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Cloe Shasha Brooks: The Search For Big Ideas

Jan 22, 2021
Originally published on January 22, 2021 1:03 pm

About The Episode

Anyone from anywhere can give a TED Talk. This hour, we're joined by curator Cloe Shasha Brooks, who leads a massive search each year to discover brilliant speakers who often fly under the radar.

About Cloe Shasha Brooks

Cloe Shasha Brooks is TED's Speaker Development Curator. Each year, she oversees TED's Idea Search and a pool of speaker nominations that come in from all over the world. Cloe curates in a variety of fields, with an international focus on culture, social justice, literature, and humor. She works with speakers to develop and write their talks, diving deep into their research to help them communicate their ideas with impact.

Cloe's background is in journalism and cognitive psychology. She has contributed articles to ABC News and Huff Post, and wrote weekly news features for the Middlebury College newspaper for four years. Prior to joining TED in 2011, Cloe graduated magna cum laude from Middlebury College, where she received her bachelor's degree in psychology, and wrote a year-long thesis on designing educational testing to strengthen long-term memory. She was featured as one of Go Magazine's "100 Women We Love" in 2020.

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Rayma Suprani: Dictators Hate Political Cartoons — So I Keep Drawing Them

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Jeremy Brewer: A Strategy For Supporting And Listening To Others

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Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And let's say you have a big idea that you think would make a great TED Talk. How do you get a chance to give a talk on the TED stage if you're not a world-renowned expert like, say, the founder of behavioral economics...

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

DANIEL KAHNEMAN: We really should not think of happiness as a substitute for well-being.

ZOMORODI: ...Or a pioneer in primatology...

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

JANE GOODALL: We find chimps are capable of true compassion and altruism.

ZOMORODI: ...Or a former vice president-turned-climate advocate?

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

AL GORE: We are solving this crisis.

ZOMORODI: Well, there are ways for anyone from anywhere with a big idea to give a talk, and one way is through TED's idea search. It's an international call-out where people can submit a video with their idea to TED.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The idea I wanted to share is about the importance of teaching kids how to play again.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The idea for my TED Talk is that humor can be taught.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Creating more access and equity into our education system.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I believe my story can impact so many children...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: People with the ability should create...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: ...Different (inaudible) of knowledge...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Why equity, diversity and inclusion...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: I need to be at the TedGlobal stage.

ZOMORODI: Lots of ideas - and a team of curators at TED sift through all those submissions to choose which ones they think that you need to hear. And so today on the show, the person who leads this massive global search - TED curator Cloe Shasha Brooks.

Cloe, welcome.

CLOE SHASHA BROOKS: Thank you for having me, Manoush.

ZOMORODI: I'm so happy you're here. I've gotten to hang out with you at conferences and things like that, but a lot of people don't necessarily know you because you are behind the scenes. You run the idea search, which you're actually in the middle of doing right now. Can you give us a sense of what that process is like? Like, if someone has an idea, how is this a way of getting it on the TED stage?

BROOKS: Yeah. So with each idea search, we basically just put out this call for applications, and we try to reach as many people as possible. And, you know, we kind of ask the basic questions you'd expect, like what is your talk idea? What are your main takeaways for the audience? And why you? Like, why should we hear from you on this idea? And then each applicant is asked to make a two-minute video as a part of their application to pitch their idea. And then when the submissions close, a team of us goes through these applications and selects some winners. And those people get to give TED Talks, either virtually or in person.

ZOMORODI: How many submissions do you get every year?

BROOKS: So we get usually a couple thousand through the idea searches. And, you know, those are organized in a limited amount of time. So there's usually a month and a half or two months to submit. But then year-round, we have our speaker nomination form open. And so we get over 25,000 of those nominations every year through that form.

ZOMORODI: Twenty-five thousand - I mean, that is (laughter) a lot of applications to go through.

BROOKS: It's a lot.

ZOMORODI: But why do this, then? Why not just pick and choose the people that you want to have on the stage? Why go through this process and these thousands and thousands of submissions?

BROOKS: Yeah. I mean, as our team of curators, it's our job to have our ears on the ground in a wide range of fields. But it's really hard to find new voices who aren't already being recognized in some form. So these idea searches are a way for us to get new ideas on our radar from people everywhere.

