Being Human & The Power of Storytelling at the United Nations

by on September 22, 2013 at 1:44 pm

Costa Michailidis opened the Being Human Session, the very last session of the day for TEDxUNPlaza, now in its first year, an awe-inspiring TEDx event held at the United Nations on September 16, 2013. 
Michael Marantz, the first speaker is an independent director and filmmaker. After being diagnosed with cancer at the age of 21, he rediscovered a new passion for being alive, constantly looking to discover more about life, technology, and why humans do what we do.

This re-ignition in life is what continues to inspire him in his work today. He reminds us how powerful storytelling is and what powerful stories can do for people and for the world. He says, “you need others to collaborate with and to push you along your journey. Your experiences along your life journey becomes your story and that story becomes your guide.”
So true. Ultimately, the most important story is the one you tell yourself since it becomes your compass in life, often one you rarely deviate from. When something out of the ordinary or uncomfortable comes up in your life, you ask yourself: does it fit into my story?

At the end of the day, we all get to tell the story of our lives but its entirely up to us how we define it and most importantly, how we share it.
Given that Michael is also a composer, cinematographer, editor, writer, digital artist, and experiential designer, he has added perspective on how to tell more cohesive stories.  
Take Away: We all have stories to tell including the one about our own lives, who we are and what we stand for in the world. The good news is that we get to create that story, not let the world define it for us. Easier said than done, however life can be like a clean white canvas waiting to be painted anew if we only decide that it is so. It’s up to us to decide that it can be painted anew!
Jack Thomas Andraka is a 16 year old inventor, scientist and cancer researcher and also the recipient of the 2012 Gordon E. Moore Award, the grand prize of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

Jack was awarded the $75,000 Award and named in honor of the co-founder of Intel Corporation for his work in developing a new, rapid, and inexpensive method to detect an increase of a protein that indicates the presence of pancreatic, ovarian, and lung cancer during early stages when there is a higher likelihood of a cure. A child prodigy, this teenager is a genius!
He spoke about his obstacles along the way and about the issues of high costs getting access to knowledge for important articles. He says, “there’s a knowledge elite. There’s the knowledge middle class who have access to 10% of articles and knowledge, then there’s the knowledged underclass and the impoverished class.”
He reminds us that 80% of this world has no access to this information altogether and says, “we’re living in a knowledge aristocracy when what we really should have is a knowledge democracy.” In other words: we should all have access to the same information.  
Take Away: Support the information/knowledge democracy not the information/knowledge elite or aristocracy. We should all have access to the same information and everyone should have access to knowledge. Science is not a luxury: access to date for higher learning should be a basic human right.
Corinne Woods currently serves as Director of the UN Millennium Campaign, which supports citizens’ efforts to hold their governments accountable for achieving the Millennium Development Goals and leads the outreach to citizens and stakeholders to get their voices and concerns to feed into the Post-2015 global development agenda.

“Sometimes you work with people who are smarter and younger than you,” Corinne says. “The voice of the people is the voice of God,” she adds. “It’s not just right that we go out and tell the stories of what is going on and make sure there’s action to a million people. We need to get it out to ten million people and beyond.”
She asked the audience to help her understand whether they’re doing the right things at the UN. In other words: how do we make sure we tell the stories of that data and ultimately make sure those people who really should be listening don’t say its just madness?

Her belief is that we can unite together to transcend these obstacles. Consider Jack’s passion she says referring to the 15 year old Jack Andraka who didn’t know what pancreatic cancer was but then found a new way to attack pancreatic cancer: Imagine the impact we can have if we work on hard problems together.
Take Away: We can’t move major obstacles, issues and problems in healthcare and our economy to a sustainable successful place alone. Only by uniting together as a community can we come up with creative and effective solutions to move things forward.
Juan José (JJ) Rendón is a Venezuelan political strategist, consultant, film director, and teacher and had us smiling fairly quickly after he entered the United Nations stage.

Considered one of the world’s political gurus, he has consulted for presidential campaigns and legislative elections in Latin America. JJ has been recognized for his defense of democracy, support for human rights, freedom, and education. 
JJ shared the four things he defines as being human: sense of humor, intelligence, creativity and sex for pleasure. The latter brought a smile, especially to a non South American crowd. 

He reminds us the importance of making up our own minds about issues. For example, what doctors tell you are permanent may not be permanent. What people tell you may live with for the rest of your life may not be true. As an extension of his beliefs, he recommended a collection of essays called Laughter by French philosopher Henri Bergson. 
Take Away: Define your own life, don’t let others do it for you. Just because an expert tells you your life will be one way becaue of a disability or a limitation, don’t let their definition become your own; create your own definition and your own journey regardless of what an expert or anyone around you says. Hear Hear JJ. I’m sure Mallory Weggemann would agree.
David L. Cooperrider, Ph.D. has quite a lofty list of titles, from a Fairmount Minerals Professor of Social Entrepreneurship at the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University to being past Chair of the National Academy of Management’s OD Division. He has also lectured and taught at Harvard, Stanford, University of Chicago, Katholieke University in Belgium, MIT, University of Michigan, Cambridge and others.  

