Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
April 16, 2024

Members of the Baltimore community discuss activism and resilience at TEDxJHU Main Event

By ARANTZA GARCIA | April 9, 2022



Forte discussed their advocacy for LGBTQ youth at the TEDxJHU Main Event.

TEDxJHU held its Spring Main Event, titled “Amplified,” on April 2. The event hosted speakers from the Baltimore area, including activist Legacy Forte, neuroscientist David Linden, artist Hannah Brancato, author D. Watkins and educator Melanie Shimano. Hopkins hip-hop dance group SLAM performed, and the student-produced short film The People of Baltimore was presented during intermission.

Forte, an advocate for LGBTQ youth from Baltimore and the first speaker, described their experience with sexuality and gender identity as well as feeling like an outsider. They highlighted the importance of looking past the constraints set by societal expectations.

“We tend to become individuals twisted and shoved into a box of side expectations rather than molded by our own individual morals, values and beliefs,” they said.

By creating various advocacy organizations such as Youth Against Oppression and BMORE BLXCK, Forte has made it a priority to create safe spaces to empower youth. 

“Knowing that I've provided space, community, resources and safety in a way that my community was lacking is indescribable,” they said. “This organization and its resources provide young people the ability to identify and understand their own identity and to learn to combat any weapon or legislation of ignorance.”

The second speaker was Linden, a Hopkins professor of neuroscience and former editor-in-chief of the Journal of Neurophysiology. His interest in scientific communication lent itself to his discussion of how contemporary genetics can be used to combat pseudoscience and racism.

After explaining how social factors affect heritability, in much the same way as the genetic expression of a person’s height is affected by food availability, he refuted racist claims that base their arguments on faulty genetic ideas.

“No one's ancestry around the world is pure and deep. An analysis of DNA from ancient bones, which we’ve only really known about in the last 15 years, shows that there's no mystical racial purity. Nearly every population life today is the product of repeated mixing,” he said.

Linden punctuated his speech with the idea that science plays an important role in dispelling these ideas, but it is only part of the solution.

“The scientific argument against racism is strong, and it's getting stronger, but it's far from the whole story. I don't want to leave you with the idea that, okay, science has spoken and it’s resolved and it’s over,” he said. “Racism is best understood through the lived experience of those who lived through it. Science has only one seat, one of the many seats at the anti-racist table, but it's a crucial one.”

Brancato, an artist and the third speaker, co-founded the organization FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture among other projects as part of her mission to address sexual assault and white supremacy through art. Brancato spoke about the loss of her sister, her experiences as a victim of intimate partner violence and her work in education and activism.

Through a variety of public art installations, many of which incorporate textiles, Brancato has helped people dealing with grief find a sense of community. 

She acknowledges that activism is a difficult, vulnerable process that must be approached carefully.

“It's important to mention that messiness of activism,” she said. “The more that I've come to understand and process the experience, of course, the more that I see now that that is the work: the willingness to over and over again be transformed, be unraveled, feel our feelings, be changed.”

Speaker Liaison Melis Dik guided speakers through the process of drafting their TEDx speeches. In an interview with The News-Letter, she described the impact that Brancato’s story had on her.

“Her talk almost brought me to tears,” Dik said. “It was really personal and intimate, and the things that she was talking about may not always be talked about, and that was the point — to amplify these voices.”

Watkins is a New York Times bestselling author and editor-at-large of Salon. In his dedication to empowering others by sharing his love for words, he emphasized the need to encourage engagement with a diverse variety of literature.

The urgency in his message was introduced by a set of statistics about illiteracy in the United States.

“Twenty percent of people in America are illiterate,” he said. “The illiteracy rate is costing the country $2.2 trillion a year. So if you want to talk about abolishing student debt, that’s where you should start.”

After his writing saw immense success and he realized that someone in his community was illiterate, Watkins decided to focus his energy on Baltimore.

“You get all of the praise from these people outside of your neighborhood where you come from, but these are the people who should be your first priority, and it caused me to reshift my whole career,” he said. “I no longer wanted to be the person from the inside writing to people out. I wanted to focus on my neighborhood and making sure that people who come from where I come from are able to fall in love with books, just like me.”

Shimano, a Hopkins alum and research fellow at the Harvard Project on Workforce, discussed ways of rethinking the classroom experience to offer students a more dynamic, work-based learning experience.

The success of her initiative Food Computer Program, which teaches Baltimore high school students to code in the context of building computer-controlled hydroponic gardens, made her want to ensure that these highly interactive learning opportunities continued beyond the classroom.

She partnered with a nonprofit coding educational program and a team of data analysts in Baltimore City government, allowing high schoolers to be immersed in the real-life applications of what they were studying.

“One of the coolest things that came out of this program was at the end of the program, students gave a presentation to a panel of Baltimore City leaders in government and technology, and they were super impressed with the work that they have done,” she said. “You can see this mindset shift between looking at these kids and students as sophomores and kids in high school, to colleagues in city government.”

In an interview with The News-Letter, Sara Cao, a master’s student in education, noted her interest in Shimano’s speech given the intersection it had with her own pursuits.

Cao described the importance of having these types of discussions about inclusion.

“[The event] had a really great selection of speakers,” she said. “It really struck me because racism and diversity is such an important thing in America, and as an international student myself and through my own experience, I usually just think it’s my own problem, like it's my own thing, because we're isolated in our own bubbles.”

In an interview with The News-Letter, TEDxJHU Co-Curator Merry Qian discussed how the audience members were both recipients and potential broadcasters of the ideas laced through the speaker’s stories.

The amplification of silence is something that all of our audience members participated in on Saturday when they heard the speakers, but then on another note, everyone has the power to amplify not just their own voice, but someone else's voice,” she said.

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