ZOMORODI: OK. So let's dive into the first talk that you have brought us that has been sourced by this process. It's from a Nigerian political comedian and journalist, Adeola Fayehun. And she is just hilarious and biting in her criticism of a lot of people. Let's hear a bit from Adeola.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ADEOLA FAYEHUN: What's up, people? First of all, I cannot believe I'm on TED Talk. This is a big deal 'cause right now, everybody in my village is watching this. And so, of course, my bride price just went up. You know, I grew up believing that Africa as a continent is a giant. We've got skills, intellectuals, natural resources more than any other continent. But without good leaders, we're like an eagle that has no idea it could fly, let alone soar. Africa is like a sleeping giant.

Now, the truth is, I'm trying to wake up this giant, and that's why I aired the dirty laundry of those in charge of the giant - our politicians, our religious leaders - with huge respect, of course, because more than anything else, African leaders love to be respected. So I give it to them in doses. On my show, I kneel for them. I call them my uncles, my aunties, my fathers in the Lord. And then I insult them for insulting our intelligence. And it's because we are tired of the hypocrisy and false promises.

ZOMORODI: My God, who doesn't love Adeola? She's so full of energy. Tell us all about her.

BROOKS: Yeah. So Adeola's talk is called "Africa Is A Sleeping Giant - I'm Trying To Wake It Up." And it was a part of our virtual TED 2020 event. In this talk, she kind of did a little mini version of what she does on a YouTube channel that she has called Keeping It Real with Adeola. And on this YouTube channel, she typically puts out a couple of videos per week where she talks about mostly African news with this sort of political satire approach. And the way she describes her channel is that she is bringing you African news with lots of flavors and spices to make you laugh out loud while learning about current events, which feels very accurate.

ZOMORODI: So is Adeola a big deal in Nigeria or on YouTube or is - are you the ones who kind of discovered her in some way?

BROOKS: Yeah. So she has more than 480,000 YouTube subscribers.

ZOMORODI: Wow.

BROOKS: You know, so she definitely has a big following. But I'm not sure we would have found her. You know, we may not be the target demographic for her channel in the sense that she really is targeting people who live in Africa and the African diaspora around the world. So I think it was exciting to be able to find someone who is so strong in her background in journalism and so funny with her ability to make, you know, live comedy like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

FAYEHUN: For example, the Nigerian president vowed to end medical tourism by fixing our dilapidated hospitals and building us new ones. But what did he do? He spent three months receiving treatment in London in 2017. We were without a president for three months. We went presidentless (ph) for three months. So then it becomes my job to call out the president with respect, of course. I said, ha, Mr. President, it's your girl Adeola. You know how I do. How are you doing? You have no shame. I forgot to add sir. Sir, you have no shame. (Speaking in Yoruba). You have no fear of God.

Thirty-five thousand Nigerian doctors are presently working in the U.S., the U.K. and Canada, doing amazing things because in Nigeria, they are not well-paid, neither do they have the necessary equipment to do the job of being a doctor. And this is happening in many African countries. We have the capacity to fly. But sadly, a lot of African talent is flying straight out of Africa to other continents.

ZOMORODI: Listening to Adeola speak about the tens of thousands of Nigerian doctors who have left the country and what that's meant for the Nigerian people - for me, that is eye-opening...

BROOKS: Totally.

ZOMORODI: ...Because there's so little focus on Nigeria or the African continent in general in U.S. media.

BROOKS: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: Most of us are pretty ignorant of how politics or, for that matter, humor work there.

BROOKS: Yeah. I mean, I think that's what's amazing - is, you know, she has this way of basically using comedy to tell people truth where people live in authoritarian or totalitarian regimes and it's actually hard to get information sometimes. But, like, getting it through comedy is a way to actually know what's going on.

ZOMORODI: She really reminds me of, like - my references, of course, are Trevor Noah or John Oliver or Samantha Bee - using comedy to call out those in power across the African continent and, of course, in her home country of Nigeria.

BROOKS: Totally.

ZOMORODI: Is there anything that she needed to be cautious about or fearful for because, you know, calling out powers can indeed be dangerous?

BROOKS: Oh, definitely. I mean, she actually regularly has to dodge, you know, both terrible commentary on YouTube and threats at times. But she is just an unbelievably fearless and determined person, and she refuses to be silenced. And I think in that way, she's a leader who is showing other people that you have to fight for truth and justice no matter what. And I think, you know, the fact that she's able to do this work from the U.S. is very helpful.

