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Refining the Roc soup: TEDxRochester 2014 

This year's TEDxRochester event was hosted at East High School on Saturday, November 15, and was emceed by Larry Moss of the ambitious balloon art operation, Airigami. Moss introduced this year's theme, "Roc Soup," by telling a variation on a favorite folk story, "Stone Soup." In this tale, a clever traveler convinces the stingy and mistrustful members of a community to open up and share what they have to offer with one another, and most importantly, to have faith in the fact that if everyone contributes their small portion, we might be surprised by what we can create.

The story set the tone for the day with a perfect metaphor for what many Rochesterians are already doing by organizing direct-action, grassroots movements. For example, "Youth Empowerment through Urban Agriculture" was explored by Lisa Barker, Youth and Community Programs Director at The Seedfolk Store. Barker described the shift from her teenaged, privileged relationship to nourishing food, to her current, "more meaningful relationship" with the food she eats, kicked off by her work on the urban farm, The Vineyard.

Barker blasted through a spot-on explanation of Rochester's food desert problem, touching on the massive government subsidies for farms which grow grains to be used for non-nourishing, manufactured food. This problem is compounded by the millions of dollars that go into marketing these non-food items, which are often the most accessible choices available to kids living in food deserts.

Fifty percent of Rochester children live below the poverty line, Barker said. She projected a map that contrasted food desert areas with vacant lots, and explored the possibilities of turning more of these lots into urban farms run by youth.

Barker described how The Seedfolk City Farm transforms passive consumers into active contributors, instilling a sense of pride and capability in them through educational employment opportunities which offer engagement with the food system at every level.

Yet another seriously inspiring grassroots story was presented by RIT professor and research scientist at the MAGIC Center at RIT, Jon Schull, who described how he helped network a global community of people who own 3D printers and people who are in need of prosthetic hands and arms. His talk, "e-NABLE: Helping Hands in the Global Village" described how this group has been hooking up kids and adults with affordable 3D printed prosthetic hands. City Newspaper wrote more about Schull's project in July.

In "It's Not (Only) About the Bikes," Dan Lill of R Community Bikes gave a slideshow tour of the Hudson Avenue warehouse/workshop, and told the story of the people who work there and the people who they help, and those who are in both groups. R Community Bikes gives away about 2500 free bikes per year, with another 3.5k repaired for free annually. Lill described the target cycling clients as "functional, not recreational users," who have included a woman who received a bike for transportation to rehab, and is now the head of the rehab program. Essentially, the organization helps people speed up their travel on the pathways to improving their lives.

Eric Wheeler and Jeremy Bagley, "middle-aged college bureaucrats" and former soldiers, gave a talk called "One Team, One Fight: A Community Approach to Veterans Integration," in which they called on the community to help address and assuage the plight of wounded, homeless, and suicidal veterans. While helping ANY citizen, regardless of their former occupation, is an extremely worthy endeavor, the talk bordered on the jingoistic in its blanket approval of military involvement as "heroic," and thereby approving dubious and atrocious American foreign policy by default. The unnecessary -- and harmful -- insistence upon calling soldiers "heroes" rang hollowly through the auditorium and was answered by the typical robotic applause it usually elicits.

Also fairly disappointing was "Media and Medicine: 'Second Opinion's' Answer to Questionable Information," a talk presented by the award-winning PBS series' host, Dr. Lou Papa, and Elissa Orlando, Senior Vice President, Television and News at WXXI. It began with a lament that though healthcare ranks 8th in news coverage, the over-availability of information is loaded with inaccuracies and leads to self-diagnoses.

The talk was clumsy at best. While Papa was not wrong in pointing out problems with the media's omission of adverse effects of medication, and its failure to disclose when talking-head "expert" guest-speakers have industry ties, his summary of his own show didn't exactly represent it well (...let's hope!). He related anecdotes of dismissing a guest's unease with our addiction to sugar as a fad concern ("carbs are bad for you, gluten is bad for you, sugar is bad for you...what's next, water?"), and haughtily dismissing another guest's exploration of natural supplements. In the same few sentences that the speakers claimed that they show "wasn't trying to sell you anything," they proudly proclaimed it was underwritten by the UR Medical Center. Frankly, the talk did little more than brag about the success of the show, and his smug demeanor felt severely out of place at this event.

Let's end on a bright note. Susan Spencer, an engineer who studied organic solar cells at RIT, took part in the massive People's Climate March on NYC in late September, gave an inspiring, emphatic talk on "Transitioning Rochester to a Renewable Energy Economy." Spencer dispelled the myths that a gray city like Rochester can't rely on solar energy to meet its energy needs, by describing the newer, improved solar cells which absorb and utilize more of the sun's radiated energy.

She then quickly described a plan to engage Rochester in a stepped transition to solar energy, which involves proving itself by reducing the carbon footprint to zero in test businesses and universities, and gaining financial, time, resource, and personnel investments to further the effort. In securing this support for renewable energy-focused small business growth, we can rejuvenate high-tech manufacturing in Rochester, and help get families out of energy poverty, she says. Spencer projects that Rochester can (and will) transition fully within a decade. After the talks, she didn't even pause -- the next day, she issued Facebook invites to an action-oriented event set for December 2 at the First Unitarian Church.

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