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Smells Like Team Spirit

GT1515 CoverEFMThe organizers of TEDx Santa Cruz don’t just talk about this year’s theme, ‘radical collaboration’—they live it

The theme of this year’s TEDx Santa Cruz, which will be presented April 24 at the Rio, is “radical collaboration,” and the event’s four core organizers don’t take it lightly. In fact, they find it everywhere.

Even in Bhutan, where one of them, Irene Holombo, travelled earlier this year. Holombo had met Bhutan’s ambassador to the U.S. six years ago, and she was fascinated by the South Asian kingdom’s concept of “Gross National Happiness,” a Buddhist-based system of measuring spiritual fulfillment rather than material wealth.

Before he left for Bhutan, the ambassador gave her his copy of the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, which she took as a sign—especially after an extended crippling illness almost killed her—that she should go there. It took six years, but she made it. And before she left, a friend who had organized the first marathon in Bhutan mentioned to her that they were doing a TED event there at the same time as Holombo’s trip, and she should get involved.

Since she has been part of organizing TEDx in Santa Cruz since it started here in 2011, Holombo reached out to the Bhutanese organizers, and ended up curating both an adult and youth TED event.

“It was curating some people who don’t even know what TED is. Inviting them into that space and opportunity that’s not a lecture, it’s not a story—get to the idea and help it sing,” says Holombo. “That was fascinating, because the kids had quite controversial things to say, like ‘let’s shut down all the schools and start over’ … They were saying it in front of the king, on stage!”

And how did King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck respond to such radical ideas?

“He was so open,” she says. “He’s a huge fan of TED, and uses TED with his ministers.”

cov 1Later, the country’s prime minister asked her to collaborate with some of those same ministers on improving their communication skills, which she’ll do on a return visit.

But there was one more radical collaboration left to come in Bhutan for Holombo, who found herself surrounded by musicians who were there for the Bhutanese International Festival—a world champion beatboxer, an Indian pop superstar, etc. She wanted so badly to go to Tiger’s Nest, the famous monastery that hangs off a cliff 3,000 feet above the Paro Valley, that she extended her trip by a day to do it. Accompanied by several of the musicians, she set out to make the climb.

“It was four and half hours of switchbacks. It’s so crazy. You see it and then you get closer and it’s still that far away, like a Monty Python movie,” she says. “Something happened, and I started meditating while I was hiking. And then I started saying ‘thank you,’ and I was so grateful to be alive.”

When she got to the top, she went into one of many small temples in the monastery and found a monk sitting there.

“He said hello, and I said hello. He said ‘Would you like some holy water?’ and I said ‘yes.’ He poured it in my hand, I sipped some, and I put it over my head. I sat there quietly meditating, and he said, ‘Where are you from?’ I said, ‘California.’ ‘What part of California?’ I said ‘Santa Cruz.’ And he said ‘Oh, I’ve been there.’ I’m like, c’mon. It was the only place he had been, and the mayor at the time gave him a certificate, a proclamation or something. I had a six-year soul journey through hell, and it was ending that day, at that monastery, and he’d been to Santa Cruz. It was just such an affirmation that we’re all connected to each other somehow.”

Radical TED

Holombo and her collaborators in TEDx Santa Cruz—Jon Luini, Nada Miljkovic and David Warren—understand the importance of such connections. The long and winding road to their convergence began in February of 1984, when architect and graphic designer Richard Saul Wurman presented a conference on “Technology, Entertainment and Design”—TED, for short—at the Monterey Conference Center. Perhaps because it was ahead of its time conceptually, it lost money, and Wurman didn’t put together a second TED event until 1990. The annual conferences continued in Monterey until 2009, when TED outgrew its hometown and moved to Long Beach, and then Vancouver, gradually expanding its subject matter far beyond the original three areas of focus. In 2000, Future Publishing founder Chris Anderson and his Sapling Foundation took over TED (although Wurman continues to organize other conferences even now, at age 80), but far more significant to TED’s fame was the moment TED talks went online in 2006. Their concise format—nothing longer than 18 minutes allowed—was ideal for Internet viral spread, and suddenly anyone could watch presentations on the frontiers of science, like Tyler Wilson describing the nuclear fusion reactor he built when he was 14, or just learn the best way to tie their shoes (from metaphysical thinker Terry Moore, in TED’s first three-minute audience talk in 2005).

cover 2In 2008, TED began offering licenses for smaller regional conferences called TEDx. David Warren applied for one in Santa Cruz, and put out the word that he was seeking collaborators. He found Luini on the Santa Cruz_Geeks list, and Holombo saw his flier at Kelly’s Bakery.

