The latest offering from TEDxDirigo, the ambitious Portland-based volunteer effort modeled after the popular multidisciplinary online TED talks, featured speakers presenting 10- to 20-minute talks on everything from social justice theater to the creative process to Maine's sluggish Internet speeds.
About 300 people attended "TEDxDirigo Engage" at the University of Southern Maine on May 19. It was the third conference sponsored by TEDxDirigo, which is one of hundreds of grassroots, independent organizations worldwide that promote local takes on TED's motto of "ideas worth spreading." (For more on TEDx Dirigo, see "TEDx takes center stage in Portland," by Rebecca Goldfine, Aug. 22, 2011).
Engage was both an incubator for creative cross-pollination and proof that Maine's fledgling TEDx has yet to hit its stride. There were plenty of resonant, thoughtful moments on stage, but there were also speakers who meandered without an apparent point, or, in the case of some business leaders, failed to contextualize their insight by explaining the basics of their organization or their position within it.
Some participants — perhaps tempted by the gorgeous weather that Saturday — wondered whether the 16 speakers' presentations would be better condensed into five- to 10-minute blocks rather than twice that, so that the TEDxDirigo conferences would be only a half-day event rather than a full day.
TEDx Dirigo's room for improvement is not news to founder and Executive Director Adam Burk. "We're evolving," he says. "We're experimenting and we're trying to develop a prototype and see what it is the audience wants."
To this end, Burk and his volunteer staff are working with consultants to turn TEDxDirigo into a foundation-funded nonprofit with at least one paid, full-time employee. TEDxDirigo's budget is currently made up mostly of in-kind services, supplemented this year by a cumulative $30,000 from the Quimby Family Foundation and the Emanuel and Pauline Lerner Foundation. Perhaps the strongest indication that TED's multidisciplinary format has legs is its early success placing relative unknowns on a ticket alongside some of Maine's most influential business and socio-political leaders, like University of Maine scientist Habib Dagher or U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, who talked about her childhood on a farm and her work on Capitol Hill to support local agriculture.
All speakers are unpaid and offered free coaching on their presentations prior to the event. They then, true to TED's cool-nerd flare, present from a stage back-lit like a martini bar, with the words "Dirigo" and "TEDx" projected in dark red on the walls, to talk about everything from girl-empowerment (Lyn Mikel Brown of Hardy Girls Healthy Women) to exercising for charity (Ned Swain of GruntMatch) to how we can love each other better (Bill Cumming of the Boothby Institute).
Guest curator Jan Kearce, executive director of the Institute for Civic Leadership in Portland, selected the latest TEDx talks from 50 nominated applicants. "I wanted a slate of speakers who would bring different things to the stage," she says, "all with the commonality that they have individually engaged to make a difference in their communities."
One of the speakers Kearce chose was Robin Alden, executive director of the Penobscot East Resource Center, who talked about a promising new collaborative among fishermen, scientists, and federal and state regulators to manage Down East ground fisheries. (Alden's and the other Engage talks will be posted at www.tedxdirigo.com in late June.)
"This is very inspiring," Alden said during a break between sessions, standing in a lobby crowded with schmoozing and snacking business owners, consultants, scientists, artists and activists from around the state. TEDxDirigo, she says, is a forum "for all of these skill sets to interact with each other and that frees you up for your Eureka moments."
Indeed, as Maine's TEDx evolves, the dialog it facilitates in the state and beyond will remain a fundamental selling point. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the TED model is its stickiness — its success living as viral video online. TEDx talks in aggregate have been viewed on the Internet more than 300,000 times, and talks from the mothership TED (the acronym stands for technology, entertainment and design) have generated more than 7 million views globally.
TEDxDirigo, like the innovation it fosters, remains a work in progress. In April, Burk joined more than 700 TEDx organizers from around the world at a summit in Qatar to discuss how best to adapt the model locally. Everything is up for debate — including TEDxDirigo's format, content and application process. Burk might, for example, offer a shorter "salon" version of TEDxDirigo to complement the all-day, themed events. Kearce was the organization's first guest curator, and Burk says it went so well she probably won't be its last. He'll also continue to theme the conferences, because that, too, has been popular. And Burk recently rebranded the controversial application for admission as a "request for an invitation," which he thinks sounds more inclusive.
There has been strong interest in an October villages-themed event at Bates College in Lewiston, and Burk expects more participants than ever. To accommodate the crowd and to offer a more affordable alternative to the $100 main-stage ticket, he'll try running two attractions — one, the live speaker sessions in the 300-seat Olin Performing Arts Center, the other, a smaller theater showing a live, interactive stream of the sessions. Tickets to the satellite show will be offered at a deep discount, but Burk isn't sure exactly how much yet.
"The goal ultimately is to create a nimble model that makes this all work so that we're not just another nonprofit in the state," he says. "So that we're truly creating value and delivering it and creating more work along the way."