Back in 2015, an unexpected retinal detachment forced me to take a break from the rushing university life. Away from books, notebooks and research papers, I found myself hopelessly unoccupied. My brain, used to work late hours and under constant pressure, was begging me to remain active. And that was when I decided to put my language skills to use and become a volunteer online translator at TED. For four years, I translated many inspiring talks, that were reviewed and accepted by people I never saw. I had no clue what their faces looked like or what their life stories might be. Until 2019. An email invitation for a dinner in Lisbon would change this. Shyly, I showed up on time, ready to meet other like-minded people, who I hoped believed, like me, that knowledge is the most precious gift to be shared. A few cards with questions and random diverse topics to break the ice were spread over the dinner table. After all, that was a gathering of people who did not know each other. Wanna know how it went? Well… let’s say we not only didn’t need those ice breakers, we didn’t even saw them until we reached dessert! Many stories were shared, many friendships started there, and in the end the whole team was invited to the next TEDx Porto that would happen the year after! Sadly, due to COVID pandemic, it ended up being postponed… twice! Everyone of the team eventually dropped out and made me the only “survivor” that actually showed up for the event, two years later.
Which brings us to the present, to last weekend’s Unconventional TEDx event in Porto. Emotionally challenging, defying socially accepted “truths”, bringing tears to the eyes of many, forcing you to rethink the established, speakers and performers brought to stage topics like racism, sexism, opportunity inequalities, food waste, the refugee crisis, polyamory, art, health and disease. Knowing I need way more words than most to describe the same thing, and that I would risk losing half my readers along the way if I were to write down every wonderful talk I attended, I leave you with those who I considered the most moving speakers and performers of the day.
“Let’s make racism an issue of white people”
On stage: Luana Cunha Ferreira
“Can I make you uncomfortable?” Luana asks, seconds before getting straight to the point: our society is racist, and the only way to change it, just like any other uncomfortable truth about ourselves, is to start by admitting that a problem exists.
Psychology explains how our brains are packed with tools that facilitate the countless decisions and judgments we need to make everyday. Stereotypes aren’t more than one of those facilitating tools, which help our brains to organize the world in categories, in an attempt to give it some kind of order. But this categorisation, when applied to people, can become dangerous. Stereotypes are a fertile soil for prejudice and discrimination. How can we avoid it? Since the activation of stereotypes is stronger in the absence of information, the key is to stay informed. Meet new people, from different cultures and backgrounds, know their story, see how the similarities can be more than the apparent differences, since we are all just humans.
Standing before a silent audience attentively processing each of her words, Luana shares the secret ingredient that she believes, as a psychologist, can truly make a change: “The more curious you are the less isolated you will be. And prejudice hates company”.
The revolting mismatch between the “skin tone” crayon and the child’s hand holding it
On stage: Alice Neto de Sousa
Alice came on stage in a bright colourful dress, which she grasped forcefully on each side with both hands, slightly pulling it as strong words rushed out of her mouth like a storm. Reciting a poem of her own, we all traveled in time and joined little Alice in primary school, grabbing a box of crayons and asking herself, and the world, why the hell would a colour named “skin tone” be so inadequate to paint a portrait of herself?! Would she be dreaming or something was wrong with reality when she was wide awake?
Unfortunately, only a very distant future will be female
On stage: Isabel Canha
In a world still ruled by men, women are not supposed to be opinionated, to talk about politics or economics, and there are some professional fields that are simply meant to be male-dominated. Or… absolutely not.
In a world still ruled by men, Isabel thrived. And as the first female director of a business magazine, tired of being mansplained her entire life, she took the stage for an empowering talk on the importance of women to have a place at executive boards (and in pretty much every decision making on every topic, everywhere).
In the end she ruined my hopes that “the future is female” by stating that studies had shown we still have more than 200 years left to reach true gender equality: if we keep the same pace, the expected due date for things to change is 2288…. I will definitely invest in formaldehyde, so that at least my body is preserved and able to witness that historical moment.
Even when the sirens sound too loud, and make it impossible to listen, we keep talking about resistance
Live from Kyiv: Pedro Mourinho
The Portuguese journalist Pedro Mourinho, live from Kyiv, was able to give a beautiful talk on how Ukrainian people are bravely resisting Russian invasion, although interrupted by the air raid sirens that sounded loudly in the Ukrainian capital. An intensely emotional moment that will remain in the memory of every single person in that room forever.
Eulália, the rainbow mom
On stage: Sydney Fernandes and Eulália Almeida
Sydney walked on stage to tell the story of how his mother, a devoted Christian, found out, while he was living abroad, that he was gay and a pornstar. Sounds like an unconventional story that, at first sight, is condemned to breaking family ties and leaving a trace of sadness and sorrow behind. Ready for the also unconventional plot twist? After this brief introduction, Sydney brings his mother to give us all a life lesson on motherhood and unconditional love.
Wearing a scarf with all the colours of the rainbow, and being the only speaker who had not prepared a script (“because all my words come straight from the heart, at each moment!”), Eulália’s proud words about her unbreakable bond with her son echoed all over the room, while everyone’s eyes filled with tears, and my mascara slowly stained my cheeks. She learned how to use a computer, she mastered social media, bought dictionaries so that not a piece of information was out of her understanding, and took a plane all alone, for the first time in her life, just to see her son again, in Germany. She told the audience how, after 6 months of suffering in silence, she accepted her son just as he was, and began to see life from a whole different perspective. She and her son are now activists for LGBT rights in Portugal, and she joined an association that helps parents of LGBT kids to be supportive and be there for them. Eulália receives phone calls and countless emails everyday from people all over the country asking for her help and she makes sure she doesn’t leave anyone lacking (at least) emotional support.
Needless to say, I immediately knew I needed to get to know her a bit more, as I was enchanted with her colourful heart and mind. And so, after dinner I went looking for her, and had the privilege of listening a bit more of her story. I believe people like her are unfortunately nowadays extremely rare, so I made sure I told her she should never ever stop spreading her valuable message! “Oh dear, do you think I look like the kind of woman who will ever shut up?!”.
A whole cerebral activation with each music beat
On stage: Inês Homem de Melo
Passionate about music, Inês is an unconventional psychiatrist who believes music may be one of the best medicines. After enchanting the audience with her guitar, she went on explaining how music could light up a functional MRI like a Christmas tree: there is no specific, well circumscribed area of the brain dedicated to music, but instead, music has the power to activate neurones widespread all over your head. This is what explains how some aphasic patients are able to sing with lyrics, how music can change your mood or even have a positive effect on patients with diseases that affect movement.
A lot more inspirational talks happened on Saturday, a whole book could be written about it, and it would never be enough. Some moments are too powerful to ever be accurately put to words, and maybe that is what makes them truly magical. This being said, I hope my tiny tiny report on the event can give readers a light of what it meant to me and how I saw it with my tear-filled, myopic eyes.
Ps. I dedicate this emotional rollercoaster of words and sentences to Norberto – my friend, a fearsome critic of all my texts and occasionally my public speaking coach 😉 ohhh, and also the organiser of this mind-blowing event.