Christopher Bartlett Hosts TEDxPhilly

The LGBT activist tells us about next week's day-long event on "The City"

Photo by Kevin Monko

As executive director of the William Way LGBT Community Center, Christopher Bartlett spends a lot of time merging initiatives designed to reach a very diverse group of people – both within the center and within the community at large. For many years as an activist, Bartlett has brought attention to important issues using a combination of technology (he’s an avid tweeter) and personal experience (he’s witnessed many pinnacle moments in LGBT history). And starting Nov. 8, Bartlett adds another notch to his credentials – he’s hosting TEDxPhilly for the second year as the day-long conference explores the present and future of “The City.”

During the event, 25 speakers and performers will take the stage at the Temple Performing Arts Center to share with audiences some of the greatest challenges, innovations and realities that shape and are shaped by the city and its inhabitants.

“The TEDxPhilly team has been working diligently to cultivate an environment where participants and speakers can engage in an active dialog around some of the most pressing issues of our day,” says Roz Duffy, TEDxPhilly’s organizer. “Cities are full of opportunity and challenge. They represent our greatest dreams and fears. We hope to spark curiosity, encourage reflection, enable authentic connections and motivate attendees to engage with their surroundings in ways they had previously unimagined.”

Christopher Bartlett (courtesy of TEDxPhilly)

We talked to Bartlett about his influential role next week, and why he’s optimistic about the future of gay rights and urban living.

Congratulations on hosting for the second year. How did you first get involved with TED?

Bartlett: In 2009, I read on Twitter that TED, the national organization that puts together conferences focused on technology, entertainment and design, was looking to create local and regional conferences to be called “TEDx.” I contacted two of my favorite comrades in geek crime, Roz Duffy and Ian Cross, and we met at Reading Terminal Market’s Down Home Diner to see whether we could make TEDxPhilly happen. Over creamed dry beef, eggs and coffee, we decided that Philly needed to take a stab at making a day of innovative talks happen.

Roz and Ian really ran with the ball (along with about 20 other key organizers), and I got busy in my work as executive director at William Way. As the curation committee for the 2010 TEDxPhilly talks completed their work, Roz approached me to see whether I would be interested in hosting the talks for 2010. I was thrilled to have the opportunity and said yes immediately. In November, 2010, I spent the day hosting TEDxPhilly – acting as a combination MC and den mother for the day’s activities.

How does the event relate to the work you do in the LGBT community?

Bartlett: In my opinion, most innovation and entrepreneurial thinking happen at the intersections of disciplines – at the collision of science and humanities, or the fusion of entertainment and community building, or the busy intersection of architecture, design, and gardening (to name a few TED themes). The TED talks create multiple 18-minute opportunities for an audience to hear messages from outside of their usual discipline and to experience fusion of ideas, and imagine how those ideas could impact their own worlds. As the director of an LGBT community center, I view my role, in part, as creating an incubator – an opportunity for ideas from many disciplines and worlds to coexist, fuse and thrive within the community. When a community center is operating at its best, you will see constant innovation and energy – and the TED talks provide me with fodder for my own thinking: What does architecture have to say about community building? How is a community center like a community garden? Or what can I learn from a youth orchestra about providing opportunities for individuals to build a skill and experience community inter-generationally? In my first year at William Way, you could say that I have tried to bring a “TED-like” experience to the center – welcoming people with multiple wisdoms, visions and experience to come together to create community.

What’s your role going to be at this year’s TEDx?

Bartlett: My job as host for the TEDx talks is to create a warm and energizing atmosphere for the day – I’m more than an MC – I am there to start the nuclear reaction going between the speakers and the audience and to insure that our guests are not there as mere observers, but as participants. Since our theme this year is “The City,” I want to make sure that throughout the day everyone is feeling like they are suddenly viewing Philadelphia and its possibilities with ever more optimistic and three-dimensional glasses. I make sure that the speakers have everything they need to shine, and I make sure that the audience has everything it needs to remain fully engaged. I believe that the audience at the TED talks has a role equally great to that of the speakers; the audience are incredibly powerful listeners, and by providing a powerful listening to the speakers, there is an energy and excitement in the TEDxPhilly venue that is palpable and generative in and of itself.

What can the LGBT community learn from TED?

Bartlett: In my opinion, everyone who is reading this should do whatever they can to get to the Temple Performing Arts Center next Tuesday to participate in the unique community that is TEDxPhilly. It is no surprise that LGBT Philadelphians are at the heart of the creativity and innovation of this city, and your participation in the day will give you a turbo boost of creativity in all areas of your life, I promise you.  If you can’t be there on the 8th, stay tuned afterwards since all of the talks will be posted online. I’ll make sure to feature some of my favorites on my Facebook and Twitter feed. But nothing beats being there in person.

This year, I am especially excited that a number of LGBT speakers are featured throughout the day, including community organizer Ethan Nguyen, water department visionary Glen Abrams, and storyteller par excellence R. Eric Thomas. But every speaker has something to say to our community – and I hope that you’ll be there with me to listen.

TEDxPhilly, Nov. 8, 9 a.m., Temple Performing Arts Center, 1837 N. Broad St.