be what he is talking about.

In a period of three years, Living Classrooms has provided seven centers in these poorest performing areas. The Crossroads School, for instance, draws students from poverty stricken neighbors and low performing schools to the East Harbor Campus for an enriching alternative. Kids that are two to three grade levels behind come to this school to get help. He mentioned that this school has great success. One third of these kids come out with scholarships for private high schools around the area.

There are also programs like Project SERVE, which employs disadvantaged young adults and ex offenders, in a bid to improve their quality of life. They work in teams to improve impoverished city neighborhoods. So far they have boarded and cleaned 15,000 vacant properties. The cats meow again. (last time, I swear)

The main point he makes is that we have to bridge the gap between the wealthier areas and the poor areas. It’s important to get people that can help into these poor areas. Volunteers need not let shows like The Wire inspire fear. This show is referenced several times during TEDx and I begin to despise it, although I am told it is great and I should watch it.

Bond mentions that although we “have a vision for the future to change this part of the city, it’s not going to happen over night, it may take 10 years.”

Seema Iyer

Change can happen over time though, and the statistics prove it. I am introduced to Seema Iyer who is here with the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance. She presents me with an alarming statistic. Baltimore has lost 330,000 people since 1950.

The Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance is a movement to democratize data so that the people can have better access to information. Previously, the census would come out every 10 years, but we need more information than that. Just like you measure your own biometrics, you need to measure your ecometrics to be effective at helping the city. With better access to data, we can look for patterns and find out where we went wrong.

After hearing this, I went to the BNIA and found a lot of interesting statistics about my own community in Hampden. You can click on the area you live and find detailed statistics about each area.  Knowledge is power, the cats tell me.

She gives us a rundown of the recent history of Baltimore. In the 50’s and 60’s there was a lot of racial unrest due to redlining. This set the structure for the city. In the 70’s and 80’s the global economy took over and jobs left the city. She refers to the 1990’s as ‘the hangover’. This is the decade is where we suffered the greatest population loss. This is also the era that the book “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” was written. This is the precursor to The Wire series.

And where does this leave us? Are will still hungover? Not at all! It looks like we are on the upswing actually. Data tells us that the crime rate, and teenage birthrate is down. Her maps show that the places in Baltimore that are better able to access areas of opportunities show the most growth. Areas that have access to public transit show the most growth. If we increase transit, we can grow even further. She urges us to fight for increased public transit.

John Sarbanes

John Sarbanes, founder and CEO of grassrootsdonar.com knows how we can fight for this. Civilians have access to all of this information, but how can we, the little guys, make a difference?

His idea was formed to fight against big money in our politics. He mentions that every member of our congress has to raise $1.5 million ever two years and they turn to special interest groups to fundraise. He also mentions that they spend an alarming amount of time simply fundraising to do this. This makes it difficult to make good sound public policy.

When it comes time to make public policy, naturally the candidate will lean to the special interest group that donated millions of dollars to the campaign. He uses the example of a plastic toy. There may be chemicals in these toys that are not brought to our attention. Because the company has donated millions of dollars to campaigns, the big guys vote to keep it on the hush hush, down-low, or whichever way you prefer to express the word “quiet”

This is why we need grassroots democracy. He talks about The Grassroots Democracy Act, an act for campaigns powered by ordinary people that simply want congress to do the right thing. Some one has to own the government, the people or these special interest groups. He urges the audience to go to Grassrootsdonar.com. If you do this, he tells us, you will ensure that politics are not for the money, but for the many.

Peter Diamandis

After hearing these speakers, I realize that great changes are occurring in my back yard. Before listening to these talks, negative news was taking over my amygdala (a part of the brain that deals with memory and emotional reactions), how the world is coming to an end and things are not getting better. Peter Diamandis had something to say about this.

He tells us that the news media constantly feeds us negative news. Because our brains are programmed for survival, we will preferentially look at the negative issues.

Of course, we still have our problems, but he points out that things aren’t actually all that bad. In the past one hundred years, the average human lifespan has doubled, the average per capita income around the world (adjusted for inflation) has tripled, and childhood mortality has come down a factor of 10. Additionally, the cost of food, electricity, transportation, and communications have all dropped. Global literacy has gone from 25% to over 85%.

He goes on and on about the wonderful things that are occurring in our world, the things you never hear about. “We are living in an extraordinary time,” he argues. We have even redefined poverty. A majority of the people in America living below the poverty line have access to running water, electricity and even mobile phones. These are things the richest robber barons hundreds of years ago could not imagine.

He mentions that scarcity is contextual and technology is a liberating force. For instance, aluminum used to be one of the most valuable metals due to its scarcity. It was also the most abundant, but we had no way to access it. Due to electrolysis we have made it more accessible and aluminum is available to everyone. He also mentions that the earth is bathed with 5,000 times more energy than we use in a year. As mentioned previously, it’s not about being scarce, it’s about being accessible. If wee have abundant energy and we also abundant water.

We live on a planet 70% covered by water and we fight over half a percent of the water on this planet. Things are being done to change this. Recently, a water vapor distillation system called Slingshot was developed. It is the size of a small dorm room refrigerator, but has the power to purify 1,000 liters of polluted, undrinkable water for less than two cents today. If tests go as planned, the chairman of Coca Cola is planning on deploying this globally to places that don’t have access.

He argues that the biggest protection against population explosion is making the world educated and healthy. Each year billions of people around the world are connected to the global conversation, so they have access to these resources. A Masai Warrior in Kenya on a smart phone has better access to the world than Ronald Reagan had twenty years ago.

After all this talk I need to drink a glass of water and check my cell phone. If a Masai Warrior has a smart phone, he has better access to the world than I do. I do not have a smart phone, but at least I have better access to technology than a powerful 19th century businessman. Everything is contextual, I have learned.

I am  grateful for the live stream. I can pause the video at any point to make tea, eat lunch, or walk in on my roommates dancing to Bollywood dance videos On Demand. Throughout the course of the day, there are over twenty speakers. There are also intermissions, where audience members can mingle with speakers and other people. I wish I could morph through the screen. Maybe one day this will be a reality. Maybe one day the flu will not exist.

The TEDx conference lasts from nine to five. I notice the audience thins towards the end and am told not to worry about the snow. Snow? This is the first I am hearing about snow. I walk out of my dungeon to see the real thing. I thank the livestream for informing me about what is going on outside my own window.

Shaquille Brooks

I watch Shaquille Brooks, a student speaker from Digital Harbor High, talk about the changes he is making in Baltimore. He reiterates that education is vital in combating poverty and talks about the opportunities he has had in Baltimore. He says that everyone has a voice, but we don’t always know how to use it. He ends his speech by asking the audience to stand if they are committed to rewiring Baltimore. I stand up, mentally.

I watch an artist that makes dresses from steal, an NFL coach talk about what it means to be a man, a radio show host, a student refuge, a boating accident survivor, a president of a university, and so much more. It is overwhelming how much useful information is being pumped into my Amygdala. I have been taking notes and the notebook is completely full.

The day ends with a performance from Orchkids. OrchKids is a  Baltimore City Orchestra sponsored program that provides music education, instruments, academic instruction, meals, in addition to performance and mentorship opportunities at no cost to Baltimore city kids. Music to my ears.

The cats are sleeping, but I can tell they are dreaming about a better Baltimore and greater access to technology. They are indoor cats and I am grateful they were able to glimpse into the world outside of the basement. Today, I am also grateful I was able to get a glimpse of the world outside of the basement.

 

About The Author

Makenna is a writer artist based in Baltimore.