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Speakers at TEDxUMassAmherst encourage change in the world

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Courtesy of TedXUMassAmherst

Courtesy of TedXUMassAmherst

The University of Massachusetts’ Mahar Auditorium was completely full on Sunday for the second annual TEDxUMassAmherst. Nine speakers touched upon various topics that were similar in the sense that they followed this year’s hash tag: #ChangeTheWorld.

Among those who gave talks were Jackie Weatherspoon, former member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, Derrick Gordon, the first openly-gay Division 1 men’s basketball player and Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis, a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary.

The event was split into three separate one to two-hour-long sections, each featuring different speakers who had their own story to tell.

Steve Gross, founder and chief playmaker of the Life is good Playmakers and a UMass alum, recalled the first time he fell in love with the TED talks when he watched Ken Robinson talk about creativity in 2006.

He went on to dedicate his career to helping vulnerable children, responding to the devastation that was caused by Hurricane Katrina, the 2012 Newtown school shooting and the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan.

“I get to work with kids whose lives have been heartbreakingly difficult,” Gross said, adding that what he has learned from working with children is that they have superpowers.

His advice: don’t work hard, but go out and play.

“Play is not reserved for the sandbox, play is a spirit for anything,” he said. Gross then broke down playfulness into four main domains. This included active engagement, internal control, social connection and joyfulness.

Active engagement, he explained, is when a person goes through a severely traumatic event and it becomes difficult from them to live in the moment.  In order for people to be able to live in the moment, there must be a good reality created for them. Internal control is the feeling of inner confidence, while social connection is the feeling of being loved and valued. Finally, Gross said that joyfulness is simply enjoying what you do.

Gross concluded that if these four domains are all covered, we are not working. We are playing.

Weatherspoon, a former member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, recalled a speech Hillary Clinton gave in Beijing in which she said, “Women’s rights are human rights.”

She talked about staying in a dangerous city in Bosnia for a period of time, and recalled the moment in which she recognized, “it’s all about collaboration.”

Weatherspoon said her water was being used by the people in the city who had poor water quality of their own, but she realized that in turn, she was being protected by those who were using the water. The collaboration there, Weatherspoon said, was based on the fact that a person can’t tell people around the world they have all the answers.

Gordon, a sophomore and basketball player at UMass, also spoke at the conference. He received a warm reception from the crowd, telling jokes and making the audience laugh throughout his talk about his journey coming out.

“Growing up, I always felt different,” Gordon said.

When he transferred to UMass, Gordon said it was then that his life changed. After his friends found out he went to a gay club, Gordon recalled, “I didn’t have an outlet. I felt like I was in a cage, being poked by needles. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t do anything.  I just couldn’t get out.”

Despite describing coming out as the scariest thing he ever had to do, Gordon said he felt like a weight had been lifted. Gordon’s parents and teammates were accepting, and he decided he wanted to take it to the next level. Since then, his story has made national news, and he was invited to the GLAAD Awards, which he described as like the ‘gay Oscars.’

Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis, a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary, saved 15 lives when she had her first graders cluster together during the shooting that occurred there in December 2012. Her message was delivered in a letter form, with four key components including choosing purpose, choosing perspective, choosing to overcome and choosing hope.

Roig-DeBellis said she dreamed of being a teacher because teachers are the reason why the world works, adding that everyone starts in school.

She recalled the event on December 14, 2012, and said “loud, rapid fire shots began over and over and over.”

“I knew immediately that what I was hearing was a weapon, shattering large glass panes, bringing terror, pain, sadness and immeasurable loss to a school full of light.”

Today, she is focused on healing and helping make sure that students do not define themselves by the event in moving forward. She said that in life, people will have hard times, times where they will be lost and alone, and times that will not go as planned.

But she said to “always go after what you want and what you believe to be important.”

Other speakers included David Ke, a graduating senior at UMass who is working to advocate for social change through his work in performance and poetry, Katherine Luzuriaga, an HIV Researcher, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, New York Times bestselling authors and Al Crosby, the inventor of Geckskin.

Alexandra Lane, a senior at the University, was the co-director of public relations for TEDxUMassAmherst. She said “we’ve created long lasting relationships between our sponsors, teammates and the UMass community. And I really want that, as myself and others are graduating, to be the legacy we leave behind.  I want TEDx to be a part of UMass for a long time.”

Catherine Ferris can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Ca_Ferris2.

Marie MacCune, Cecilia Santa Prado Guerrero and Rose Gottlieb contributed to this report.

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