Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 10, 2021

Baltimore locals encourage students to find their purpose at TEDxJHU event

By MICHELLE LIMPE | April 18, 2021

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COURTESY OF TEDxJHU

Organizers chose the theme “Kaleidoscope” to capture the diversity of the city’s voices.

TEDxJHU held its annual conference on April 16. The event, titled “Kaleidoscope,” featured environmentalist Carmera Thomas-Wilhite, songwriter Anthony Parker, Baltimore City Commissioner of Health Dr. Letitia Dzirasa and National Public Radio (NPR) hosts Aaron Henkin and Wendel Patrick. Each speaker’s TED-style Talk was pre-recorded and livestreamed at the event.

TEDxJHU Co-Curator Beatrice Gruskin explained in an email to The News-Letter that the organization chose “Kaleidoscope” as this year’s theme to represent the diversity of Baltimore.

“When you look through kaleidoscopes, they create a beautiful, unified (yet quite complex) whole while simultaneously celebrating the unique colors, shapes and sizes of their individual parts,” she wrote. “We thought this represented the Baltimore community really well.”

The first speaker was Thomas-Wilhite, an environmentalist whose work focuses on the Chesapeake Bay. She spoke about how nature had always been a source of comfort when she was younger. 

However, she stated that going to college brought her outside of her bubble. When her professor accused her of cheating, she was exposed to the realities of racial injustice. 

“I’m sure you can read between the lines that the professor was white and I’m Black. It wasn’t until an advisor vouched for me that my professor didn’t push through on her threat,” she said. “I pushed myself to prove that I was capable of succeeding.” 

Through her work with several environmental organizations, Thomas-Wilhite realized that racial issues are interconnected with the need for environmental justice. 

“Organizations focus on saving trees or animals more than communities that have been ignored and dismissed, especially low-income and communities of color,” she said. “Not until we understand the history and share those stories will we finally reduce those barriers and allow for opportunities for solutions.”

Next, Parker, professionally known as Wordsmith, explored what success means to him in his talk. Parker is a Baltimore-based songwriter, entrepreneur and philanthropist. 

When describing his career, Parker identified two experiences from his school years that he applied to his music.

“One, I took the work ethic and the drive that I acquired from sports and football. Two, I took the skills I learned from acting and I applied it to my stage shows,” he said. “The lesson here is to give 1,000% to everything you do because you never know when something is going to come full circle and help you in the future.”

His album The Blue Collar Recital garnered much support from the local community. From there, he pitched his music to licensing companies and eventually developed connections with Netflix, ESPN, World Wrestling Entertainment and other major networks.

Partnering with the U.S. Department of State, Parker brought his music internationally to perform for military troops and disability centers in countries such as Kuwait, Bahrain and Ukraine. 

He reflected on the lessons he learned from his journey to success. 

“My path was all over the place, but I applied a few principles in my life,” he said. “Being willing to adjust, accept others’ perspective, recognize my defining moments, learning to sacrifice and persevere, trusting the process and having a goal — all these puzzle pieces of my life slowly came together to help me redefine what ‘making it’ really means.” 

Dzirasa, the third speaker, was trained at Hopkins and specializes in obesity prevention and management, trauma care and the use of technology to improve health care. She emphasized the need to focus on social and economic change following the pandemic.

She listed joys she found while in quarantine, such as spending more time with her son, and expressed her gratitude for being able to work safely from home. However, she highlighted that this is not the reality for many citizens in Baltimore who experience different health outcomes due to their race and ethnicity.

“I argue that some things should not go back to business as usual once we’re on the other side of this pandemic,” she said. “Black and Brown people are more likely to live in areas that are far from grocery stores or medical facilities, making it more difficult to receive care. Latinx residents also have higher rates of poverty and unemployment, as well as low rates of ownership.”

Dzirasa added Black people are three times more likely to be hospitalized and two times more likely to die from COVID-19. Currently, she and her team at the Mayor’s Office are working to publish research on racial disparities for the public.

She urged the public to continue encouraging the Baltimore City Health Department to make addressing racism a public health priority. 

“It will take private sector government and the community working together to end structural racism and its effects,” she said. “Whoever you are, whether a student, faculty member or leader of an institution, make a commitment to examining what you could be doing differently to address racism. Be a voice, share the data and have those hard conversations.” 

Lastly, Henkin and Patrick, co-hosts and producers of NPR affiliate We’re Your Public Radio, described the inspiration behind their podcast Out of the Blocks, which focuses on featuring the stories of Baltimore. Henkin is also a professor for the University’s Program in Film and Media Studies, and Patrick is a music producer and professor at the Peabody Institute.

Patrick noted that Henkin conceived the idea for the podcast from his desire to engage with unfamiliar people. 

“We have been socially programmed to do the exact opposite. What we’ve come to learn is, if you can find it in yourself to break that rule, your average day is going to get a lot more interesting,” he said. “It’s an interesting mixture of joy and fear that flows through you when you embark on this journalistic leap of faith.”

Henkin then recruited Patrick to work on capturing the unique sounds of Baltimore. Proposing a radical project with no agenda, Henkin said, was an obstacle they had to face. Both he and Patrick had to be ready to encounter people from all walks of life with different stories, whether they are humorous or serious. 

“Once a person realizes that you are there with nothing but your fundamental human curiosity and a microphone, there’s really no end to what people are willing and able to share about their lives,” he said. “The conversations become like therapy.” 

However, they reported that the pandemic has brought their podcast to a halt, since there are no longer opportunities to go out and interview strangers. They are eager to continue sharing the city’s stories once it is safe to do so.

In an interview with The News-Letter, junior Adam Kenet described the event as an opportunity for Hopkins students to connect with the greater Baltimore community, especially during the pandemic.

“It’s important to hear the stories of people you would not normally interact with because that’s something that could change your opinion on a topic,” he said.

Communications Director Justin Sech hopes that attendees felt uplifted by the speakers’ messages.

“Behind every person’s experiences are invaluable lessons that can greatly benefit and inspire others,” he said. “We are really honored to use our platform to give people in the Baltimore community a stage to share their voice.”

Molly Gahagen contributed reporting to this article. 

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