Sacred Heart’s TEDx Presentation a Showcase for Thoughtful Faculty Ideas
Professors Michael Carriger and Brian Stiltner onstage at the TEDx Talks.
A select group of Sacred Heart University faculty and staff members stirred the pot and opened eyes—and minds—at the school’s own version of a TED event, TEDxSacredHeartUniversity, held Wednesday afternoon, September 26. The theme of the independently organized “TEDx” presentation was “What Are We Worth?” and it attracted fellow faculty, administrators, students, media and community members to hear a team of five’s thoughts on different approaches to complex societal issues.
Tom Kuser, WSHU Public Radio’s host of “Morning Edition” and the station’s program director, emceed the event, offering opening remarks and providing some background about the platform, which is volunteer-driven and offers independent thought designed to inspire and drive action.
First up was Richard Grigg, a professor in SHU’s Department of Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies, on the topic “Why Do Human Beings Have Value? Because You Decide They Do!” He offered that things like currency and diamonds essentially have value only because we assign it to them and wondered why we can’t extend that same valuation to all humans. The barriers to that, though, are that humans are tribal, identifying with groups that often compete with each other. Humans also identify with race and so often divide up by skin color. Ironically, he noted, we’re all members of the human race, descended from one woman, dubbed “Mitochondrial Eve,” who lived some 160,000 years ago — so as relatives we should naturally value each other. But humans are also parochial — comfortable in a rut, a narrow environment, with conversation and ideas that are similar. Quoting the Roman playwright Terence, Grigg suggested how we should go forward: “I am a human being, nothing human can be alien to me.”
The second speaker was Stephen Briner, a SHU psychology professor whose research centers on language, literacy and communication. His focus was “I’m Not A Number, Am I?” and he addressed the ways we measure or assess a person’s value. He referred to recent news stories, including the widely covered, riveting rescue of a group of Thai boys from a cave this past summer and the significant resources dedicated to the effort. The example begged the question of how much we are willing to spend to save a life and does the amount and effort differ depending on whether the situation is public or virtually anonymous? He noted that in the past, lost wages was the assessment of value if a person prematurely died. Now, a popular assessment is the “value of a statistical life,” that is, the amount of money a community is willing to spend if improvements reduce the mortality rate by one life. One thing’s certain, he concluded, and that is that the value of life has gotten higher. “As a society, we are spending more money to save a life of someone in the community,” he said. He added that we value life more than we think we do. Briner also suggested that the older we get, the more we value life and, hence, that the more insight we get about the preciousness of life, the more willing we are to commit resources behind it. “Our values are good whether or not we are getting a good value,” he said.
A video clip closed out this first session of talks. It was titled “Why Your Worst Deeds Don’t Define You” and featured Shaka Sengkor, who as a teen in Detroit, aspired to be a doctor until his parents divorced and he was subsequently shot on the street — receiving no follow-up love or counseling from family in the wake of the incident. He reacted hyper-violently and descended into drug dealing and crime, finally winding up in prison after shooting and killing a man. Over the 19 years he was incarcerated, he transformed himself, with the help of mentors, literature, writing and a loving partner, from a hostile young man to a mature leader who now helps troubled imprisoned youth re-enter society in a productive, positive way. His wish is that society creates a more humane approach to incarceration — that people are not held hostage for their mistakes, but helpfully rehabilitated.
The second half of the TEDx session began with Colleen Butler-Sweet, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology whose areas of interest include sociology of the family, race and ethnicity and racial identity. She spoke to “The Myth That Fuels White Anxiety,” proposing that demographic predictions that whites will be the minority by 2050 lead many whites to fear and become angry that they are being erased from and replaced in the world and losing political influence due to minority uplift. Butler-Sweet points to the fact that the criteria used for defining who is white is particularly strict and narrow in those projections making the white population seem much smaller than it actually is.
What it means to be white has been evolving, said Butler-Sweet, particularly in America. At the turn of the century, the fairness of your skin and ability to track Anglo-Saxon ancestry made you white. Today, whiteness is defined by features and includes all fair-skinned Caucasians except Hispanics, even if they look white, like public personalities U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and actresses Cameron Diaz and Alexis Bledel. “If you count them, the white population is not declining, but actually expanding,” said Butler-Sweet. The supposed dwindling of the white population is often used as justification for open hostility against people of color in the U.S., which allows whites to occupy an oppressed status and play identity politics, said Butler-Sweet. That, in turn, fuels white solidarity and white supremacy movements. This white anxiety is then weaponized, though the weapon is based on a myth in Butler-Sweet’s view.
Annie Wendel, a self-described “millennial” and social media user, followed Butler-Sweet. The assistant director in SHU’s Office of Volunteer Programs & Service Learning, Wendel addressed the topic “The Danger of the Selfie: Human Dignity in the Age of Social Media.” While the “selfie” (a picture of oneself) is not new, it has taken on greater importance with the rise of technology and increased social media use. “LIKES feel good,” said Wendel, but, she cautioned that we need to be mindful of why and how we share media.
