Last night I had the privilege of going to see two speakers at the latest TEDx Edinburgh event, the first of four smaller, ‘Salon’ events. The theme was Justice.
First to take the stage was Dr Katy Long, a lecturer in International Development at the University of Edinburgh. (To see more of her work, check out her blog, Footsteps to Freedom, here and follow her on twitter @mobilitymuse.)
Dr Long starts her talk by holding up a passport and asking, “Who has one of these?” Pretty much everyone in the audience raises their hand. We, she declares, won the lottery. We live in a country and at a time when passports are readily available to us. Yes, we pay for our passports and visas don’t come free, but for everyone in that room they are affordable costs.
What struck me most about the talk was the brief mention of Cristophe, a Congolese immigrant in Kampala. Dr Long recounts a moment when Cristophe asked her why it is so easy for her to visit him in Uganda when it is unthinkable for him to visit her in the United Kingdom. I was reminded of all of the teachers and my colleagues, Susan and Moono, and the number of times we would discuss the idea of them travelling to Europe. At the time, I believed it to be a possibility; if they were as enthusiastic as they seemed, a probability.
In retrospect, I realise that the likelihood of ever seeing my Zambian friends in Europe is slim at best. The teachers were important members of the community and enjoyed an elevated status, yet by our standards they are still below the ‘passport line’: that is, of a social status where the right to global mobility is a given. In her lecture, Dr Long demonstrates how freedom of movement is inextricably linked to social mobility. Imagine how a simple passport would change the lives of Susan, or Mr Mutambo, or Cristophe.
Up next was Dr Julie Cupples from the University’s department of Human Geography. Dr Cupples spoke about the way the media presents disasters around the world, often as ‘natural disasters’ although most of the suffering stems from existing social structures. The images that splash the front pages of newspapers and magazines encourage sympathy, and perhaps donations, but they don’t ask the question of why the people in the photographs are suffering in the first place. Dr Cupples gives the example of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, which she argues was not a natural disaster but a social disaster, a disaster of engineering.
With the rise of new social media, however, the way that disaster stories are presented is changing. It is becoming easier to tell your story through the medium of a blog or a video clip and to reach out to the world at large. Real people are getting their voices heard without being mediated or manipulated by formalised media. Honest, real voices garner more lasting attention than the one-off shock factor headline.
Keep an eye on TED.com for the video uploads of these two talks. The following TED Talks by Julian Treasure and Damon Horowitz played during the breaks to inspire further thought and conversation on the topic of last night’s themes.