“I dwell in possibility.” – Emily Dickinson
How fitting that this year’s TEDxBirmingham would begin with magic.
Illusionist Brian Reaves took to the stage first and dared us to believe in magic as he made coins disappear right before our eyes, wowed us with card tricks and more. But Brian’s presentation was one of my favorites not simply because I was obsessed with David Copperfield as a kid. Brian’s talk inspired me, gave me chills and nearly brought me to tears because he did more than just invite us to enjoy his magic; he challenged us to believe in our own. He challenged us to believe in miracles.
“What kind of spectator are you,” he asked? Perhaps you when you see something magical you think “That’s impossible. No one can do that.” Or maybe you think, “That’s impossible. How did he do that?” Well, Brian wants you to be the kind of spectator who says, “That’s impossible. How can I do that?”
And he wasn’t talking about magic tricks here. He was talking about whatever problem or challenge you’re facing in your life for which you need a miracle, whether it’s to get out of debt, start a business, or repair a relationship.
It’s not the problem that needs to change, but your approach, Brian said. It’s not that it can’t be done, it just can’t be done in the way you’ve tried in the past.
By the time Brian left the stage, I was confident I could do anything.
Later there was more magic — black girl magic — as Maacah Davis took to the stage to discuss the need for diversity in media. At the age of 19 she founded belladonna, a Birmingham-based, independent high-fashion magazine dedicated to promoting diversity.
I must confess I do not write this with objectivity as Maacah is a former student of mine. But I am certain her talk would have resonated with me even if Saturday had been the first time I’d ever heard her name. As a journalist, I have worked for a national magazine that once refused to put a woman of color in its cover because “brown faces don’t sell mainstream magazines,” as the editor explained to me and another black woman who worked at the publication.
In her talk Maacah shared that once when she went to a local store to ask the shop owner to consider selling belladonna the owner flipped through the magazine, scoffed, and asked “What is this? Some black girl book?” despite the fact that most of the models in this particular issue were Asian. But so many black faces in a single publication was so unusual to this person that she had to stamp it with a label, a label that would mark it as “other” and I’m sure she has never referred to the mainstream magazines in her shop as “white girl books.”
Despite such challenges, Maacah persists and she left us all with a call to action: As creators it is our duty to embrace and represent diversity in our work and as consumers it is our job to demand it.
When Lara Avsar took the stage she immediately got my attention and not because she was wearing a tulle skirt and bedazzled sneakers, but because the first words out of her mouth were about feminism. She shared that once she typed the word “feminism” in Microsoft Word and right clicked it for a synonym and the only word offered was radicalism.
But Lara believes that when it comes to sharing women’s stories we aren’t being radical enough. Yes, we’ve made great strides in presenting our girls with a narrative beyond the princess story. We’re finally teaching our girls to stop waiting for a prince to save them. We’re finally showing them that they can save themselves. But we’ve replaced the princess narrative with the superwoman storyline that can sometimes be just as harmful. We’ve told our girls, and ourselves, that we must be perfect.
And this is why it’s time to get radical when sharing the stories of women. This is why it’s time to be bold enough to share the struggles with the successes. This Lara started Her Little Story, a media company empowering girls by sharing the stories of real women who are making significant contributions to society. The first book in the Her Little Story series is based on Barnard College past president Deborah Spar and, fittingly, is titled Not So Perfect Deb.
Lara’s talk brought me to my feet as did Deidre Clark, a social entrepreneur, photographer and founder of Kuumba Community Arts. Deidre is also someone I’ve known for years and through those years I’ve watched her passion project evolve into what it is today — an organization that trains youth in art and design and helps them become paid professionals through the student-led design firm Deidre has created.
Kuumba is Swahili for creativity and is a Kwanzaa principle “to do always as much as we can in the way that we can in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than when we inherited it.”
Kuumba Community Arts is based in Ensley, the community Deidre feels she has inherited and the community she feels called to make more beautiful and more beneficial. This is no easy task for her because this is also the community that murdered her brother. He was killed on the streets of Ensley years ago. But Deidre is willing to do “the hard work” and “the heart work” to make Ensley more beautiful and more beneficial than it was when she inherited because in doing so she believes she could save the lives of other brothers — and sisters.
“We have all inherited a community, a cause, a place for which we can and should assume responsibility,” Deidre said.
And so I left this year’s TEDxBirmingham not simply dwelling on the possibility in my own life, but the possibility in the lives of the women and girls for whom I have assumed responsibility — the women of See Jane Write, the girls in my classroom. How will I make their lives more beautiful and beneficial? How will inspire them through my stories and help them share their own? How will I embrace and celebrate their diversity? How will I inspire them to believe in magic? How will I give them the courage to believe that they are magical?