She related a recent well-intended service trip to Mexico that, unfortunately, was dotted with superficial photos of brief interactions with community members, often capturing poverty and, ultimately, only portraying a one-sided story. She shared tips on how to responsibly portray others on social media, so as not to further marginalize people, perpetuate reliance on Western aid, and reinforce power imbalances. “We become authors of our content,” Wendel said. “And we must be conscious and strive to promote the dignity of all members of society.”
A short video followed Wendel’s presentation, featuring Sheryl Sandberg on the topic “We Have Too Few Women Leaders.” The tech executive, author and activist said that women are not reaching the top of their professions and face harder choices between professional success and personal fulfillment. She encouraged women to sit at the table and not on the sidelines, to ask their partners to equally share home and childcare responsibilities and to stay focused until such time as they actually take a leave of absence or leave the job.
The final speaker was Steve Brown, speaking on “Brand You: Developing Purpose for Success in Business and Life.” A professor emeritus in management at SHU’s Jack Welch College of Business, Brown offered that how we value ourselves and each other has changed over time. For past generations, military service was key. Then, your profession became the measure of your value. Today, we are struggling to determine our value — the thing that makes us unique. How does one find his purpose? Brown said it sometimes comes from an experience. You can also have a business with a purpose and, those who do, perform better. Having a purpose also leads to longer life and supports optimal functionality. “We all feel good when we do something good, so go out and enjoy it,” Brown said to the gathering.
From top left, clockwise, are Michael Carriger, Brian Stiltner, Colleen Butler-Sweet, Tom Kuser, Stephen Briner, Annie Wendel, Steve Brown and Rick Grigg.
If you are unable to view the video above, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0P7iiJU9IFM.
About Sacred Heart University
Sacred Heart University, the second-largest independent Catholic university in New England, offers more than 80 undergraduate, graduate, doctoral and certificate programs on its main campus in Fairfield, Conn., located less than 60 miles from Manhattan and approximately 150 miles from Boston. With its five miles of shoreline, marinas, parks, open space and plenty of shopping and fine dining, Fairfield is consistently recognized as a top community in the Northeast in which to live. In 2018 the town earned an A+ in a ‘report card’ by Niche on “Best Places to Live” in Connecticut. Sacred Heart also has satellites in Connecticut, Luxembourg and Ireland. It comprises more than 300 acres of land, including an 18-hole golf course and the former global headquarters of General Electric. Rooted in the 2000-year-old Catholic intellectual tradition and the liberal arts, Sacred Heart embraces a vision for social justice and educates students in mind, body and spirit to prepare them personally and professionally to make a difference in the global community. More than 8,500 students attend the University’s six colleges: Arts & Sciences; Health Professions; Nursing; the Jack Welch College of Business; the Isabelle Farrington College of Education; and St. Vincent’s College. Consistently recognized for excellence, The Princeton Review includes SHU in its guides, Best 382 Colleges–2018 Edition, “Best in the Northeast” and Best 267 Business Schools–2018 Edition. It also placed SHU on its lists for “Best College Theater” and “Most Engaged in Community Service,” each of which comprises only 20 U.S. schools. U.S.News & World Report ranks SHU in its Best Colleges 2018 guidebook and calls SHU the fourth “Most Innovative School” in the North. The Chronicle of Higher Education also names SHU one of the fastest-growing Roman Catholic universities in its 2016 almanac. Sacred Heart has a Division I athletics program. www.sacredheart.edu
TED is a nonprofit organization devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading, usually in the form of short, powerful talks (18 minutes or fewer) delivered by today's leading thinkers and doers. Many of these talks are given at TED's annual conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, and made available, free, on TED.com. TED speakers have included Bill Gates, Jane Goodall, Elizabeth Gilbert, Sir Richard Branson, Monica Lewinsky, Philippe Starck, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Sal Khan and Daniel Kahneman.
TED's open and free initiatives for spreading ideas include TED.com, where new TED Talk videos are posted daily; the Open Translation Project, which provides subtitles and interactive transcripts as well as translations from thousands of volunteers worldwide; the educational initiative TED-Ed; the annual million-dollar TED Prize, which funds exceptional individuals with a "wish," or idea, to create change in the world; TEDx, which provides licenses to thousands of individuals and groups who host local, self-organized TED-style events around the world; and the TED Fellows program, which selects innovators from around the globe to amplify the impact of their remarkable projects and activities.
About TEDx, x = independently organized event
In the spirit of ideas worth spreading, TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. At a TEDx event, TED Talks video and live speakers combine to spark deep discussion and connection. These local, self-organized events are branded TEDx, where x = independently organized TED event. The TED Conference provides general guidance for the TEDx program, but individual TEDx events are self-organized. (Subject to certain rules and regulations.)