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Harlem TEDx Conference Called 'Elitist'

By Jeff Mays | March 23, 2012 6:48pm | Updated on March 24, 2012 8:31am
TEDxHarlem Executive Director Imari Oliver in front of a statue of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. on 125th Street.
TEDxHarlem Executive Director Imari Oliver in front of a statue of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. on 125th Street.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM — The organizers of Tuesday's inaugural TEDxHarlem conference see the event as a way to generate ideas that can improve not only Harlem, but the rest of the world

But for some people, the $100 ticket price for the event -- plus $16.55 in fees -- is a sign that the conference is about something else: an exclusive meeting of white outsiders and black elitists "designed to dismiss the voice of the indigenous Harlemite," one community group wrote in an e-mail chain.

The conference — the local version of TED, a group of global conferences whose motto is "ideas worth spreading" — and its organizers have been referred to as "newcomers" and "opportunists." Concerns have been raised about the lack of Latino representation.

"It's kind of elitist what they are doing," said local activist Francine Brown. "Why are they coordinating an event so few people can afford?"

The objections are indicative of a wariness that long-time residents have about the gentrification that is gripping Harlem. Even as the black population declines and the Hispanic and white populations increase, locals say the neighborhood deserves to hold onto to its place in history as the cultural and intellectual seat of black America.

While the conference will host several well-regarded speakers from Harlem — including Seth Andrew, founder and superintendent of Democracy Prep; Peggy Shepard, co-founder and executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice; Marcus Samuelsson, owner of Red Rooster Harlem; and Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem — Brown and other critics said the lineup is not grassroots enough.

Other speakers include Grant McCracken, an author and professor at MIT; John Fetterman, the mayor of Braddock, Pa.; and Robin Chase, co-founder and former CEO of Zipcar.

TEDxHarlem founder Marcus Glover said all the scheduled speakers have important ideas about issues facing a community like Harlem.

"If you want the next generation of great tennis players like Serena and Venus to come from Harlem, then you'd put the U.S. Tennis Center on 125th Street. If you want the next generation of ideas, you bring TEDxHarlem," said Glover.

Harlem historian and resident Micheal Henry Adams understands the wariness. He said some of the speakers may not have "the same concerns about displacement."

Glover, who grew up in Harlem, said he also understands the concerns.

"People are concerned this [is] a moment for the elite to swoop in, take photos on 125th Street and bounce," he said. "Those suspicions are valid, but we have always had intentions to never allow this to be that event. This is about ideas on a grassroots level."

Glover said he has already given away two-thirds of the 1,200 tickets, including blocks to local schools and others on Twitter. Democracy Prep Charter School, for example, received 100 free tickets, and its students are also participating in the conference.

Glover also said he's working to get last-minute funding so that he can give away even more free tickets. And he's not making a profit from the conference because it isn't allowed under TED rules.

"The whole reason we did this is because we wanted this to be a moment of transformation," he said. "We wanted people to be inspired by people with ideas."