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.

“On snow days in my school district, the majority of kids don’t eat lunch. I think to the rest of the world, the lunch lady in our school district is a nobody. To these kids, she’s somebody—she’s everything.”

There’s a deeply troubling and misplaced western idea that if you’re not somebody, you can’t do anything—and if you’re not somebody, you’re nothing,” she says. “We’re obsessed with becoming somebody.”

“My challenge to you today Pittsburgh is to dig this out again from the depth of our egos, our salaries, the everyday stresses and trials that force us into a box that because we aren’t somebody we can’t do anything.

“Redefine who you are—and who you think you’re not—if you still think you’re nobody and can’t change the world,” she says. “Nobody is changing the world every day—whether we know it or not. If you’re aware of your impact you can redirect it and guide it towards something better.

No footprint is so small that it can’t make an impact on the world, and I would know—I wear a 5 1/2.”

Michelle Fanzo is the president of Four Corners Consulting and a World Policy Institute Fellow. She worked as a United Nations staffer and founded PUMP here in Pittsburgh.

“How can Pittsburgh become the next global city?” she asks. “The next wave of global cities will reflect the changing way we produce value—by shifting from centralized to decentralized, by empowering others rather than following a single leader and by not asking ‘Will I succeed’ but ‘Will I matter?’

“Our city and region can shine in the new space.

“What if we developed an initiative with people in Pittsburgh with those who left—it would be a bridge between here and there, between the past and the future. We would call it Pittsburgh Homecoming,” she says. “People here and there could share ideas, build partnerships, invest in businesses and project and up-to-date images of what the region has to offer. And we could tap into the experiences of the Pittsburghers out there and offer a way for them to bring their knowledge and expertise back home.”

Lawrence Reed, Schenley High and Pitt grad and visiting assistant professor in psychology at Skidmore College, spoke on his research related to facial expressions and why we express our private emotions on such a conspicuous place as our face.

“The face is a dual processing system. It is capable of producing both deliberate and spontaneously animated expressions.” In his talk, he explores the limitations we have in controlling our facial expressions and how the viewer interprets another’s facial expressions.

Samantha Bushman is founder of Talk, The New Sex Ed, a social enterprise that prepares young people—and their parents—to talk about sex.

“Only 22 states require that sex ed be taught at all. And of those states, only 13 say that sex ed needs to be medically, technically or factually accurate.

For kids to make informed, responsible choices about relationships and sexual health, they really need healthy sexual development to be addressed in home and in the classroom—and currently neither is happening.

Kids look to educators for technical information. Kids look to parents for: ‘What do you think my relationships should look like? When is it appropriate to date? What kinds of people should I be seeking out?’

Stop thinking of it (talking to your kids about sex) as an event, and more as a process.”

Josie Badger is a certified rehabilitation counselor and youth director at Parent Education Advocacy Leadership (PEAL) Center and chairperson of the #I Want To Work campaign, which works to improve employment opportunities for youth with disabilities. She spoke of being exceptional by choice.

“All of us have a gift to share whether it’s because of our life—or in spite of it.

“Exceptionality doesn’t come from your job or your education or where you grew up or your parents or your money or your disability; exceptionality comes from what you do with all of that and the choices you make and how you share that with others.”

Diane Turnshek is a faculty member in the Department of Physics at Carnegie Mellon University and spoke about her time at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah. Seeing the night sky while there became her call to action.

She realized that “Pittsburgh is a wash of light—everywhere,” she says. “That light scatters up and out—so that it goes into the suburbs and into the rural countryside.”

Her mission? To stop the creep of light pollution. It “keeps us from the stars—it obliterates the stars—and we lose our connection to the skies.”

“Thirty percent of vertebrates are nocturnal and twice as many invertebrates are nocturnal—they have their patterns, and we’ve disrupted this ecosystem with our 100-year change of light on the world. It’s not enough time for them to adapt.” The health of fish, reptiles, bats, moths birds, plants, trees and humans are all impacted by the light pollution.

Cherry Springs Park, four hours north on Route 28 is the darkest spot in the state, “in case you want to go and see the Milky Way.”

“Now is the time to change things,” she says.

Jim Withers is a physician who provides medical care to Pittsburgh’s homeless; he founded Operation Safety Net, the first 24-7 health service for the homeless. His model is practiced around the world through his nonprofit, International Street Medicine Institute.

When he began treating the homeless population in 1992, Withers “began to see what the medical system looked like from the outside, and it wasn’t pretty. We should never underestimate the potential of people and we should also not underestimate the power of love,” he says. Operation Safety Net has helped more than 10,000 patients and has helped more than 1,200 find housing.

“The street homeless are frequent and costly utilizers of our health care dollars. We go into the camps and the streets and have saved this community millions of health care dollars.”

He believes every community should have health care for the homeless—it’s like having a fire department. “But going to where the people are suffering the most is still pretty radical thinking for the health care system.”

“As I tell my students, you can’t take care of a patient if you don’t go into their room.”

Katie O’Malley, Mayor Peduto’s Assistant Communications Manager, showed ease and humor at the mic as host for the event. Watch the livestream video here.

Woods wanderer who was an an editor at New England’s regional magazine, the research director of a Colorado newspaper and a farm hand in Vermont before returning to Pittsburgh to write about and explore her hometown.