An Essay about writing for and organizing a TED Event

Behind the Curtain: Organizing a Semi-Successful TEDx Event from Start to Finish

Technology, Education, and Design talks (TED talks) were a big part of my life for several years in my late teens and throughout most of my twenties; I would explore talks, presenters, subjects, and ideas like I was snatching snowflakes between my thumb and forefinger as they fell from the sky. Those of us that made TED part of our daily lives started building relationships with the speakers, in the lectures were where we found our inspiration, and for many of us, it wasn’t as much about the education—although it wasn’t not about the education—as much as it was about the human connections that we were able to make, intrinsically as well as interactively; to some respect, sharing our experiences with TED was akin to small talk, like many people chat about the weather or sports.


          I don’t remember the first TED talk that I saw, but I do remember the first one that inspired me beyond measure; the talk that, for me, made TED a part of my life, compared to a way, only, to kill time. It was Sir Ken Robinson’s talk, “Do school’s kill creativity.” I know that I’m not alone in how influential that talk was for me—for years I told people that I was an education reformist. I went on to watch the talks of Brenè Brown, Daniel Tammet, Amy Cuddy, Simon Sinek, Susan Cain, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Jill Bolte Taylor dozens of times while also exploring lesser-known speakers, and talks, and ideas.

I stopped spending as much time online, in general, and over the last decade my involvement with TED has waned because of my offline time. I’m sure there are more speakers now, that would shake the foundation of my earth, who have gone unnoticed to me. The world has changed a lot since then too, and the expectation of how ideas are presented—generally, not necessarily by TED—has been manipulated, unfortunately, and sifting through the thousands of talks could be laborious; the most egregious argument is that I prefer how TED’s website used to organize collections for their talks: “Inspirational,” “Humorous,” “Mind-Blowing.” Still, a changing world can never expunge the experiences that I have been fortunate to have with TED. The proudest of which is that I was one of the original organizers of the first independently organized TED event in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

At that time, TED was hosting two official conferences every year, one in Monterey, California, and a second in Edinburgh, Scotland, but there were hundreds of events throughout the world that were organized—under the umbrella and the policies of TED—independent of the organization. These events are distinguished as TEDx “Independently organized TED events.” TED has grown considerably since then, and a lot has changed for TED, for the world, and for me. TED has been a pioneer for change, and I am a proponent of progress, of course, but progress for progress’s sake, and how we, as a society, oversee progress is important. Regulation of progress is not at all managed by being triggered and activated emotionally by anything, let alone everything. There has to be harmony and a balance to progress, otherwise it isn’t progress, it’s aggressive stagnation. I think that a lot of organizations that have paved the way for progress over the decades can and should be regulators not enablers.

          Anyway, at the beginning of the planning process for our local event, there were five of us, and we met at a now defunct taco joint in the railyard where we snacked on tortilla chips, salsa, and queso while plotting venue ideas, catering options, branding, ticket pricing, marketing, soliciting volunteers, blogging, attracting sponsors, choosing speakers, and adhering to the TEDx rules established by the organization. We wanted to call the event, TEDx, “a city different,” but some asshole bought the license for the name, continued to pay the licensing fees, and then actively did nothing to move forward with the event, we even asked if he wanted to join the planning committee, but he declined. Instead, we called the event, TEDx “AcequiaMadre,” which translates to “Mother Ditch;” another, albeit quite a bit less sexy, Santa Fe, New Mexico nickname.

We decided to hold the event at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design’s, The Screen, which was probably the perfect venue for this event. My somewhat unrealistic ideal location suggestion was the Lensic in downtown Santa Fe, although, The Screen really was the perfect spot. I saw Andrew Bird at the Lensic, and a panel of three, including David Lipsky, discussing the works of David Foster Wallace, which was incredible. I wanted Jambo Café, a popular fusion of African and Caribbean foods in the city diff…I mean, Acequia Madre, to offer a small catering menu, however we went with a cheap sack lunch. I had pictured, too, local celebrity giants such as George R. R. Martin, Sam Shepard, and Zac Condon sharing the stage with people like renowned bibliophile, and Santa Fe local Noemi De Bodisco, biologist David Krakauer, and Vince Kadlubek, the founder of Meow Wolf. I had imagined this event to be the single greatest TED event in the history of TED events. Perhaps my fantasies were a little too high set, my vision a tad grandiose, but this was Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the city deserved nothing short of spectacular, in 2012 at least.

Organizing this event was considerably more difficult than it should have been, and no, not because of the rules and regulations set forth by TED. The event is more a reflection on the organization than it is any one of us, regardless of how hard one might try. Nevertheless, there is always one person, one person who cannot see beyond their own reflection, one person that does nothing short but to demand distinction, and for that one person this event would be less about the speakers, the city, the ideas, and the experience, and be more about him (he wasn’t even one of the original organizers, one of us brought him in).

There were, essentially, two separate groups of organizers, and the transition between the two was all but smooth. This changeover began on the afternoon after we decided on the name, “AcequiaMadre,” this man—who was brought in, by I can’t recall who, already weeks into the planning—without communicating with any of us, went behind our backs, and paid the licensing fees, in his name, and unilaterally seized control of the operational ideas, declaring himself the final stamp on the planning details. And he used the position to further his own ambitions and career; the rest of us were less interested in being recognized, and we were verbal about it, and so he made sure that we went unrecognized; a few people even removed themselves from the committee shortly afterward and others were more forcibly removed. There were really good ideas that were tabled, indefinitely, or squashed altogether, and we heard a lot of “no, no, no’s…” Any idea that he did accept became his. And because he got what he wanted, the recognition, during and after the event, TEDx Acequia Madre was never resurrected after November 3, 2012—it’s a likely possibility when a person owns the license, as we experienced. I think all of us have a mental list of people we meet throughout our lives that we just, “arrrgghhh,” and he’s on mine.  

          Regardless, the event did happen, which was the most important thing, although there were planning details that could have been a lot better and could have gone a lot smoother on the day of the event. Anyway, aside from writing the blog that followed the evolution of TEDx AcequiaMadre, I think my greatest contribution was bringing in a few speakers, and I am most proud of inviting Vince Kadlubek, the founder of the art collective Meow Wolf. After I invited Vince to speak at AcequiaMadre, he went on to speak at TEDx ABQ (Albuquerque), and TEDx Portland, and between speaking at TEDx AcequiaMadre and TEDxPortland Meow Wolf went on to become one of the most important and innovative art collectives in the country, with permanent installations in Santa Fe, NM, Las Vegas, NV, Denver, CO, and Grapevine TX, as well as hosting concerts and a variety of community events in their prospective communities. And all of which started with me, and TEDx AcequiaMadre! 😊

            Assisting in the development of this event, and especially one affiliated with an organization like Technology, Development, and Design, was altogether a great experience, and one that I will value. I genuinely believe that I am a better person because TED exists, the speakers do more than lecture, they involve, and they inspire, and they challenge people to be the best possible versions of themselves. At least, that has been my experience with TED. I’m grateful to have helped, even if only in some small way, in the development of Meow Wolf also. The collective has given jobs to hundreds of artists across the country and allowed them to explore and to develop themselves as artists which might inspire others to be inspired, and that’s a good thing. Which is exactly the motive of TED, and perhaps that’s why I have felt such pride, knowing that I was able to bring two like-minded organizations together, even if my own experience, with either group, lasted for a short time only.

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