Ideas flourish as GWU hosts TEDxFoggyBottom conference


TEDxFoggyBottom has grown into one of the biggest events of its kind in the United States. Image credit: Amy Woolsey

by Amy Woolsey

Lisner Auditorium had an underwater quality to it as people gathered inside for the eighth annual TEDxFoggyBottom conference on April 13. Submerged in sapphire light and ambient voices, the shell-shaped theater was brimming with anticipation, its 1500 seats filled almost to capacity.

The instant the lights dimmed, the voices quieted, and the glow of cell phones was extinguished, plunging the room into concentrated silence. So began a day of thought-provoking presentations on subjects that ranged from anger management to space exploration.

As part of its TEDx program, TED gives free licenses to local groups to host independent events that promote the organization’s mission of spreading worthy ideas. Since its inception in 2011, TEDxFoggyBottom has grown into one of the biggest events of its kind in the United States with attendance numbers up to 1300 people and 7.9 million views on YouTube, according to a press release.

TedEx Foggy Bottom’s 2018 theme was “Reaction.” Image credit: Amy Woolsey

It is organized entirely by undergraduate students at George Washington University.

“Having undergraduate students working with us gives freshness to the event,” sophomore Dana Krauss said. Krauss serves as the community director for TEDxFoggyBottom’s 2019 team. “It’s really amazing to see the different perspectives they bring because they’re from all different backgrounds, and they’re still at such a young age where they’re growing not only professionally but also personally. So, they’re really able to put themselves into an event.”

Each year, TEDxFoggyBottom revolves around a theme chosen by the executive board of six directors. For 2018’s theme of “Fear Itself,” speakers discussed issues such as racial identity and climate change. This year’s theme was “Reaction.”

“We wanted to take something that everyone can not only relate to, but can interpret in their own way,” Krauss said. “How society and individuals act [in] and react to situations, whether it’s climbing the biggest mountain, or figuring out what to do next in a moment of crisis, is about what you do in those first moments and what you do in the long-term.”

With such an open-ended theme, the event brought out a variety of participants. The 15 speakers were arranged into four sessions, each with its own subcategory: the unsaid, the self, the District, and the future.

In addition to the theme of “Reaction,” one common thread united the speakers, from former CIA Chief of Disguise Jonna Mendez to stand-up comedian Jack Coleman. All of them belong to and work in the DC area.

“Our goal is to… bring together the community,” Denyal Bajwa, director of the experience team for TEDxFoggyBottom, said. “So, we really wanted to focus on DC and Foggy Bottom and just, you know, how we respond to things when it’s so close to home.”

One non-sponsored exhibit invited visitors to look at an abstract painting and write their reaction to it on a Post-It note. Image credit: Amy Woolsey

Speakers are nominated by the public through a form on the TEDxFoggyBottom website, which ensures that they have a local connection and relevant ideas. They are then vetted by the content team, currently led by AP Velasco, and finalized by the executive board. The entire organization process, including selecting the speakers and booking the venue, takes almost a year.

Due to its emphasis on community, TEDxFoggyBottom avoids the rarefied air of an academic lecture. It has a laidback vibe, treating knowledge as something to be shared instead of merely bestowed.

This year’s presenters used an assortment of techniques to keep the audience engaged. Historian Mara Cherkasky took advantage of the stage screen, using photos and maps to illustrate patterns of segregation and gentrification in DC. Poet Alakkuu started with an anecdote about his heritage as a Somali American before segueing into a spoken-word ode to the homeland he learned to love without seeing.

Mendez elicited laughter with a punchline at the end of her talk about Hollywood’s involvement in espionage. “What [is the CIA] doing now?” she said. “I would have to tell you that I can’t tell you, because then I’d have to kill you.”

Other presenters riveted with the sheer novelty of their ideas. Anthropologist Roy Grinker, who teaches at GW, forwent visual aids in his speech about the cultural factors and stigma of mental illness. Yet, he managed to eloquently and succinctly distill a complex subject to its essence.

Sadia A. Hassan came to support her friend Alakkuu, but Grinker’s talk stood out to her.

“I really, really enjoyed Professor Roy’s talk,” she said. “It showed really important highlights on mental health issues in the United States of America, which is a really delicate subject to talk about.”

Breaks were scheduled between each hour-long session, allowing attendees to get lunch at the food trucks parked nearby, network with the speakers, and visit the interactive exhibits at Marvin Center. Displayed in the grand ballroom, the exhibits were sponsored by local companies, such as Cakelove and Barry’s Boot Camp, chosen by the executive board.

One non-sponsored exhibit invited visitors to look at an abstract painting and write their reaction to it on a Post-It note. The notes were arranged on a diagram of branches, creating a network of reactions.

All of the presentations will be available on YouTube in May, so they can be seen without the $20 admission fee.

For those who pay, though, the price, which grants attendees an all-day pass, is worth it. After all, TEDxFoggyBottom operates on the philosophy that learning is a communal activity. It offers an opportunity to mingle with people who are curious about society and the world, connecting what one speaker, urban architect Craig Cook, called the “disparate edges of human experience.”

Sonja Hegel, a freshman at GW, noticed that people came from all over the DC region to attend the event. She even met a visitor from Germany.

“I think the power of sharing stories is so important and it’s so powerful,” she said. “It can really change the way you view the world when you hear other people’s stories, so I’m so excited that I even have the opportunity to come here.”