The X Factor

Justin Purnell came in, haltingly and pixelated at first. But then the Skype transmission settled down, and there he was, live in Brazil.

Purnell, CEO and field director of Teach the World Online, was in Salvador, setting up the organization’s latest English-as-a-second-language class. Sitting in front of his laptop in a hotel room overlooking the ocean, he was winding down a 10-day trip during which he had shown TTWO’s newest students how to Skype and what to expect from the classes. Already, he and his colleagues had, via Skype, interviewed the teacher who would volunteer his or her time once a week for the one-hour class.

Standing at an intersection of technology and philanthropy, Asheville resident Purnell is making something happen that couldn’t have existed before the digital revolution. Carrying out a mission started by his father, Purnell will dial up a video conference call to a TTWO classroom November 13 during TEDxAsheville, a demonstration of what happens when people combine technologies and begin thinking in new ways, TEDx organizers believe.

“The value of stretching your mind as far as it will go is that it broadens your perspectives and shakes up the way you see things,” says TEDxAsheville volunteer Jennifer Saylor. “There’s always a need for ideas to pollinate and bring forth new ideas. There’s always a need for people to question themselves and be challenged.”

TEDxAsheville and TEDxKatuah, also held in November, are based on the premise that sharing good ideas leads to change. Participants of TEDx events held around the world believe that listening to and talking with people outside of their personal, professional and cultural circles leads to unexpected ideas, many of which can be applied to personal, local and global problems. TED events have no political or financial agendas.

TEDxAsheville and TEDxKatuah are “a mix of creative, intellectual, forward-thinking, innovative people coming together to share ideas that can change the way we behave and inspire new action,” says Brett McCall, TEDxAsheville executive director.

The two events are local versions of TED, an annual conference in California first convened in 1984 to explore ideas through technology, entertainment and design (hence the acronym). The ideological scope was later broadened to include all fields, but the mission remained the same — positive action made possible by the exchange of ideas.

Past TED presenters have included Bill Clinton, Jane Goodall, Malcolm Gladwell, Al Gore, Bill Gates and Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. A $6,000 TED membership allows people to take part in the annual four-day in Long Beach, California.

Local TEDx conferences grew out of people getting together to watch videos of “TED Talks” on YouTube, via iTunes and on the TED website (more than 900 videos are available free online, and as of June, they have been viewed more than 500 million times). Viewers wanted to have their own conferences; TED set parameters (format, duration, type of sponsor, among them) for that to happen.

TEDxAsheville, started in 2009, was one of the first local conferences (there are about 1,000). The first two events were held at the Orange Peel. With the shift to Diana Wortham Theatre, organizers are hoping to shift the energy from rock-show entertainment and technological wizardry to intellectual stimulation and social engagement.

“I don’t want people to just think that they will be entertained but to think also that ‘I want to change the world,'” McCall says. “Unity is the most important thing in our culture right now. Just look at what’s happening on Wall Street,” he says of Occupy Wall Street, a do-it-yourself New York City protest movement against corporate greed that, through the power of social media, has spread around the world.

TEDxAsheville presenters will include Jeffrey Kluger, a senior writer at TIME Magazine and the author of several books on science topics. His book, “Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13,” was the basis for director Ron Howard’s 1995 film “Apollo 13,” starring Tom Hanks. Kluger, whose most recent book is “Brothers, Sisters, and the Bonds That Define Us,” will talk about sibling relationships.

Presenter Michael Hayes will talk about the Urban Arts Institute at the Reid Center in Asheville, which uses dance, drama and hip-hop to help children, youth and young adults in underserved communities build self-esteem, and improve academic skills. The institute’s dancers will perform, as will Armenian folk musician Mariam Matossian.

New this year is TEDxKatuah. The November 5 event at the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute in Rosman will use the discipline of science as its portal for discovery. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Rosman Research Station, as it was then known, was a NASA facility used to track manned and unmanned space flights. Its work went behind closed doors in 1981, when it was transferred to the Department of Defense to gather intelligence for U.S. defense and satellite communications. The Department of Defense closed the facility in 1995 and turned it over to the U.S. Forest Service, which sold it in 1999 to an entity that gave it to PARI, a not-for-profit foundation, to use as an astronomical research and educational facility.

TEDxKatuah presenters will talk about how, through science, they became discoverers. Included among them will be a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist who will bring a trebuchet, a catapult of sorts, with which she’ll launch post-Halloween jack-o-lanterns. There will be electronic music and photos of skies more than 100 years old, tempered on glass plates.

As Purnell’s global experiences testify, TEDx presenters have the power to affect people far outside the Asheville region. TEDxAsheville volunteer Saylor points to the example of Birke Baehr, a Knoxville, Tennessee resident who was 11 years old when he presented a talk at TEDx Next Generation Asheville in August 2010. Entitled “What’s Wrong With our Food System,” the talk has been viewed more than half a million times, becoming one of the most watched TEDx talks of all time.

Beahr, an aspiring organic farmer who is now a sought-after speaker, might never have had the soapbox he does had he not shared his ideas at TEDx, Saylor says. “He went from being a bright, young man to being a bright, young man whose ideas about food sustainability have been viewed by hundreds of thousands of people,” she says. “TED and TEDx try to give you a platform so that, instead of telling your good ideas to just your friends and colleagues, you’re telling your city, your nation and everyone on the planet.”

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