On the sunny Saturday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend, hundreds of Pittsburghers filled the seats of the Byham Theater to watch 10 of our brightest speak at TEDx Pittsburgh.

For the uninitiated, TED is the global speaker series that emphasizes storytelling while tackling a wide range of topics on scientific, academic, cultural, technology, entertainment and design issues—the last three make up the name TED. TEDx is their road show of independently organized productions now in 130 countries. The library of videos is 30,000 strong—and will soon be featuring the speakers from this weekend’s conference.

TED began in Pittsburgh in 2013 as TEDx Grandview Ave and this is the first year as TEDx Pittsburgh.

Here are some takeaways from the day:

Michelle King, a middle school teacher and “learning instigator” at the Environmental Charter School, kicked off the day with a talk that was “about embracing the scribble of life.”

She asks, “What is our role of educators when we live in such an abundance of knowledge?” Learning is happening all the time, she says, with less than 20% of learning happens in formal spaces.

We need a new kind of metaphor, a new way of bridging ourselves together to think about education differently. It can’t be about winning—because that means there’s also losers. And education is not about losing, it’s about making people brilliant. It’s not an egosystem—with one person at the top—but many people coming together. Are we making people community ready? Are we creating the conditional for all to flourish—not just some?”

Pittsburgh Vacancy Map

Pittsburgh vacancy map. Courtesy GTECH.

When Colorado native Andrew Butcher, the co-founder of GTECH, came to study at CMU, he “was struck by the amount raw amount of real estate that was vacant and blighted and perpetuated a downward cycle of poverty.”

There are 30,000 vacant lots in Pittsburgh—almost 20% of the city’s land mass—and a map of the vacant lots shows “the identifiable boundaries of segregation and the clear boundaries of disinvestment.

“When you think about the bad things that happen in cities, they happen in places with the most amount of vacancy. Crime rates go up, unemployment rates go up, families in poverty go up, school drop out rates go up, asthma rates go up. There’s a higher propensity of food deserts. Vacant land doesn’t cause the problems, but it certainly perpetuates a downward cycle of poverty.”

How can this be addressed? “We believe that action begets action.” he said. “We believe that people are hungry to do something versus nothing.”

To bridge the chasm of small and disconnected problems—like vacant lots—and people who want to take action, Butcher advises:

  1. Identify those already passionate and motivated, the community heroes who are hungry to learn.
  2. “Take action where action is possible because catalytic actions can change our perception of places.” Changing perception of place brings people together. And when people come together, “we can start combining new values that will allow people to utilize space in unique ways.”
  3. Invest in collaborative infrastructure to bring unlikely people together—it is that diversity of relationships that creates action on a larger scale.

Lots to Love is GTECH’s recent initiative that addresses the issue of vacant land.

Gab Bonesso is a comedian and anti-bullying advocate who has reached more than 100,000 kids as part of the Josh and Gab Show.

“Adult bullies exist. People get bullied in the workplace,” she says. “Let’s stop pretending it’s just a problem for kids. It’s not.”

Anti-bullying legislation didn’t come about until 1999 after Columbine—and adults haven’t been trained in how to address bullying. One solution, she suggests, are anti-bullying seminars at work. “Just bring it into the conversation. We are all brothers and sisters and need to look out for each other.

“It can be the smallest gestures that save someone, that help them feel better about themselves, so if you get the opportunity, to just smile at a stranger or say hi to someone that nobody else talks to, do it.

“If you’ve ever been bullied or ever were a scared kid, become the superhero you wish you had.”


Gab Bonesso speaks about bullying. Photo by TEDx team member Julia Gongaware.

Aislinn Slaugenhaupt, a socioenvironmentalist, Jane Goodall Institute Youth Leader and U.S. Green Schools Fellow, started her talk with Emily Dickinson’s poem: “I am nobody, who are you? Are you nobody, too?”

She’s a high school student in from a town “waaaay up north. There’s a lot of poverty, a lot of trailer parks, a lot of cornfields and a lot of cows.