Here's what we saw, heard, and learned at TEDxYDL 2018

The term "mobility" these days refers primarily to new transportation technologies. But the speakers at this year's TEDxYDL event used the theme of mobility as inspiration for presentations ranging from a talk on the global movement of musical styles to a slam poem delivered in the voice of Mother Nature.


On the evening of Sept. 27, 100 audience members attended the TEDx event organized by the Ypsilanti District Library (YDL) at Riverside Arts Center (RAC), 76 N. Huron St. in Ypsilanti. Members of the live audience were joined by about 300 more who livestreamed the event, one of thousands of independently-organized programs around the world licensed through TED. The nonprofit organization is devoted to "Ideas Worth Spreading" in the form of short talks delivered by leading thinkers in various disciplines.


Emcee Yodit Mesfin Johnson, chief operating officer and VP of strategy at Nonprofit Enterprise at Work (NEW), introduced 11 speakers who addressed the topic of mobility in a variety of ways, from vehicles and people in motion to nature and ideas in motion. Here's a rundown of what we heard from them.


Vehicles in motion


Dan LaBruna, a University of Michigan (U-M) undergrad in computer science engineering and engineering manager at Mcity, U-M's urban testing grounds for autonomous vehicles, spoke on the topic of driverless cars and the natural human "thirst for growth and change."


LaBruna said autonomous vehicle technology has the potential to open up more experiences for people who have mobility challenges.


Uber, for instance, has been sued for not providing access to accessible vehicles. But what if Uber owned an entire fleet of autonomous vehicles and mandated that a set number of those vehicles had to be accessible to disabled customers?


"This new technology is not just a gimmick," LaBruna said. "It can be a powerful tool to provide independence, mobility, and dignity like never before."

Zahra Bahrani Fard, a transformation systems analyst at the Ann Arbor-based Center for Automotive Research, gave a talk on "smart communities." She started by sharing her personal story of being late to an interview and missing out on a career opportunity due to a less-than-stellar experience with public transportation.

"My story is only one example of how lack of mobility takes away opportunities from us," she said.


Fard said changes in mobility technology must necessarily change the way we design communities.


"Cars are a major design consideration when planning cities today, but this needs to change," she said. With fewer cars on the road, less urban space needs to be dedicated to parking, freeing up urban areas for redevelopment that can "transform cities into more liveable, walkable, bikeable areas."


Nature in motion

Jamie Cornelius, assistant professor in Eastern Michigan University's (EMU) biology department, talked about how birds make migration decisions when they're stressed. She is interested in how animals deal with unpredictable resources and studies why birds make the decision to stay or go.
When a crossbill finch is stressed from lack of food and is placed near a well-fed bird, its stress hormone levels rise – but to a lower level than if it's paired with another food-insecure bird. This suggests that social cues tell bird populations whether they should stick around or migrate to find a better food source. Cornelius said she's curious to know if these findings might translate to human interactions.


"Maybe one day you'll need to make a decision and it may not be as much yours as you think," she says. "Who is your flock, and who will it impact if disaster strikes?"


Speaker Nathalie Estiverne referred to herself as a "competitive public speaker" and a slam poet. TEDxYDL organizer Gillian Ream Gainsley says Estiverne was chosen in part to highlight the event's partnership with Riverside and the blending of art and technology in the chosen talks.


"I am not a goddess. I am a queen, and you have tried to destroy my legacy," Estiverne said in a slam poem, personifying Mother Nature. "Ain't that like a black woman, to give and give and never receive, and still you treat me like a joke. Sweetie, I brought you into the world, and I can take you out if need be. I've been here long before you and will continue to be."


Ideas in motion


Victoria Shields, a doctoral student studying urban education at EMU, discussed how American music has mobilized geographically from West Africa to America and England, along with the social movements behind it.