ZOMORODI: What I also liked about her talk is that she actually not only shames the politicians, but she shames the audience in a beautifully comedic way just for being there. So let's play that part, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

FAYEHUN: And while I have your attention, I have one more thing to say. So please move closer. OK, that's good. That's good. Don't get too close. That's good. I don't like the way some of you portray Africa - not all of you, just some of you - you especially. First of all, it's not a country. It's a continent. I do not know Paul from Uganda. I don't know Rebecca from Zimbabwe. Nigeria is as far from Zimbabwe as New York is from France. And it's not a bunch of naked people in need of Western charity. You have it all wrong. Lions are not roaming the streets, OK? And I could go on, but you already know what I'm talking about.

So while I try to do my job trying to wake up the sleeping giant, Africa, so she could take her rightful place on the world's arena, you can do your bit, too. Please listen more. Listen to your African friends without a preconceived notion of what you think that they are going to say. Read African books. Oh, my God, watch African movies. Or at the very least, learn some of the names of our 54 beautiful countries. That's right - 54, baby, five-four. All right, y'all. It's been real, and I'm keeping it real right up in here. Until next time, I'm going to see you all later. Peace out.

(LAUGHTER)

ZOMORODI: Likable and scathing.

BROOKS: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: Do you feel like, in some ways, she was also speaking to TED? I mean, I can only guess that making sure there's representation from every single continent, never mind country, can be difficult...

BROOKS: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: ...When it comes to curating what happens on the TED stage.

BROOKS: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I think she is someone who is able to speak to many different audiences, and we really encourage that in her. In the context of TED 2020, we wanted her to reach all audiences. And we said, yeah, you're really good at making fun of African politicians. Do it to us, too. We deserve it. And she certainly did.

ZOMORODI: What did she sort of - did she say to you, like, what her goal was for doing this talk?

BROOKS: You know, I think what's interesting about the idea search is that sometimes the goal going in is different from the goal once they're selected. Like, I think coming in, people just want a TED talk. And that's usually what people say. And then as they start to work on it, they realize that they have this chance to really leave some, you know, powerful message with a global audience. And I think for her, she really wants people to pay attention to the corruption happening and also to stop pitying or talking about the African continent as though it's only a place that needs aid.

ZOMORODI: All right. We're going to take a quick break. When we come back, Cloe Shasha Brooks brings us another idea found through TED's global search - speaking truth to power through cartoons. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And my guest today is TED curator Cloe Shasha Brooks. She heads up TED's Idea Search, an international callout for new speakers; speakers who are not world-renowned experts, who might fly under the radar, but who nonetheless have something very valuable to say.

The next TED Talk you brought us, Cloe, is from a political cartoonist, Rayma Suprani. Her talk is called "Dictators Hate Political Cartoons - So I Keep Drawing Them" (laughter).

BROOKS: (Laughter).

ZOMORODI: Tell us about Rayma

BROOKS: I mean, yeah, talk about someone who's fearless. I mean, she's a Venezuelan press cartoonist from Caracas. And she worked for various newspapers there, but most notably, El Universal, as the principal cartoonist for almost 20 years. But she now lives in the United States and works for herself. And over the years, her life has been threatened many times by opponents of her satirical cartoons.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

RAYMA SUPRANI: (Speaking Spanish).

BROOKS: "When I was a little girl, I used to draw on all the walls of my house. One day, my mother got angry and told me, you can only draw on one wall, don't draw on any others."

(LAUGHTER)

SUPRANI: (Speaking Spanish).

BROOKS: "That was the first time I experienced an act of totalitarian censorship."

(LAUGHTER)

ZOMORODI: And she gave this talk in 2019 at TEDWomen. And I was actually in the audience. And I remember it particularly well, in part because you played a role in this talk, right?

BROOKS: Yup.

ZOMORODI: You were the translator on stage.

BROOKS: That was me.

ZOMORODI: How did you - I mean, there are often TED conferences that happen in different languages. How did you decide to take a Spanish TED Talk and put it on stage at an English-speaking event?

BROOKS: Yeah. I mean, it was kind of actually a last-minute decision. At first, we were going to have her give it in English because she wrote the talk in Spanish and she's - you know, that's her native language. And she speaks some English. But then a couple of weeks before TEDWomen 2019, she and I were rehearsing together, and it just became clear that her delivering in English would be a huge loss. You know, that her expression and her humor, her tone, her ease would be suppressed in translation. So basically, we just had some more logistical discussions, and the team agreed that it might be just worth having someone consecutively interpret for her from a shadowy corner of the stage. And so it ended up just being me.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SUPRANI: (Speaking Spanish).

