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Six moments that moved us at this year’s TEDxSydney

Emma Joyce
Written by
Emma Joyce

In TEDxSydney’s tenth year the theme ‘legacy’ took on many meanings. Not only did it stand for how far the event has come as one of the largest TEDx events around the world, but also what we as Australians would be leaving behind for future generations. We teared up when 99-year-old Holocaust survivor Eddie Jaku simply reminded us to make every moment count; we rose to our feet to scream like a teenage girl for Yve Blake, author of Fangirls, to try to reconnect with a sense of innocence and empowerment; and we listened with amazement as assistant professor of genetics Monkol Lek spoke of his resilience and determination to find a solution to his neuromuscular disease. We clapped and we laughed and we cried. Here were the six moments that moved us most at this year’s TEDxSydney.

1. When Australia’s celebrated journalist and writer became the first TEDxSydney speaker not to stand on the big red dot

Iranian-Kurdish journalist and writer Behrouz Boochani, the man who was awarded the Victorian Prize for Literature for No Friend But the Mountains but is unable to set foot in Australia, became the first speaker at the Sydney event to prerecord his talk – not because he didn’t want to be there, but because he is still detained on Manus Island. “My story is the same as 2,000 other people,” says Boochani. “We found ourselves in a place that was worse than a prison.”

Boochani spoke direct to camera, unable to know the reaction of the audience, urging everyone in the room to consider the uncomfortable truth about Australia’s history when it comes to people seeking asylum. “For me, writing has always been an act of resistance. Writing and creating is a way of fighting to get my humanity and dignity back. We are human. We exist. We are suffering.

“I’m sorry that I make you uncomfortable, but I have no choice. I must write and talk because there are still 500 people with me in this prison. It’s cost me a lot, but I fight to write.”

Behrouz Boochani speaking at TEDxSydney 2019
Behrouz Boochani
Photograph: Eric Fonacier

2. When an Australian dentist explained how she is changing the experience of dental care to create a safer space for people who’ve experienced trauma

When Sharonne Zaks nervously approached the spotlight, she said, “We all know that going to the dentist and public speaking are our two greatest fears, but just imagine what it might be like for people who’ve already had their trust broken.”

Zaks, who has 20 years of dental experience, specialises in patients who are survivors of sexual assault, trauma, and those with anxiety and phobia. “Tooth loss is linked with memory loss. Our mouth is one of our most intimate areas,” she says. The position of the chair, the power imbalance, having your mouth held open… the experience can be triggering. Sexual abuse is one of the reasons people avoid dentists and Zaks has created an education tool to roll out across Australia to aid other dentists in a more compassionate practice.

3. When everyone stood up and proudly shrieked like a teenage girl

Writer and playwright Yve Blake walked onto the stage wearing a glittering dress and sparkling shoes, like a young girl going to their first concert. She told us, brimming with enthusiasm, about a turning point in her life when she became totally obsessed with fangirls. “I read hours of fan fiction. I read how a group of girls had created a shrine to Harry Styles’ vomit. I read how when Zayn Malik left One Direction girls couldn’t eat, sleep or walk.” It got Blake wondering, “Why is it that the image of young girls screaming at a band is ‘crazy’, ‘insane’, but boys cheering at a football match is fine?”

Blake spoke of the language differences between the way we talk about teenage girls and their unapologetic adoration for a pop band compared to boys, or adults. “I’m now obsessed with the way the world looks at female enthusiasm,” she says. “If girls grow up with words like ‘crazy’ for enthusiasm what message does that send?”

After working with a vocal coach to learn about the ages girls and boys change their voices to sound more mature, she realised boys are taught to repress their instinctual shrieks or screams as early as four years old, lest they “sound like a girl”. “That’s when I realised a girl’s shriek is like a superpower; it’s learning to love something without fear.”

Blake got the entire room to stand and scream. She finished with: “You all sounded stunning, sane and as dignified as when you walked in this room.” Girl power!

Yve Blake standing on stage at TEDxSydney 2019
Yve Blake
Photograph: Visionair Media

4. When a ‘pirate’ explained that he has many advantages living with disability

Tom Nash says children often stare at him, and those who are brave enough ask: “Are you a pirate?” Nash jokes that, yes, he is like a pirate in many ways – he has no arms below the elbow, and no legs below the knee, scarring on his face and “has a penchant for liquor.”

“I like being a pirate,” he says. “I find many advantages to having a disability, real advantages I’ve gained. One of the hardest lessons I learned was learning to walk again, somewhat of a challenge to those of us without ankle movement.

“In my past life as an able-bodied person I was a guitarist,” he explained, talking about losing the will to live before choosing a different attitude to life, one that resulted in resilience, patience and problem solving skills. He went on to find a solution to playing the guitar, later forming a band and his own club night in which he DJed with no prior experience. “It was a giant leap from what I had achieved when I was all in one piece.

“If we understand that we all have unique weaknesses we can learn how to take advantage of them. There lies the ability to adapt and rewire one’s instinctual response to things.”

5. When a refugee tradie put it plainly: “Why can’t you help?”

Afgan refugee Hedayat Osyan was 17 when his village was attacked by the Taliban. He made it to Jakarta before attempting the journey to Australia by boat – a trip he knew could be fatal. He ended up being detained on Christmas Island (“We were treated like criminals”) before eventually being settled in Australia where, without steady education, he studied and started working in construction, where he “learned that refugees and migrants were being exploited in this industry.”

“They don’t have the language or social network that you might have to support them,” he says. Osyan now owns a tiling company, Nick Tiling Services, where he employs 15 refugees, who’re paid super and treated respectfully.

“These people need inclusion and stable work so they can contribute effectively,” says Osyan. “If a refugee like me can help another refugee, why can’t you?”

Maxine Beneba Clarke on stage at TEDxSydney
Maxine Beneba Clarke
Photograph: Visionair Media

6. When Maxine Beneba Clarke spoke for the kids who read a lot in the library

Today, Maxine Beneba Clarke is a widely published author of eight books across three genres, a poet for The Saturday Paper and her work is part of the school curriculum in some states in Australia. But once upon a time she was “just a kid who read a lot in libraries. Half chewed sandwiches would hit the backs of our heads at lunchtime.”

Thirty years on, the author speaks of still being haunted by these experiences and the feeling of wanting to escape into the pages of a story. “We climbed tower windows. We fought witches. I climbed hopeful bean storks. I became the eighth member of Ann M Martin’s The Baby-Sitters Club.” But, on all of those pages she didn’t see herself. She didn’t see anyone who matched her story. Her experience of Growing up African in Australia.

“What this taught me was that real writers weren’t people like me.” After years of finding authors she liked, like Alice Walker and Maya Angelou, “Australia seemed like a really long way from anything.”

Clarke told of how she got into slam poetry nights, but was disqualified from a finals event which motivated her to call up a publisher (after many setbacks). He said, “I’ve got five minutes: read me something,” an opportunity she grasped and urged the audience to do the same if they have the chance. “One day I could be what I couldn’t see.”

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