The X factor: Two WNC-based TEDx events offer local platform for big ideas — Nov. 13 and 15

Sneaker speaker: 11-year-old Weston Whitmire is a participant in the Muddy Sneakers program, an outdoor learning curriculum. He’s working with the Southern Highlands Reserve to create a kid’s park.

Though the name sounds like some sort of futuristic delivery service, TEDx is, actually, a set of conferences based on the TED model owned by private nonprofit The Sapling Foundation. TED is an acronym for Technology Entertainment and Design; the "x" represents an independently organized TED event. And this year, WNC has two.

When TED started licensing local communities to hold TED-style events in 2009, it provided a grassroots-level opportunity. "Every community, and [WNC] more than some, has people with interesting things to share," says Rick Fornoff, speaking coach and emcee for TEDx Katuah. "Those of us who are organizers want to give people an outlet where they can share and inspire, and let the population know who we have among us."

An example: At 2010’s TEDx Next Generation Asheville, Birke Baehr (11 years old at the time) gave a witty and to-the-point presentation titled "What's wrong with our food system." The five-minute video appears on the website (among over 1,000 "TED Talks") and has logged more than half a million views.

Fornoff previously helped organize TEDx Asheville, now in its third year. He points out that the inaugural TEDx Asheville was the 68th TEDx event; in May of this year the blog reported that nearly 2,000 TEDx events have taken place around the world. Says Fornoff, "We were pretty early to the party."

All TEDx events have a theme; for the Asheville TEDx it's "Engage!" For TEDx Katuah, in its first year, the location — The Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI), near Brevard — inspired the theme of "Science: The Art of Discovery." Speakers include (among others) Michelle Moog-Koussa, executive director of The Bob Moog Foundation, who will discuss "The arc of sonic discovery"; electronic musician/composer Danny Peck who, according to his bio, "plans to take the audience on a visual journey into the mechanics of electronic music"; and Suzanne Hobbs, executive director/founder of PopAtomic Studios who, says Fornoff, is a "pro-nuclear speaker who uses visual and liberal arts to talk about nuclear power."

"We tend to be branded as pretty much a liberal institution, but I think it's desirable to have somebody who so many people won't agree with," says Fornoff. He paraphrases John Miles, chief of What's Next at Integritive, who attended TED simulcast TEDActive and decided that "the interaction between talks was more important than the talks themselves."

"The experience of going to a TED event is all about sharing great ideas. The hope is that those ideas change the way people think, behave and the way they engage with each other," says TEDx Asheville co-director Brett McCall. "People really expect to be entertained and we are stretching them and saying, 'Don't just come to consume, come to contribute. Come to be a collaborative. Engage.'"

The Asheville event was updating its list speakers at press time, but the roster includes Jeffrey Kluger, senior editor of TIME’s science and technology reporting; Leah Quintal, outreach and project coordinator with American Green International; and Justin Purnell, CEO of Teach The World Online, which offers free education through Skype. There are breakout sessions and activities. McCall says he hopes for these to be "a stimulating time."

Both local TEDx events hope to attract attendees who will stay for the day (the Katuah TEDx runs from 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Fornoff points out that the hour-and-a-half drive to Rosman, N.C. is a commitment. The Asheville TEDx is half-day event beginning at 1:30 p.m. at Diana Wortham Theatre). The local prices have been tweaked over the years (for 2011 tickets are $30 for Katuah, $35 for Asheville). While they only last a day, (as opposed to a five-day TED conference which attracts speakers like J.J. Abrams, Malcolm McLaren and Richard Branson), they're accessible to a wide audience (as opposed to TED conferences, with a $6,000 entry fee).

Can't afford TED and can't make TEDx? The speakers' TED Talks are available online for free. Find them for yourself or check out the ongoing TEDx Asheville Salons, held most Thursdays from 5-6:30 p.m. at Posana Cafe. "The TED Talk runs 15 minutes and then we have a facilitated conversation," says McCall. "It keeps surprising me who shows up and what radical ideas they have. It's the idea of ideas worth sharing." And that — “Ideas Worth Sharing” — is the TED tagline.

"The greatest part is the expert leaves the room, and then we all become the experts," says McCall. "Ideally, that's what happens at a TED experience."

— Alli Marshall can be reached at

what: TEDx Katuah at PARI
what: TEDx Asheville at Diana Wortham Theatre
when: Saturday, Nov. 5 (10 a.m., $30 general/$20 youth/$100 VIP.
when: Sunday, Nov. 13 (1 p.m., $35 general/$100 VIP.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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