BROOKS: "I was born in a democracy; in a country called Venezuela, which is now a dictatorship. For 19 years, I was the daily cartoonist for El Universal, one of the biggest newspapers in Venezuela. I really enjoy translating political and cultural current events into drawings. In the year 2014, I got fired from my job at the newspaper over a cartoon that I draw (ph) alluding to the health care system in Venezuela. I drew a flatline of a heartbeat monitor, but I intentionally drew the heartbeat line in a way that resembled the signature of Hugo Chavez, the former president of Venezuela."

(LAUGHTER)

SUPRANI: (Speaking Spanish).

BROOKS: The cartoon was two drawings together. So one was a classic electrocardiogram line representing a normal heartbeat, and she wrote health above it. And then below that, she drew an electrocardiogram line that started out as Hugo Chavez's signature, which then just sort of melted into a flatline, like a lack of heartbeat. And she wrote health in Venezuela above that. And this was also in a time when Venezuelans were grappling with dengue fever, chikungunya and many other conditions that the health care system just wasn't able to sufficiently support.

ZOMORODI: OK. But let's, you know, put it in context. It was a cartoon.

BROOKS: Right.

ZOMORODI: Why does Rayma think she was fired?

BROOKS: Yeah. I mean, she definitely thinks the Venezuelan government was maybe behind that - many people think that - in the sense that, you know, a few months before she was fired from that newspaper, the ownership had changed hands in a private deal. So people were noticing more and more acts of censorship under this new ownership.

ZOMORODI: And so did she have to flee Venezuela?

BROOKS: Yeah, she was forced into exile. And after getting fired in 2014, she stuck around for a little bit. She started getting death threats, though, and phone calls by people who were insulting her. And her picture started appearing on state-run TV.

ZOMORODI: Oh, wow.

BROOKS: Yeah. President Maduro even denounced her on his TV program. And so she just eventually felt like it was too much and she had no choice but to leave Venezuela. She couldn't find work and staying home became more and more risky. So she left in December of 2015, even though she really wasn't emotionally ready to leave, she says.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SUPRANI: (Speaking Spanish).

BROOKS: "A political cartoon is a barometer of freedom in a country. That's why dictators hate cartoonists and try to eradicate everything that involves humor as a mirror for social and political issues. A cartoon involves the delicate balance of ideas and drawings that reveal a hidden truth. And a good cartoon is one that conveys the plot of a full-length movie in a single frame. A cartoon needs to communicate the core of a story with its precision. And when it succeeds, its message can have the effect of inoculating people with a dose of skepticism."

ZOMORODI: You know, it's interesting to hear Rayma reflect on the power of a cartoon - of an image - particularly because the conversation over free speech is so big right now here in the U.S. But that is a right that is not as protected in Venezuela.

BROOKS: Yeah, exactly. I mean, it's just so scary that doing something that is, you know, possible here is life-threatening there.

ZOMORODI: So she - Rayma lives here in the United States. Is she - has she given up being a political cartoonist regarding political events in her home country of Venezuela, or is that something she still does?

BROOKS: Yeah, no, not at all. She's working a lot, and she's making amazing stuff. And I think, in many ways, being here has given her a newfound freedom. She talks about, like, being able to look back from the perspective she has now and have more space to do work she loves. So, I mean, she's also just so generous with her talent. Like, while she was at TEDWomen, she sketched drawings of nearly every speaker who came onto the stage and then would sidle up to them with this, like, sly expression on her face and reveal the cartoon. People just loved her.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

BROOKS: It was so sweet.

ZOMORODI: Aw (ph). I mean, in some ways, this was a very dark talk. But actually, she's pretty funny, right?

BROOKS: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: I mean, she's a cartoonist.

BROOKS: Yeah. I find this often when I meet someone who has been through some kind of really intense exile or is an immigrant coming out of hard circumstances. Like, sometimes those people have the most optimism and just have the best attitude towards the world at large and understanding that, yep, things are going to be scary and difficult, but I'm going to fight through it. And in the meantime, let's enjoy life.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SUPRANI: (Through interpreter) At one point in my career, I drew pigs and compared them with politicians and national guards who were responsible for stopping peaceful student demonstrations. One day when I got back to my office, I had a letter on my desk. The letter was from the Venezuelan Swine Federation.

