• Alex Appella

The Curious “Backstage” Experience of a Regular* Gal from Oregon, Giving a TEDx Talk in Argentina

Updated: Oct 19, 2018

*OK, maybe not so regular. 

As with everything in my life, it all started with a book. Or a question, that turned into a book. That turned into a beautiful, magical traveling library that visits schools all over Argentina, free of charge, made possible each year by sponsors from more than five different countries.

My biggest challenge after accompanying the Traveling Libraries this past five years is how to quantify the magic. From the international collection of sponsors who make the journeys possible, to the teachers who lead those suitcases into classroom after classroom, their faces brimming with anticipation and enthusiasm, to the students who create their own books about identity, discrimination, and history.

The essence of the Traveling Libraries, the “Entonces el libro” suitcases, is the transformation of a dark chapter in human history into a free learning tool that heals, and creates empathy. The essence is the bravery of my Great Uncle for having survived, and for having reunited us with our identity. The essence is his insistence that above all, we must believe in the power of hope.

I am very used to the sidelines, the outskirts. I understand the rural face-to-face, and am confused by urban anonymity. I am accustomed to understanding the power of a single, ground breaking conversation, as opposed to knowing what it’s like to connect with mobs via major media. I create limited edition artists books, not best-selling novels. I am used to being too strange for the mainstream. To not fitting into pre-conceived genres. Of course my book, once published, came to life via an independent label in Córdoba, Argentina. One that could handle a full-color format, and a non-standard book size. A publisher who celebrated (and did not balk at) my strong notions about content, design and delivery.

Last January I was in Salem, Oregon, visiting family and was lucky enough to attend my first ever TEDx experience in real life, with mom and my brother. Who doesn’t daydream while watching inspiring individuals share their experiences? I sure did.

As the Traveling Libraries expand, I feel a greater and greater responsibility towards the individuals who believe and make them possible, and towards János’ legacy. Sitting in wonder at #TEDxSalem, for the first time I saw a way to pull this wondrous journey from the sidelines. I grinned at the idea and tucked it away as a long term goal. One I never imagined would come to life just ten months later.

I returned to the Province of Córdoba, Argentina where I have lived since 1994 and wouldn’t you know, soon after, I chanced upon an announcement in Facebook: #TEDxCordoba was accepting proposals for their 2017 event. I readily wrote in, with my usual enthusiasm and innocence, bravely explaining to my daughter as I did so, “It’s worth a try. Another ‘no’, is quite probable, but it’s important to keep trying. If you don’t ever expose yourself, you’ll never know what doors are out there, waiting for you.” (Oh, motherhood…) And besides, if you don’t receive buckets and buckets of condescending, form-field “no’s” in your life, you won’t be so deeply honored and moved when a big, huge, enthusiastic YES comes barging through the door.

Of course, I proposed János’ legacy and the Traveling Libraries to #TEDxCordoba. Totally overlooking one key detail—there was a human attached to that proposal. And that human was me. The nice thing about the sidelines is that they are rather risk-free. Exposure is minimized. Not much can go wrong. And if it does, only a few people witnessed you drooling on yourself.

This great idea of mine—stepping out from the shadows—came to me at TEDx in Salem, Oregon (population 165,000), in the convention center downtown on a snowy afternoon. There were maybe 300 people in the audience? Perhaps more. A kind, soft spoken NPR crowd, still in shock from Trump’s victory, rubbing elbows for comfort.

By contrast, Córdoba is the second largest city in Argentina with a population of 1.5 million. #TEDxCordoba takes place at the sprawling, 400-year-old Universidad Nacional, in the main theater that seats 1,200 people. In 2016 over 10,000 people followed the event via live streaming. It receives coverage from all major media in the city and has big name corporate sponsors. The audience is a diverse combination of students and professionals from a variety backgrounds. All of a sudden I found myself mixed up with the internationally renowned singer-songwriter Jairo, and a recent local viral sensation, the child-psychologist and teacher Liliana Gonzalez. Luckily there were other “unknowns” like me on the team. We held hands tightly!

Once it hit home what I had gotten myself into, the nerves were close to unbearable. A hoard of rhinoceros moved into my stomach. I was hoarse for a month prior, terrified I would actually lose my voice on the big day. (Of course it went right back to normal once I finished speaking on that red circle.) Also, despite speaking Spanish for more than 20 years, I couldn’t shake the probability I was going to stumble over the pronunciation of words like “perpetuar” or mix up noun genders...

(Photo: My wonderful coaches, Soledad Quiroga and Iara Tevez Nesteruk, with me every step of the way.)