Shields said scat singing, gospel, blues, soul, rock and roll, jazz, and hip-hop can all be "traced back to the mighty kingdoms of Africa." She said humanities courses would be more exciting if there were a class in every high school class in America that traced how West African music moved around the globe over the past 400 years.


"What will be the next style of music, the next style that brings us together?" she asks. "We need it now, need it today, more than ever."


Jacqueline Williams, co-founder and development director of the Michigan Prison Doula Initiative, discussed the physical and psychological challenges of a population that doesn't have many chances at mobility: incarcerated pregnant women.


She noted that 4 percent of women entering the U.S. prison system are pregnant. Those women get little, if any, social support through pregnancy and no support for breastfeeding as their infants are taken away 24 hours after the birth. When a mother is incarcerated, entire families are often dissolved as children are dispersed into the foster care system.


Williams' nonprofit is seeking an agreement with the Michigan Department of Corrections to provide prenatal and birthing care to women incarcerated in Michigan's only women's prison, Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Pittsfield Township.


People in motion


Kelsey Kleimola, Ms. Wheelchair Michigan 2014, shared her personal story of having cerebral palsy and feeling isolated and dependent because she couldn't drive her children to a park or meet a friend for lunch.


Winning the Ms. Michigan Wheelchair competition and coming in fourth runner-up in the national pageant widened her world and changed her life.


"With these new titles came a whole new set of friends and a whole new set of resources," she said. When she explained how isolated and depressed she'd become, her friends told her about paratransit options for people with disabilities in Ypsilanti.


"I could pick up my kids or go to a doctor's appointment on my own, or meet a friend at a restaurant," she said. "I no longer wonder how to access the community."


Alison Foreman, executive director of Ypsilanti Meals on Wheels, discussed how she discovered CAPABLE, a program started at John Hopkins University that helps senior citizens live independent lives in their homes and communities.


She shared a story of one of her clients being afraid of a fall in the shower and how installing simple assistive devices in his home opened up new possibilities for him. Once he felt more secure moving around his own home, he decided he was ready to get back out in the community, pursue physical therapy, and start meeting up with friends regularly again.


"As many of us get older, it seems the world closes in on us, but with the support of our community, we can make sure seniors are independent, capable, and mobile," she says.


Two Latinx EMU students, Zereth Bustamante Luevano and Pamela Mercado Garcia, took on the topic of "American Education Through the Lens of Immigrant Latinx Children."


Luevano noted that one out of every four children is an immigrant or the U.S.-born child of immigrants, but "many schools are ill-equipped to meet their needs." She and Garcia told their personal stories of worrying about their immigration status in high school and whether they'd ever be able to pursue a college education.


Loyalty to family and fear of deportation often keep Latinx children from pursuing after-school activities, Luevano said.


"I lived in fear every day of someone finding out and me getting deported or my mom's job being raided by ICE," she said.


On the other hand, she noted that the struggles many immigrants face can lead to positive qualities, such as being "multilingual, culturally sensitive, and resilient."


Gina Danene Thompson, dance director of the Hockettes Synchronized Skating Team in Ann Arbor, spoke about the power of dance and included a demonstration with some of her students. Thompson said she looks at dance as a method for healing and transformation, both for the dancers and the audience.


"People come up to me and say that I made them laugh, or cry, or made them really think," she said. "It's very much a healing process for me to take a class or give a class."


She talked about how the emotional "language" of dance was codified in the time of Louis XIV and how it has changed since then, with dancers demonstrating dance moves that portray laughing, smiling, anxiety, dread, fear, familial love, and romantic love.


Thompson encouraged the audience to support dance, even if they are not dancers, whether by attending a dance performance or volunteering to sew costumes. In a world that tries to bring us down, she said dance can alleviate negative feelings and bring people together.


All 10 of the 2018 TEDxYDL talks will be professionally edited, and videos will appear on the event's website within the next two to three weeks.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the interim project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She has served as innovation and jobs/development news writer for Concentrate since early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to Driven. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.