(LAUGHTER)

SUPRANI: (Through interpreter) The letter said, Please do not compare an animal as wonderful as a pig with politicians.

(LAUGHTER)

SUPRANI: (Through interpreter) Pigs are very friendly and noble. They can be a great mascot. They make good pets, and they provide sustenance to us in the form of pork. I think they were absolutely right. I didn't draw any more pigs, but I did keep drawing politicians.

(LAUGHTER)

ZOMORODI: All right. I want to change gears a little bit now to the next speaker whom you've brought to us. This is an American named Jeremy Brewer. He's a police officer in Connecticut. And he gives a talk about a very difficult part of his job, which is to deliver the sort of news, you know, no one wants to get - that a loved one has passed away. Can you tell us about Jeremy?

BROOKS: Yeah. So Jeremy applied through the idea search in 2019 for TED2020. He started his career as an EMT for an ambulance service in - I think in the late 1990s. And for the past 20 years, he's been working in law enforcement. So he spent his whole career responding to calls in various ways for service in his community, and many of those calls have been about death. So he - you know, what he talked about in his pitch is that he regularly has to deliver some of the most sudden and unimaginable death news to family members and friends.

ZOMORODI: OK, let's listen to a bit of Jeremy's talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

JEREMY BREWER: Doing that type work has taught me powerful lessons on approaching highly charged situations in all areas of my life. My passion to connect started about 10 years ago. I responded to a death call that changed me - a woman. Let's call her Vicky. Vicky called because her husband had suddenly collapsed in the hallway of their home. The first responders and I tried everything. We gave it our best effort, but he died.

In complete devastation, Vicky fell to the floor. Instantly, I could feel us strapping on that emotional armor, going right to work on policies and procedures. I began peppering her with questions like detailed medical history and funeral home arrangements, questions that she couldn't possibly have been prepared to answer. In an empathetic gesture, I reached down, and I put my hand on her shoulder. She flinched and pulled away. Suddenly, her neighbor came running in and instantly hugged her. Vicky pushed her away, too. I will never forget the sound of her voice when she looked at me and said, I wish I never called.

Being confronted with death can be difficult for everyone. Often we rely solely on our instincts to help guide us. In law enforcement, we tend to put up an emotional shield, a barrier to emotions. That way, we can focus on policies and procedures to guide us. This is why we can sometimes come across as robotic. I've discovered that in the civilian world, you're often driven by that instinct to fix it, usually done with well-intended comments or physical touch. Sometimes that may be that right answer; other times, not.

Had I slowed down and just taken a breath, I would have been better able to connect to the humanity of that moment. I could have avoided that policy and procedure, check-the-box mentality. Her neighbor, had she slowed down, just taken a breath, she may have been able to see that in that moment, Vicky just wasn't prepared for touch. Our hearts may have been in the right place, but we made it about us instead of focusing on her.

ZOMORODI: Oh, I listened so carefully to him, to Jeremy speaking, because I feel like this is a lesson you don't get - how to help people in their moment, in the worst moment of their lives. And I'm guessing that that was what was on your mind, too, when you saw his pitch come in, that you were like, wow, you know, this is - people need to hear this.

BROOKS: Yeah, exactly. I mean, he - I just remember watching his video with a few colleagues, and we were just so moved by how thoughtful he was in the pitch. And I also think this is the kind of speaker that the idea search lends itself well to in the sense that he's not super well-known beyond his community in Connecticut, and we probably wouldn't have found him through our own research. And...

ZOMORODI: Right.

BROOKS: ...We also don't even have that many talks by law enforcement, so it felt like an interesting opportunity.

ZOMORODI: And was that something - like, when he applied, was he like, you know, I think people need to know what it's like in - when the tragedy happens or that they - there needs to be a bigger conversation about how we talk to people experiencing tragedy? What was his reasoning?

BROOKS: His main reasoning in the application was that he wanted people to understand how to have better conversations and support other people when something tragic happens and that it doesn't - you know, it's not just about being a law enforcer and responding to death calls, but all of us, you know, have moments like this. And so that felt really real, that this could apply to everybody.

ZOMORODI: Yeah. And so since that incident, Jeremy came up with kind of a motto that he uses in situations like this. He calls it respect space. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BREWER: In complete contrast, more recently, I met a woman. Let's call her Monica. I was tasked to tell Monica that her husband had tragically taken his own life. She fell to the floor crying so hard she could barely breathe. The gravity of that moment was so strong. But I knew I needed to resist that urge to move in and to comfort her. That sounds crazy, right? Honestly, it's excruciating. In your mind and in your heart, you just want to hug this person. But I stopped myself.