“I think it just happened luckily that we had these relevant skill sets,” says Holombo of the core group. “I had done corporate events all over the world; I’d speaker-coached executives. Jon had his production company; he had done video and handled content. David was just a curious person, and he still is like that; I call him ‘The Tracker.’ Nada has a project management background and is so great dealing with artists and others. It just worked.”

That “radical collaboration” is a fitting theme for this group is clear from the fact that picking the theme is usually one of the hardest things they do … until this year, when it clicked with everyone immediately.

“We all four have to love the theme before we move forward,” says Miljkovic. “The last three years were harder than hell. This year, it was like a five-minute breakfast meeting.”

She too has found a thread of radical collaboration running through her life. It began during her 20 years as an engineer, during which she worked on all nine of the BART extensions in the ’90s. BART administrators worked closely with the engineers at every turn, revising plans with each small increment of progress. In 2009, she went to a conference on the “Art of Collaboration,” which solidified her commitment to the process.

“Things that I heard that day still resonate,” she says. “Whether it’s an event or a website or a highway, it’s all the same. Collaboration is based on intimacy and vulnerability, and that’s the hardest part. It’s based on relationships, and you can’t force it.”

Even with her background, though, Miljkovic says she’s still “learned so much about collaboration in the last four months,” putting this year’s TEDx Santa Cruz together.

That’s because this group practices what it’s preaching. Their internal process can definitely be described as radical collaboration. And they know that while it brings more cooperation and hopefully a better result, it’s not always easy.

“We’re all very different from each other,” says Holombo. “And it’s interesting, because we’ve worked together for five years now, but once we got to radical collaboration and we really challenged ourselves, it actually got clunkier than it’s ever been before. Because in trying to let go, even our decision-making process changed. There are four of us on this core team, and we got to this place where we said ‘what happens when we disagree with each other? Is it a three to one vote? What if we split?’ And we decided we will stay in the room and hammer it out until we come to a decision. Until we come to a consensus. That’s what we decided, and that’s what we do.”

cov 3cov tammbook“Usually our issues are around everyone being overworked,” says Luini, the Santa Cruz tech entrepreneur perhaps best known for pioneering online music with the Internet Underground Music Archive (IUMA) in the early ’90s—which was itself a revolutionary collaborative tool. Luini is proud that they’ve added 20 new volunteers to the organizing group to support the core team, which means not only that the four founders can delegate more, but also that new ideas are circulating.

“This year we made it a huge priority to expand our team,” Luini says. “It’s been a number of years, and we don’t want to completely burn out … I don’t want to do production for TEDx Santa Cruz for the next 10 years. I want to see more new blood come in and be more representative of more people. I think the challenge is really to reach out and get people involved. It should be Santa Cruz’s TEDx.”

None of the TEDx Santa Cruz volunteers (which number about 60 through the course of one year’s event, 40 in attendance on the day of), including the core organizing team, are paid. That means the organizers can only do what they can fit into their life, and sometimes things don’t get done—at which point, Holombo says, “you just sort of do the walk of shame. We try to be gentle with each other. It doesn’t always work. But I’m so proud of those people and what gets done. It’s a miracle.”

“The thing with this group,” says Luini, “is that at the end of the day, everybody is doing it for the right reasons.”

“All four of the core team are doing this because we want to make the world better,” says Miljkovic.

