During welcoming remarks for the 2017 TEDx Jacksonville, one speaker cited a quote by famed musician Frank Zappa to sum up the conference’s essence:
“The mind is like a parachute: it only works when it’s open.”
It was an apt quotation.
The latest edition of TEDx Jacksonville — the annual event organized by scores of selfless local volunteers to match fascinating speakers with a hall full of thoughtful Northeast Floridians — was truly a celebration of the open mind.
With a focus on a theme of “We the People,” the event offered an impressive range of speakers who shared equally impressive insights with the massive Florida Theatre audience.
There was no shortage of emotional moments during the day-long conference, which was hosted by longtime civic figure Hope McMath.
Robert E. Lee High School teacher Amy Donofrio took the stage flanked by students in her groundbreaking EVAC Movement — a Lee High leadership class that has won awards and met with members of Congress and former President Barack Obama.
Donofrio left countless audience members teary-eyed as she described the rocky path that her students — all of whom have faced personal traumas during their young lives — have traveled to use their platform to inspire others.
“EVAC has never been a program of hope,” Donofrio said. “It has been a war for hope that we fight daily.”
Shari Duval, the founder of the St. Augustine nonprofit K9s for Warriors, choked up while explaining why she pursued her vision to pair service dogs with veterans emotionally and psychologically scarred by war.
The idea, Duval said, was born from a desperate desire to help her son Brett — an Iraq War vet and dog trainer struggling to adjust to civilian life — find a reason to keep living.
“They don’t want to be here,” Duval said regarding the thought process that leads many affected vets to contemplate suicide.
“But we want them here.”
Equally compelling was Manal Fakhoury, a renowned clinical pharmacist who linked America’s opioid crisis to the stark fact that many people are using powerful drugs to mask the pain of unaddressed or unresolved issues.
‘The opioid epidemic is a symptom of a deeper pain: loneliness, hopelessness, feeling devalued,” Fakhoury said.
“We as a society rely too much on pills and too little on people. (But) there is no chemical substitute for human connection.”
EMPOWERMENT AND HUMOR
In addition to emotion, a sense of empowerment — frequently presented in humorous fashion — was also on display during TEDx Jacksonville.
Jacksonville lawyer Chris Hand urged the audience not to buy the tired myth that average citizens can’t make a difference or work across ideological lines.
Hand, who was former Mayor Alvin Brown’s chief of staff, co-authored a book with onetime Florida Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham titled “America, the Owner’s Manual: You Can Fight City Hall — and Win.”
Hand noted how conservative tea party founder Debbie Dooley and Colleen Kiernan — a political progressive and former director of Georgia’s Sierra Club — found common ground in their support for solar power.
The two women, Hand said, decided to combine forces to successfully fight an attempt by utility companies to charge solar customers outrageous maintenance fees.
“They did it by forming a group called the ‘Green Tea Coalition,’” Hand said wryly, drawing laughs.
Cynthia Barnett, an environmental journalist who wrote an award-winning book on rain, recounted how during the 1800s, the U.S. Congress, pressured by wealthy ranchers, approved funding for a proposal to induce rainfall by shooting off cannon blasts.
The lawmakers did so, Barnett said, despite being told by federal meteorologists that the idea was a scam — and that it wouldn’t work.
“It was neither the first nor the last time that politicians would listen to the influential ill-informed over their own scientists,” Barnett said to applause.
And area transportation expert Jaimie Sloboden used humor to drive home his belief that Jacksonville must become a less vehicle-centric city.
Sloboden began his talk by riding a bicycle on stage and commenting, “I just did one of the most dangerous things you can do in Jacksonville.”
But anyone who attended the recent TEDx Jacksonville could say this — and say it without hesitation:
They had done one of the most enlightening things that one can do in Jacksonville.