TEDx focuses on feminism


Stone Swiess

anupama jain, a gender, sexuality and women’s studies professor at Pitt, spoke about the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, an international bill of rights for women. (Photo courtesy of Chris Daley)

By Anandhini Narayanan | Staff Writer

anupama jain was familiar and passionate about the topic of her TEDx talk, feminism and gender equality, so her biggest struggle was what she wanted to wear for the event.

“My biggest crisis is how casual or formal I should dress,” jain said. “That’s probably not what you want to hear, but that’s what I’ve been stressing about.”

jain, a Pitt gender, sexuality and women’s studies professor, was one of seven speakers invited to discuss the power of women and girls as creators and change-makers at a TEDx Pittsburgh event Friday. The event, held at the Ace Hotel in East Liberty, was one of 189 local iterations of the larger TEDWomen 2017 conference held this weekend in New Orleans, Louisiana.

TED — a nonprofit organization devoted to spreading worthwhile ideas in technology, entertainment and design — chose “Bridges” as the theme for this year’s TEDWomen conference. The speakers spoke about topics ranging from mental health and eating disorders to feminism and moms who can code.

“This was basically a chance to tell people in Pittsburgh the ways women still don’t have equality,” jain said. “But I also wanted to emphasize there are things we can do so we don’t have to feel hopeless.”

Each speaker had nine minutes to speak. jain’s talk emphasized the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, an international bill of rights for women.

By accepting this convention, countries commit themselves to undertake a series of measures to end discrimination against women. The United States is one of six countries in the U.N. that have not yet ratified CEDAW, but as of last year, Pittsburgh City Council passed CEDAW.

“Some people say CEDAW is not yet ratified in the United States because we don’t need it,” jain said. “But of course, we do need it. We are not a global leader in terms of gender equity, we are not even in the top 20.”

“I’ve been using [TED talks] in my teaching because I find them useful in bringing in other voices to present a concept to students,”  jain said. “What better place to host a talk with this theme of bridges than in the city of bridges itself?”

When Pittsburgh decided to host TEDx Pittsburgh Women, someone — unknown to jain — recommended her as a potential speaker.

A team of TEDx Pittsburgh organizers — including Bridget Daley, 33, and Chris Daley, 36, who have been on the organizing team for the past three years — selected jain and the other speakers for this year from a running list of people in the community compiled by the team. Speakers from previous years are also welcome to give recommendations for future speakers.

“Our list comes from the question of ‘Wow, we want to know more about what this person is doing,’” Mr. Daley said. “So we meet together as a team and extend an invite to that particular speaker.”

Two TED fans from the crowd — Megan Matejcic, 23, from McKeesport, and Valerie Keinthaler, 28, from Florida — said they enjoyed the event. Friday was Matejcic and Keinthaler’s first experience at a live TEDx event, although they’ve watched TED videos on YouTube before. Matejcic left the event feeling empowered.

“I think it’s really neat that these speakers gave us this, ‘Wow, you’re so incredible, inject me with your brilliance,’ kind of moments,” Matejcic said. “It gives you the chance to be inspired over and over again.”

Matejcic’s favorite speakers were Sandra Gould Ford, an author, artist and educator, and Alyssa Cypher, a mental health advocate.

Pitt graduate Sandra Gould Ford invited one of her students onstage during the TEDx event as she spoke about her experience teaching creative writing at the Allegheny County jail. (Photo courtesy of Chris Daley)

Cypher, a Pitt alumna, said while struggling with mental illness, she felt isolated from both her community and those going through similar issues. As a final effort, she posted about her mental illness publicly on Facebook. The response was overwhelmingly positive and got her thinking about the benefits of storytelling and community engagement.

To bring this storytelling to a more accessible platform, on March 30, 2016, Cypher founded Inside Our Minds, a website intended to educate the community about mental illness and to be used as a platform for people in Pittsburgh to anonymously share their own stories. Inside Our Minds also has an open mic series, where community volunteers perform anonymous open mic submissions — such as short stories, poems and spoken word — at different venues in Pittsburgh.

“As researcher, storyteller and famous TEDx-er Brene Brown said, ‘Empathy is feeling with people,’” Cypher said. “And what better way to feel with people than to bring their story to life. I honestly can’t think of a better one and that’s why I started an anonymous open mic.”

Gould Ford, also a Pitt graduate and speaker at the TEDx event, taught creative writing at the Allegheny County jail from 2004 to 2010 — an experience which formed the premise of her talk.

Ford taught writing at the jail so inmates could later become self-employed and work as freelance writers, because it’s harder for convicted felons to secure jobs. She thinks it is important for taxpayer dollars to go to these creative writing classes for inmates.

“The very reason you want these people in prison is that so society feels safer,” Ford said. “But 95 percent of the people who go to prison will be released one day. How do we want them to come out? Bitter? Angry? Or do we want these people to come out with a sense of purpose, with hope that maybe there’s something they can do?”

While the TEDx event sparked dialogue about many different aspects of feminism and gender equality, attendees such as Keinthaler said these conversations need to lead to further action.

“This Pittsburgh Women theme wasn’t just important for tonight,” Keinthaler said. “We need to continually and actively practice our diverse definitions of feminism out in the world.”

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