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Bronx Woman Booted from TEDx Conference Creates Her Own Event

By Patrick Wall | January 25, 2013 8:21am

HUNTS POINT — Last August, the organizer of TEDxManhattan, a conference about the food movement that draws top thinkers and thousands of viewers, called Tanya Fields and invited her to speak.

She was elated.

An urban farmer and a single mother of four living in the South Bronx, Fields was eager to discuss food-access issues — like unhealthy options that lead to weight gain and illness, or feeding a family with food stamps — that she had personally experienced.

But four months later, after she had shared the news with friends and colleagues and started to prepare her multimedia talk, she received an email informing her that she was disinvited.

The organizer, Diane Hatz of the Glynwood Institute, said she decided Fields “wasn’t quite ready” for the event.

“The rug [has] been ripped out from under me,” Fields would soon write in an open letter about the experience that she posted on her blog this month.

At first Fields was outraged, viewing the move as a perfect illustration of the privilege and elitism she claims are rampant in certain sectors of the food movement.

But soon she decided that if she couldn’t speak at their food conference, she would create her own.

Now, on Feb. 16 — the same day hundreds of foodies will pay $135 a pop to attend the Manhattan event, and thousands more will watch online — Fields will host an alternative conference in Hunts Point with its own presenters, organic eats and entertainment.

And, in a savory twist, the president of Glynwood will appear at Fields’ event to apologize for the snub and discuss some of the issues it raised.

“For all the craziness that’s swirled around, that’s a very good resolution to me,” Fields said this week from her office in Hunts Point.

“Every day,” she added, “Bronx activists make lemonade out of lemons.”

TEDx, begun in 2008, is a program that allows independent organizers to host local versions of the hugely popular TED conferences, held annually in California and Scotland, videos of which have now been viewed more than 1 billion times.

TEDxManhattan, now in its third year, focuses on the sustainable food movement and is titled, “Changing the Way We Eat.”

Last year, 370 people were chosen out of hundreds of applicants to pay to attend the event, while 9,000 computers connected remotely to a live broadcast.

Fields founded a group in 2007 called The BLK ProjeK, through which she hosted yoga classes for Bronx moms, helped cultivate urban farms and set up a local farm share.

When she applied last summer for one of about 15 speaker spots at the 2013 TEDxManhattan event, she was selected.

But in December, long after Fields had shared news of her gig on social media and started to plan viewing parties for those who couldn’t attend, Glynwood's Hatz said Fields’ invitation had been revoked because her group had not yet obtained official 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, according to Fields.

Hatz, who directs the Glynwood Institute for Sustainable Food and Farming, referred questions to Kathleen Frith, president of the Glenwood Organization, a Hudson Valley-based nonprofit that promotes sustainable farming and houses the Glynwood Institute.

Frith said that because Hatz is the only person from the organization licensed to host the TEDx event, she made all the speaker selections. Frith declined to explain why Hatz disinvited Fields, but said it was "a regrettable decision that Diane apologized for."

On a group email list in which Fields’ open letter about the situation was forwarded, Hatz wrote a message last week explaining why she rescinded Fields’ invitation.

“After re-evaluation, the organizers felt she wasn’t quite ready for this particular type of event but were more than willing to hold a spot open for her in the future,” Hatz wrote.

Fields found the explanation about insufficient experience unconvincing — she pointed out that an 11-year-old boy spoke at last year’s event — and claimed in her open letter that the organizers may have questioned her qualifications partly because she is a black woman from the inner city.

“I cannot help but believe had I been an Ivy League graduate with the SAME accomplishments," she wrote. "I would have been treated differently."

The letter drew many sympathetic responses both online and off.

Last week, NYC Community Garden Coalition president Karen Washington declined her invitation to speak at this year’s TEDxManhattan out of solidarity with Fields.

“I stand by Tanya in her effort to tell it like it is,” Washington, another Bronx-based urban farmer, wrote in a Facebook post, speaking about broader issues of race and representation. “Why must we be asked to sugarcoat the evils of racism…?”

In her email list message, Hatz wrote that the organizers “are sorry that [Washington] has chosen to silence herself.”

The conversation Fields hoped her situation would spark — about power and exclusion in the food movement and beyond — could have ended there.

But Hatz and Frith agreed to meet with Fields, through the aid of a mediator.

After several conversations, the organizers eventually re-invited Fields to TEDxManhattan, though she passed on the offer in order to focus on her own event.

They also agreed to reevaluate their speaker and attendee selection process and to form a task force on diversity, Frith said.

“I feel very grateful to have had this experience, as uncomfortable as it was,” Frith said. “We remain deeply apologetic for uninviting Tanya.”

Frith will address the situation publicly at Fields’ event, called, “Not Just Talk: Food in the South Bronx,” to be held at The Point from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Feb. 16.

Fields promises a “speed lunch,” in which diners engage in quick chats about different food-justice topics while they feast on sustainably grown eats and listen to keynote speakers, including Washington.

During her own talk, Fields will describe her latest venture — a mobile farmers' market that will roll weekly into the South Bronx aboard a school bus fueled by vegetable oil.

Tickets for the event, which will also be streamed online for free, will cost between $40 and $50 as a way to raise funds for the market, though no one will be turned away, Fields said.

The lesson, Fields decided, is that everything she and her neighbors need to improve their community can be found in their own backyards.

“Low-income folks have always had to be resourceful,” she said. “And the best resource we have is each other.”