Aside from his countless lectures and long list of accolates, David’s work as Chair and Founder of the Center for Business as an Agent of World Benefit is a key passion for him. The center’s core proposition is that sustainability and that every social and global issue of our day is an opportunity to ignite industry leading eco-innovation, social entrepreneurship, and new sources of value.
In other words: let’s get social, let’s move hope to action, let’s get inspired and let’s change the horrid in the world to beautiful. He pauses and reflects on the word gratitude suggesting that perhaps we don’t understand the profoundness of such basic things like hope and joy or the power of hope and inspiration.

One of David’s goal is to reverse the tendancy to focus on the 80% of what’s wrong to the 80% of what’s right. In other words: let’s get the 80/20 rule reversed. We need to elevate these human strengths around the world including igniting the notion that business is a force for eradicating extreme poverty. 
He says, “we need to create urgent optimism that spreads these epic meaning making kinds of stories.” His vision is that we circle the planet in an appreciative kind of intelligence. In working with the Dalai Lama on an occasion, he asked him what would be his leadership design for management and business school? Dalai Lama responded after scratching his head and said: “I can’t manage a thing. If I were asked to manage anything, it would end up as a mess. But I do believe that we need a radical reorientation of the preoccupation of the self to a reorientation of others, which revolves around empathy and compassion.”
He talked about the role of the positive and that positive things don’t come by nature. For positive things to work, we must make the effort. David ended his talk by thanking the audience for letting him “dream out loud.” I love it!
Take Away: Business is a force for eradicating extreme poverty and we often forget that. By working together and creating a united optimism that gives true meaning to epic stories, we have an opportunity to change the world for the better. The world is so much about our stories – let’s make them count and add compassion, empathy and a true sense of social responsibility into the mix and together, we can make a real difference.
Last up was the ever so inspiring Dr. Jess Ghannam who is a clinical professor of Psychiatry and Global Health Sciences in the School of Medicine at UCSF. His research areas include evaluating the long-term health consequences of war on displaced communities and the psychological and psychiatric effects of armed conflict on children.  

He is also a consultant with the Center for Constitutional Rights, Reprieve and other international NGO’s that work with torture survivors. While Jess cares about global health across the board, he is particularly passionate about the hidden giant: mental health, which is increasing at an alarming rate worldwide.
“We Have No Choice But To Transform the Way We Think About
Global Health, Practices & Training.”
He shared a story about his first trip to Gaza when there was only one psychiatrist for 1.5 million people compared to five psychiatrists for every one person in San Francisco. Jess and his team created a Mental Health Development Diploma Program in Gaza where they trained people to go into the community and schools and work with people directly, promoting basic techniques around wellness. His work which also set up community health clinics in the Middle East to focus on developing community-based treatment programs for families in crisis have been a huge success. As a result of his efforts in Gaza, today everyone has access to mental health assistance within a twenty year period.
Although he is most known for his mental health and humanitarian work in Palestine and along the Gaza Strip, he is working on transporting this program to India and Latin America. Says Jess, “we’re seeing radical shifts in health issues around the world and they’re more chronic diseases, like heart disease, diabetes and depression and these are not things that require a pill.”

Witnessing an increasingly disconnected world and the impact that this shift has had on people’s health has led him to the work he is doing now, at home and abroad.  The global challenge is how to make people more conscious and aware of the factors that have a negative impact on their health and implement things that can change the paradigm we are seeing today.
“We Need a New Model. We Need To Train Healthcare Facilitators Who Can Bring Awareness To Millions of People About How To Re-Engage With Their Families, Communities and Bodies.”
He says, “good global health means that we need to be able to relate to each other and communities in a very different way. A lot of difficulties we have globally and locally is how we are nurturing relationships. How do we manage to relate to one another? Are we doing so in a healthy way?” In other words, technology has to be treated as an enhancement and along the way, we need to be conscious about how we related to “it” on a regular basis. 
Moving forward, the bulk of his work will be on the mental health effects of the disconnectedness and adverse conditions people are going through, whether its political prisoners who have been tortured or people who live in slums.  
Take Away: Health & Wellness are Human Rights, Not Privileges. While technology and a digital lifestyle “overload” can add to mental illness and stress, effective use of it could be beneficial in many cases. Sharing devices and the data on those devices can lead to positive changes in people’s lifestyle in many communities. It’s not that technology itself is having the negative impact on our mental health but how we relate to it. Being consciousness about how much time we spend in the digital world versus the human world will be important in keeping us, our families and our communities healthy and in balance.
Also refer to the more extensive blog post on Jess Ghammam’s work on the TEDxUNPlaza blog from September 3, 2013.

Photo credits: Renee Blodgett.