Having been around trauma for over 20 years, I will tell you not everybody is comfortable with human touch. There are people all over the world suffering from physical or psychological trauma you may know nothing about. Who knows what they're thinking or feeling in those moments? If I move in, if I touch her like I did Vicky, I could unintentionally revictimize her all over again. Think respect space. Be guided by respect space. It's a simple concept with a huge impact. You can't step into that space until you're invited.

So I sat across from Monica, silent, eye level, just feeling that moment. My heart was pounding so hard I could hear it. That lump in my throat? Oh, I could barely swallow. And you know what? That's OK. Emotions and vulnerability can be so hard for some people. I understand that. But in human moments, people want human. They don't want a robotic police officer or to be talking about paperwork. They just want another human to connect to them. As we sat together, she asked me one question over and over and over again. What am I supposed to tell my kids? One of the most important parts of respecting space is not always having to have an answer. I could feel she didn't want me to answer that question. She didn't want me to try to fix that unfixable moment. She wanted me to connect to the depth of that experience she was going through.

Yes, I had a job to do. And when the time was right, I asked the questions that needed to be answered, but I did it at her pace.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: Oh, you know, having - listening to that, especially in a year where there's been so much bad news for so many people, I wonder if you felt that part of this was almost a public service, to hear from Jeremy about how we discuss grief and also, as you say, the roles of the professionals who we inevitably intersect with when it's the EMT or the police officer or the emergency room technician - all of those people who we don't usually, like you say, get to hear from their perspective.

BROOKS: Yeah. Yeah, I think that's a lovely way to put it, a public service. I mean, he just is saying something that all of us, unfortunately, will probably have to deal with in some way. And he's being real enough to share what it was like to struggle through it and to fail at it for a bit and then try something different. And I feel like what he's kind of telling us is that we don't always have to fix, fix, fix when something is horrible because you can't. So maybe it's just better to sometimes witness what someone's going through and be present for them.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BREWER: Responding to death calls has taught me so much about the human experience and the best ways to be there for somebody when they need you the most. But it doesn't always have to be when dealing with death. There's never a bad time to build a connection. Hearing a private revelation from a friend, you could be such a better listener. In an argument with a loved one, by just stepping back and giving that respect space, you could better connect to their side of an issue. You may never be asked to tell a complete stranger that their loved one died, but we all have the opportunity to be the best, most-connected versions of ourselves, especially in times of need. That respect space that you provide another can have a life-changing effect on the people around you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: When we come back, more unexpected talks and ideas found by Cloe Shasha Brooks and her team through TED's ideas search. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And on the show today, we're talking to Cloe Shasha Brooks. She's a curator at TED whose job it is to go through the thousands of applications that TED receives each year from people who want to give a TED Talk.

Cloe, obviously this process means you get to discover speakers from all over the world...

BROOKS: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: ...As we've already heard, Nigeria, Venezuela, the U.S. and, in the case of our next speaker, the Netherlands. This is a talk given by Yvonne van Amerongen. She is a social worker in Amsterdam who specializes in dementia care. And at the beginning of her talk, she starts out by explaining that she used to work in a standard nursing home, which we all know can be a pretty depressing place. So let's jump right into that part of the talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

YVONNE VAN AMERONGEN: We often spoke together about the fact that what we were doing there was not what we wanted for our parents, for our friends, for ourselves. And one day, we said, when we keep on saying this, nothing is going to change. We are in charge here. We should do something about it so that we do want to have our parents here.

We talked about that. And what we saw every day was that the people that lived in our nursing home were confused about their environment because what they saw was a hospital-like environment with doctors and nurses and paramedics in uniform. And they lived on a ward. And they didn't understand why they lived there. And they looked for the place to get away. They looked and hoped to find the door to go home again. And we said, what we are doing in this situation is offering these people that already have a confused brain some more confusion. We were adding confusion to confusion. And that was not what these people needed.