Luckily, the outstanding team of volunteers who make #TEDxCordoba possible each year are contagious in their enthusiasm and faith in us—the speakers—and in the power of the event itself. And, they know what they’re doing. Each of us speakers were assigned two coaches who helped us develop our content and delivery. Part of the magic of the Ted Talks is that the organizers do not tell you what to say. They simply know how to recognize the spark in your life experience, the one you came to share, and they are masters at helping you hone in on that spark until it shines fully.

(Photo: Rodrigo Lazarte) I cannot sing their praises enough! The amazing team of volunteers at #TEDxCordoba.

We had three workshops in the city of Córdoba in the months prior to the actual event, and these all-day encounters were a blessing. Not only because the experienced team of volunteers were a pleasure to watch in action, but also because the camaraderie that grew between us, the nerve-wracked speakers, as we developed our speeches meant that on the actual day, as we watched each other on stage, we celebrated as a family.

The dream team! This year's TEDxCordoba speakers on the big day.

The volunteers managed to get us to hold on to some monumental guidelines. Some of the more memorable and challenging ones being: · The speeches had to be less than 15 minutes, ideally 10. No rambling. No getting distracted. · Goodness, the trial of remembering the entire speech! No notes, no prompt screens up there, folks. Just us, our brains, and all those lights and cameras. · We remembered not to wander back and forth, not to drive the audience crazy with repetitive hand motions or flicking of hair-dos. We didn’t trip. We didn’t faint. · We didn’t run off the stage as soon as we finished. We received the applause head on. (Harder than you would think.) · And to our credit, we did what we came to do. We shared a single idea in front of a mass of live, breathing, real humans, by simply being who we are.

Mariano Oberlin, Liliana Cancela, Alejandro Sewrjugin--we did it folks!

I will forever be humbled by the amazing speakers I got to share the day with. Each and every one of them a powerhouse of inspiration. They are local revelations with worldwide ideas: from block chain and a new economy to 3-D printers as a solution for organ transplants, social equality for street kids, new alternatives for combating drug addiction, returning the names to "The Disappeared", feminism and the Argentine legal system, the power of telling stories, what we see when we look upon one another, how to provoke change by embracing new ideas, why participating in politics is essential, and so very much more...

The singer Jairo, the novelist Cristina Loza, the bio-chemist Carlos Vullo and me at the very last rehearsal. After 3+ months of preparation, we couldn't believe the day had finally come.

And when I say, #TEDxCordoba got the Traveling Libraries off the sidelines, they really did. There was ample newspaper coverage, an interview on TV, and then another. Not to mention radio...Suddenly (and shockingly) I was able to share with a much wider and instantly receptive audience the inspiration of all these humans who don't know each other, but who make the Traveling Libraries possible year after year. Coming out of the shadows is terrifying, but I will admit it does allow me to dream bigger.

I also felt very blessed to be a part of the #TEDxCordoba experience because 2017 was a volatile year, politically speaking, in Argentina. Achievements in human rights achievements are at risk. Poverty is on the rise, as is inflation. Morale is low and the vehemence with which people defend or speak out against current policies has divided entire families, and certainly the country as a whole, and it means that even buying milk at the corner market can turn into shouting match. Preparing for #TEDxCordoba, in an unspoken agreement among speakers and volunteers—most of whom did not know each other prior—we left that noise at the door, and enveloped ourselves in a collective undertaking that transcended the conflict of current events by proposing new ideas in science, in society, in ethics and, of course, in politics. And that, as you know, is the true magic of TED.

One of the all-day rehearsals at the start of November in downtown Córdoba.

It was an honor to be a part of this world-wide movement of ideas. It’s what gave me the courage to walk out onto that red circle. Right before going on stage, my mouth so dry I couldn’t swallow, hooked up to two microphones, with make-up on (!?!?!?!), having convinced the gal to leave my hair as is, knowing my dad was out there watching live from his home in California, wishing my mom could have seen this, bathed in all the hugs and support from the team that made my moment possible, I closed my eyes and invoked the day I first knocked on János’ door back in 1994. The trembling knees and the nerves were exactly the same: that abyss before a leap of true faith, when you can't fathom exactly what is about to happen, but you take that first step convinced the outcome is simply going to be great.

Follow along, learn more and become a part of the Traveling Libraries at www.alexappella.com

TedXCórdoba's official site: http://tedxcordoba.com.ar/

Read this article in Spanish: http://www.alexappella.com/blog/el-backstage-peculiar-de-una-chica-normal-de-oregon-dando-una-charla-tedx-en-argentina