By Shirley Hawkins
LOS ANGELES — USC law professor Jody Armour delivered a compelling talk on mass incarceration.
Wealth coach Jarim Person-Lynn, author of “Brass Knuckle Finance” and “This is Why You’re Broke,” discussed growing gentrification and the widening wealth gap facing African Americans.
Entrepreneur Niki Okuk, founder of Rco Tires, has recycled more than 300 million pounds of rubber and turned them into new products. She provides stable jobs for local Black and Latino residents who struggle to find employment because of past criminal records. Her TEDx talk generated a million views in 48 hours.
All three were guest speakers of the TEDx Crenshaw conference, a program of local, self-organized events where residents of South Los Angeles deliver an 18-minute speech to an audience on a variety of new ideas and perspectives that resonate within the Black community.
Formed in 2015, TEDx Crenshaw has showcased more than 40 speakers over the last seven years. Collectively, the talks, which are filmed at local venues such as Dorsey High School and the Regency West in Leimert Park, can be viewed at the TED.com website and on YouTube. The talks have generated more than one million unique viewers.
Started as a four-day conference in California 30 years ago, the international nonprofit TEDx forum has grown to feature such noted thinkers as Microsoft founder Bill Gates, anthropologist Jane Goodall, former President Bill Clinton, British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson and author Elizabeth Gilbert.
TEDx has established the annual Audacious Project which offers a $1 million prize annually to “an exceptional individual with a creative, bold vision to spark global change” and the TEDx Fellows program, which helps world-changing innovators from around the globe amplify the impact of their projects and activities.
Locally, TEDx Crenshaw has showcased speakers whose topics have ranged from gentrification to education. The conference’s purpose is to connect, spread ideas and spark conversation among members of the South Los Angeles community.
Crenshaw resident and social worker Zaneta Smith is an avid follower of the TEDx talks which are posted daily from around the world. She eagerly tunes in to view a new TEDx video each day.
“But eight years ago, I noticed that there were very few people who looked like me speaking on stage,” Smith said. “So I poked around the TEDx website and I saw that anyone could apply for a license to stage a TEDx Talk. I decided to apply for the license. My application was accepted and I became a TEDx facilitator.”
Smith said that TEDx Crenshaw attracts dozens of prospective local speakers who are eager to express and share their views.
“We have a public process where at the beginning of every year people are invited to apply,” she said. “We interviewed about 12 people and five candidates are chosen. Usually when we hold a TEDx talk, the venue is immediately sold out.
“Some of the selected speakers are nervous about getting on stage, but we have members of the Toastmasters organization coach them and give them tips about speaking in front of an audience,” Smith added.
The talks not only spark conversation and discussions that are shared among the attendees and community residents, but can also lead to other opportunities.
“We’ve had speakers who have been invited to speak in other countries,” Smith said. “Some speakers have written books, gotten jobs, or even started their own nonprofit organization.”
As the lead organizer, Smith has been gratified to be associated with TEDx Crenshaw and is proud of the many efficient volunteers who make up the team.
“Our team helps to produce this conference and working together we’ve formed a tight community,” she said. “Many of them have other jobs but sacrifice their time to make theTEDx Crenshaw talks a success. That effort is powerful and very satisfying.”
TEDxCompton Boulevard is another offshoot of the TEDx brand that also has attracted its share of local speakers. Founded by Compton native Veronica Clinton-Higgins, one of the primary goals of the talks is to help erase the stigma of Compton that is perceived as a city rife with gangs and drugs.
“I wanted to change people’s perception of people in the city,” said Clinton-Higgins, a therapist and a mental health consultant at Chapman University. “A lot of times when people hear the word Compton, they think of Crips, Bloods, lowriders, drug dealers and the rap group NWA.
“We applied and received a license from TEDx in 2019. In 2020 we held two events,” Clinton-Higgins said.
TEDx Compton Boulevard has featured such local speakers as Lemel Durrah, founder and CEO of Compton Vegan, the first chef to bring vegetarian cuisine to the Hub City; Donald Conley, owner of the Barberizm barbershop who founded a caregiver’s workshop and offers haircuts to veterans and the homeless; and Karen Roberson, an actress and playwright who wrote the acclaimed “The Penis Monologues, the Long, Hard Truth,” a men’s empowerment show dedicated to men.
“We talk about sexual molestation, absentee fathers, street violence, social injustice and how it affects Black men,” Roberson said. “Men don’t have the same outlets to release stress and pain as women do.
“I wanted to create a brotherhood and a safe place just for men. Men are told not to cry — they are taught to be tough. This leads to male trauma and it can affect relationships.”
Roberson’s riveting play has struck a nerve with male audience members.
“Men would come up to me after the show and say things like, ‘Thank you for telling my story. That guy is me. Thank you for loving us so much to create something so special.’
“My goal is to spread a message of hope, love and healing for men all across the world and to create a global brotherhood that cannot be broken,” Roberson said.
Clinton-Higgins said she is proud to be from the city of Compton.
“They never think about the scholars, the athletes, the creatives and numerous people who have invested time into the community. We have intelligent and creative people here,” she said.
Shirley Hawkins is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers. She can be reached at email@example.com.