These people wanted to have a life and the help to deal with that dementia. These people wanted to live in a normal house, not in a ward. They wanted to have a normal household where they would smell their dinner on the stove in the kitchen or be free to go to the kitchen and grab something to eat or drink. That's what these people needed. And that's what we should organize for them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: Yvonne is talking about radically changing the way people with dementia are cared for in an institutional setting. Dementia - it's been in the headlines a lot. It is - there's also discussion about how the pandemic has meant that a lot of these patients can't have outside visitors, increasing confusion and loneliness. It is a cruel, cruel illness. And I wondered when you heard the pitch, like, how you related to it, Cloe?

BROOKS: Yeah, totally. I mean, I have family members struggling with dementia, so it definitely, you know, hit a personal level for me. I just feel so sad whenever I think about how badly set up we are, at least in the United States, to care for those family members. It feels like we just don't have that many good options for them that allow them to feel like they're in their normal habitat and comfortable because there's so much confusion with the more sterile environments.

ZOMORODI: And so what Yvonne decided to do was to open a dementia care center in Amsterdam that would be a model for revolutionizing the way people with dementia are treated. Can you describe what she did, this new kind of center?

BROOKS: Yeah, she wanted this new center, which is called Hogeweyk, to provide familiarity and a sense of community to the residents, a place where people can be kind of allocated to different lifestyle groups depending on their preferences and how they lived before. So it's a place that's truly laid out like a village, with community buildings, pubs. There's dance halls. There's benches, you know, just things that you would see in an actual town or village. And I also just love something about Yvonne's approach, which is that it's not necessarily about investing exponentially more resources into building a care center. Like, it may not even be all that much more expensive to make this. It's actually just about making better choices. And she has this line in her talk that I love. She says, red curtains are just as expensive as gray ones. And I think that's right. It's like, let's pick the prettier curtains. And it doesn't have to look sterile. Why, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

VAN AMERONGEN: We said we should organize this like at home so they wouldn't live with a group of 15 or 20 or 30 like in a ward - no, a small group of people, six or seven, family-like, like living with friends. And we should find a way to select people based on their ideas about life so that they did have a good chance to become friends when they lived together. And we interviewed all the families of the residents about what is important for your father? What's important for your mother? What is their life like? What do they want? And we found seven groups, and we call them lifestyle groups.

And for instance, we found this formal lifestyle. In this lifestyle, people have a more formal way of interacting with each other, a distant way. Their daily rhythm starts later in the day, ends later in the day. Classical music is more heard in this lifestyle group than in other lifestyle groups. And their menu, well, is more French cuisine than traditional Dutch.

(LAUGHTER)

VAN AMERONGEN: In contrary to the craftsman lifestyle - that's a very traditional lifestyle. And they get up early in the morning, go to bed early because they have worked hard their whole life, mostly with their hands, very often had a very small family business, a small farm, a shop, or like Mr. B, he was a farmhand. There are more lifestyles. But that's what we talked about, and that's what we did.

We are social animals. We need a social life. We want to go out our house and do some shopping and meet other people or go to the pub, have a beer with friends. That social life is important. It means that you're part of society, that you belong. And that's what we people need, even if you are living with advanced dementia.

ZOMORODI: Cloe, she goes on to talk about some of the - like, the pub that they have on - in the center, and how one resident goes there every night and dances with the ladies. I mean, he's basically...

BROOKS: (Laughter).

ZOMORODI: ...Living his best life. And it made me think, oh, you know, what lifestyle would my mom fit into if she had to go there?

BROOKS: Oh, totally.

ZOMORODI: Or me, for that matter? Because it does sound quite wonderful, actually. And my understanding is also that Hogeweyk is being used as a model for other - just as she hoped - for other centers that are sort of mimicking this idea of creating a village, as it were.

BROOKS: Mmm hmm. Yeah. Yeah. There was one that was modeled after Hogeweyk in New Zealand, and it's called the Care Village. And they self-describe as modeled on the Hogeweyk system with a Kiwi twist.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

VAN AMERONGEN: The Hogeweyk has become a place where people with very advanced dementia can live, have freedom and safety because the professionals working there and the volunteers working there know how to deal with dementia. And that means that the management has to provide everything those people need to do their work. It needs a management that dares to do this, to do things differently than what we always have done in a traditional nursing home.

We see that it works. We think this can be done everywhere because this is not for the rich. We've been doing this with the same budget as any traditional nursing home has in our country. We work only with state budget.

