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What Makes A Good Society?

When TEDxSwarthmore got underway on Sat., March 31, the 500-or-so students, faculty and staff members, alumni, parents, and other visitors that flocked into the Lang Performing Arts Center on Saturday, March 31, expected to be wowed. After all, this was Swarthmore's version of the acclaimed TED Conference, an annual meeting in Long Beach, Calif., that brings together some of the keenest minds from around the globe to present their "ideas that can change the world."

Moderator Sarah Willie-LeBreton (center) joins speakers Donna Jo Napoli and Corinna Lathan '88 during a break.

The main stage of LPAC had been transformed, most noticeably by large, three-dimensional red and white letters that spelled "TEDxSwarthmore." Large arrangements of cherry blossoms from the Scott Arboretum also graced both sides. Preceding each of the three sessions, a variety of TED talks ran on a large screen. A student-inspired event sponsored by the President's and Communications Offices, TEDxSwarthmore required thousands of hours to prepare for the daylong event.

"I've been so impressed with the students who sparked the creation of this powerful event and really worked hard to see it through," says President Rebecca Chopp who, as the first speaker, highlighted the role of the liberal arts in the development of a "moral imagination." "It was also wonderful to experience the community-wide collaboration that took place to support this event. It was a tremendous undertaking and it generated just the kind of intellectual engagement that our community so values."

Audience members could hardly have anticipated the tidal surge of intellectual and emotional energy that permeated the theater, as 12 invited members of the community from a variety of disciplines shared their ideas. More than 800 viewers around the country also watched the day via livestreaming, and the program was simulcast in various on-campus venues including Sharples, the Science Center, and the Bookstore. There was fevered Tweeting throughout the day, both from those in attendance, and alumni, students, and others, some of whom were watching the event via the livestream.

Speaker Mary Jean Chan '12 (left) joins fellow student performers and organizers Javier Perez '13, Walker Stole '12, Julia Karpati '13, Noel Quiñones '15, Michael Xu '12, and Nimesh Ghimire '15.

In a program broken down into three sections of four talks, each speaker - in true TED fashion - was allowed no more than 18 minutes to divulge what he or she believed to be the ingredients for a "good society." In addition to President Chopp, the speakers included Professor of Economics Mark Kuperberg, Associate Professor of Statistics Steve Wang, co-founder of the Genocide Intervention Network Stephanie Nyombayire '08, actor and playwright Stephen Lang '73, Professor of Linguistics Donna Jo Napoli, founder and CEO of AnthroTronix Corinna Lathan '88, political science honors major and English literature minor Mary Jean Chan '12, Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University Paul Starr P'13, Professor of Biology Amy Cheng Vollmer, Associate Professor of Music John Alston, and frequent TED and TEDx speaker and Dorwin P. Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action Barry Schwartz.

Between the talks, student performances - Corey Silberstein '12 playing Chopin on piano, the Tri-College a cappella group Chaverim singing folk songs, and spoken word by OASIS members Javier Perez '13 and Noel Quiñones '15 - moved listeners differently but with no less brilliance.

Associate Professor of Sociology Sarah Willie-LeBreton, who moderated the event, concluded the program by commending the 12 visions of a better society presented throughout the day. She invoked philosopher Hannah Arendt who wrote about the importance of humanity and empathy. Willie-LeBreton left the audience with the thought: "Let's build a good society together."

And anyone who believes that listening to 12 highly intellectual, fact-packed, thought-provoking talks might be an exhausting way to spend a day is unfamiliar with the Swarthmore ethos. Attendees left feeling stimulated, exhilarated, awestruck, and yearning for more.

Speakers Amy Cheng Vollmer (seated) and Barry Schwartz.

At a reception afterward, the LPAC foyer was abuzz with excitement, as audience members and speakers mingled to continue the conversation and strangers hugged each other spontaneously out of sheer enthusiasm. One delighted participant was Kathryn Johnson P'13, who has avidly listened to TED talks online and always found them intriguing. "When I heard that Swarthmore was doing it, I thought, 'That's a tremendous undertaking.' As I have found out today, it is totally doable."

Among the most moving aspects for Johnson were the talk by Stephanie Nyombayire '08 and the performance by the a cappella group Chaverim. Nyombayire helped Johnson see beyond the stereotypes associated with recipients of charity to see their personhood and dignity. A Finnish folk song performed by the singers reminded her of "the beauty of life," certainly an outcome that many experienced at different moments during this day of hope and inspiration about what makes a good society. 

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