TED Forward

TED has taken some heat in recent years for its prohibitive cost ($8,500 for a ticket to the main event in Vancouver) and perceived elitism. Some critiques hold up better than others; the most recent TED-skeptic piece was Megan Hustad’s op-ed “The Church of TED” in the New York Times in March. In addition to the elitist argument, Hustad compares the zeal with which TED fans celebrate the conference’s parade of ideas with Christian evangelism. It’s a logical sleight of hand long used by anti-science crusaders such as creationists to attempt to muddy debate—science advocates, they say, are just as zealous about science as religious zealots are about religion. Anyone familiar with the relentless skepticism of the scientific method knows how absurd this is, and Hustad never pulls it together, either—rather than citing evidence that this sinister shift is taking place, her article finally drifts into pure speculative fantasy as she wonders “whether TED’s top 20 list will eventually morph into a creed, or whether, as in the early church, heretics will be asked to leave the party.”

It’s not surprising that TEDx Santa Cruz would attract a group that’s rather skeptical by nature, and indeed they have no tolerance for any kind of a cult-like TED atmosphere. But critics like Hustad completely miss the mark—TED’s weakness is not in what it does, but what it doesn’t do. With its fear of social justice issues and any perception of political overtones, TED has long been lacking a certain element of humanity, though that may be changing.

“This year, Chris Anderson interviewed the Dalai Lama [at TED]. He said ‘look, this isn’t about politics, I know we don’t have politics on stage. This is about happiness and consciousness.’ But that would not have happened five years ago. So something’s evolving that I think had to evolve in TED,’” says Holombo.

But TEDx Santa Cruz has long been ahead of the curve on that front.

For Luini, the question is “How can we work within the framework of TED to showcase the best of what Santa Cruz has to offer, but sort of push a little bit? Santa Cruz is not just the pink umbrella guy and people going to the Boardwalk. So it’s a melting pot of how do we play with what Santa Cruz is, and what people think it is, and what TED is?”

cov couple“We push the envelope,” says Miljkovic. “We have brilliant people with heart.”

A great example is last year’s TEDx Santa Cruz talk by Jessica Delgado, a Santa Clara County attorney who as part of the Three Strikes Reform Project has freed 15 people serving life sentences for nonviolent offenses. Delgado brought two of those men, Bilal Chatman and Dave Gomez, to the stage to tell their stories in a powerful presentation.

“It was so amazing,” says Holombo. “I don’t know a lot of other TEDs that would have said ‘We’re going to have Jim Thomas from the Mermen doing an improvised soundscape behind two lifers and Jessica Delgado.”

Even after their first event in 2011, the Santa Cruz team had other organizers coming up to them and saying that they captured the “heart” that other technically perfect TEDxs lacked.

“I do think there’s something unique that we’re doing,” says Holombo. “I think it comes from the kind of people who choose to live in Santa Cruz. There is a certain counterculture heart to Santa Cruz, even though it’s become more mainstream. I think that people who come here are still drawn to that, and I think our core team is willing to curate to that specific edge.”

This will be the first time TEDx Santa Cruz will be held at the Rio Theatre, and once again there will be a focus on sparking discussion after the talks themselves. One way is with the “Midtown Mingle,” for which the organizers reserved spaces at nearby restaurants for conference-goers. But the whole day is designed with audience discussion in mind, says Miljkovic, including intermissions strategically timed to allow for maximum cross-chatter.

“We’re very direct about it,” she says of the group’s aim to kickstart conversation.

This year’s speakers represent a wide range of expertise, from the man who literally wrote the book on radical collaboration, Jim Tamm, to Dr. David Haussler, who set the Human Genome Project in motion, to Tandy Beal, who is currently celebrating her 40th year bringing dance to Santa Cruz.

Most on Holombo’s mind after the last couple of TED events she travelled to is climate change, a subject that will be addressed by Newton Harrison and Helen Mayer Harrison, the pioneering eco-art activists who founded the Center for the Study of the Force Majeure at UCSC.

“For me, climate change has really come to the forefront,” says Holombo, “and the way we collaborate with each other, whether we’re really going to reach for and do the things we need to do. In my heart I say ‘I hope so.’ The cynic in me, the realist maybe, I’m a little shaken.”

Which sets the stage for the most radical collaboration of all.

“If you’re a realist, you better get in touch with your idealist,” she says. “And if you’re an idealist, you better get in touch with your realist.”


TEDx Santa Cruz 2015 will be held Friday, April 24 at the Rio Theater, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $70; go to tedxsantacruz.org.

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