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Inaugural Harlem TEDx Conference Wants to Spark Big Ideas

By Jeff Mays | March 19, 2012 9:10am
TEDxHarlem Executive Producer Imari Oliver said the event is about bringing life to ideas of social innovation.
TEDxHarlem Executive Producer Imari Oliver said the event is about bringing life to ideas of social innovation.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM — Harlem has a reputation of being a place of innovative ideas. From the writers of the Harlem Renaissance to Malcolm X speaking on 125th Street and the jazz culture that was curated here, Harlem has always been a place for creativity that has changed the world.

But these days, Harlem is sometimes only thought of as an intellectual hotbed in the historical sense. The organizers of Harlem's first TEDx event, a group of global conferences whose motto is "ideas worth spreading," want to change that.

"The world recognizes Harlem as a source of creativity, inspiration and innovation yet we don't have anything in Harlem that harnesses our voice. It's a collection of individual voices. We don't have a vehicle that tells our story of creativity and vision and innovation," said Marcus Glover, an advertising executive who founded the TEDxHarlem conference.

TEDx conferences are the independent, locally-produced versions of the TED conferences held in annually in Long Beach, Calif., and TEDGlobal in Edinburgh, Scotland.

In a nod to Harlem's place in history, the March 27 event will be held at one of Harlem's most legendary venues, the Apollo Theater.

"The Apollo is a ground zero of new talent. Things have always started here. This is connecting what was here before with what is here now," said TEDxHarlem Executive Producer Imari Oliver.

The theme of the conference is "Making Waves."

"An idea can happen in one place and the impact can be felt elsewhere," said Oliver. "There are things than can be developed in Harlem that can be imported elsewhere. If we can solve some of the problems here then we can export those solutions throughout the world."

Among the topics to be discussed are social engagement, mobility and connectivity and the built environment.  Speakers include restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson, Bina48, a robot with artificial intelligence, Marta Moreno Vega, president of the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute and Zipcar co-founder and former CEO Robin Chase, among others.

"The mission is to bring to life ideas of social innovation. We want people to be empowered when they see things that aren't working to fix it. How can we inspire them to become activists for their community?" said Oliver.

Samuelsson will discuss the restaurant as a game changer. Not only has Red Rooster brought new people to Harlem and spawned other restaurants in the area, but Samuelsson hopes to use it as a training ground for the next generation of restaurant owners and executives.

"He is preparing them to own their own restaurants and to become managers. He could have hired people with tons of experience, but he chose not to. It is an example of workforce development and using an opportunity to develop other talent," said Oliver.

"Marcus is a what you call proof of concept, an idea that TEDxHarlem is about," said Glover who grew up in Harlem.

"He left a five star restaurant in Midtown because he believes hospitality was coming back to Harlem. Now he is a bridge to rest of the world and showing the best of what Harlem can offer to the world."

Seth Andrew, founder and superintendent of Democracy Prep Public Schools, said he will speak about how quality public education can break the cycle of civic disengagement and help make our democracy healthier.

"Part of Harlem's appeal is an intellectual center but that is perceived to be historical as oppossed to modern. We need to bring back spirit of the Harlem Renaissance that changed the world," said Andrew.

Democracy Prep can talk about how to transport the ideal that every kid will got to college and that "every kid will be great. They expect that," said Oliver.

One of the ways to do that is to share with the world the best practices that have helped to make Democracy Prep the top charter middle school in the city.

"We serve 2,000 kids in six schools across Harlem. New York City has 1.1. million kids and the United States has 50 million kids. No matter how fast we grow we can't access all those kids. TEDxHarlem allows us to leverage those best practices, including practical elements of how we built those schools, and share that with others," said Andrew.

The kids at Democracy Prep will also be heavily involved in TEDxHarlem. One of the students, the winner of an internal competition at the school, will make a short speech about an issue from the Apollo stage. A live video feed of the conference will be viewed at the school and other kids will be making speeches at the school.

Some of the TEDxHarlem speakers will visit the school and Democracy Prep will be sharing some of its subject curriculum online.

"Our middle school is focused on building basic skills that are missing when our students come so we don't get to do much in the way of spreading new ideas. But by the time our kids are in high school they are ready for next stage of intellectual life that is part of TEDx's goal and that involves coming up with their own ideas," said Andrew.

Glover and Oliver say they hope to make the event an annual one and the follow up with salons throughout the year that bring community groups together to solve problems as complex as health issues or fair and equitable housing.

"When you get a lot of people in a room, a lot of good things can happen," said Oliver.

That lack of time to think big is also an issue with adults and one of the reasons he founded the conference, said Glover.

"Harlemites are know for their spirit of perseverance and strength but oftentimes our lives are lived out day-to-day dealing with whatever immediate crisis exists at home, on the block and in the community," said Glover.

"We don't have enough conversations about discovery and wonder and there isn't a place to look at the blue sky and dream about what's possible or what's on the horizon."