(APPLAUSE)

VAN AMERONGEN: Because it has to do with thinking different and looking at that person in front of you and looking at what does this person need now. And it's about a smile. It's about thinking different. It's about how you act. And that costs nothing. And there's something else. It's about making choices. It's about making choices what you spend your money on. It's possible everywhere. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

ZOMORODI: It's really, truly an inspiring talk. But I have to wonder how the facility has been affected by the pandemic. I mean, so many of us have not been able to see our - the elderly people in our lives since COVID broke out - our parents, our friends, our grandparents. There's real heartbreak there. And I wonder how they're doing.

BROOKS: Yeah. No, it is really heartbreaking. I feel like Zoom, even when that's an option, will never be enough, even though it's better than nothing in this time. Yeah, it sounds like Hogeweyk has, you know, implemented more protections and safety measures as many homes for the elderly have and that they're doing OK.

But meanwhile, Yvonne has actually retired from her work there. But she consults on a project basis for an organization called Be Advice, which advises on innovative care concepts for elderly people living with dementia. So hopefully, her goal of having, you know, more parts of the world build places like this can be achieved with her and her team.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: OK. So we're coming into the last talk that you've brought us. And up until now, we've been hearing voices that might be, like, pretty difficult to find without TED's Idea Search because they don't fall into one of the usual topic areas that your curators cover or because it's hard to find voices from all over the world. But sometimes you do get a submission, Cloe, that you're like, oh, hmm. Why didn't we think of that? Right?

BROOKS: Exactly. I mean, this talk by Elizabeth "Zibi" Turtle is called "What Saturn's Most Mysterious Moon Could Teach Us About The Origins Of Life." So, you know, she is doing something with NASA. Like, we absolutely could have heard of her, we just didn't in this moment. And so seeing her through the Idea Search was really exciting.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ELIZABETH TURTLE: Picture a world with a variety of landforms. It has a dense atmosphere within which winds sweep across its surface and rain falls. It has mountains and plains, rivers, lakes and seas, sand dunes and some impact craters. Sounds like Earth, right? This is Titan.

ZOMORODI: OK. So "Zibi" Turtle - that's Elizabeth - "Zibi" is her nickname - and she's talking about Titan, Saturn's largest moon. And some people may have heard of the project, which is called Dragonfly. Tell us about Zibi.

BROOKS: Yeah, so she's a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, and she's the principal investigator for Dragonfly at NASA. And it's scheduled to launch in 2026 and to land on Titan eight years later in 2034. So she's very, very excited to learn about Titan. That's a lot of delayed gratification, if you ask me.

ZOMORODI: And Titan is an extraordinary moon. Let's hear more about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

TURTLE: Titan is one of several ocean worlds, moons in the cold outer solar system beyond the orbits of Mars and the asteroid belt with immense liquid water oceans beneath their surfaces. Titan's interior ocean may have more than 10 times as much liquid water as all of the Earth's rivers, lakes, seas and oceans combined. And at Titan, there are also exotic lakes and seas of liquid methane and ethane on the surface. Ocean worlds are some of the most fascinating places in the solar system, and we have only just begun to explore them.

ZOMORODI: That is wild to think about ocean worlds out there. OK. So Cloe, Dragonfly, this planned spacecraft - tell us a bit about it.

BROOKS: Yeah, I mean, it - first of all, it looks kind of like a dragonfly. It's an oversized drone the size of a small car with eight rotors. So that technically makes it an octocopiter (ph), which I had not heard of until she came into our orbit - not to make a pun. But yeah. So she is designing this thing, and it sounds like it has a lot of different capacities once it lands.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

TURTLE: Dragonfly is a mobile laboratory that can fly from place to place, taking all of its scientific instruments with it. Dragonfly will investigate Titan in a truly unique way, studying details of its weather and geology and even picking up samples from the surface to learn what they're made of. In many ways, Titan is the closest known analogue we have to the early Earth, the Earth before life developed here. We know that the ingredients for life, at least life as we know it, have existed on Titan. And Dragonfly will be fully immersed within this alien environment, looking for compounds similar to those that might have supported the development of life here on Earth and teaching us about the habitability of other worlds.

Habitability is a fascinating concept. What's necessary to make an environment suitable to host life, whether life as we know it here on Earth or perhaps exotic life that has developed under very different conditions? We don't know how chemistry took the step to biology here on Earth. But similar chemical processes may have happened on Titan, where organic molecules have had the opportunity to mix with liquid water at the surface. Has organic synthesis progressed under these conditions? And if so, how far? We don't know - yet.

ZOMORODI: We don't know yet, Cloe. But the year 2034 - I'm waiting for you, Dragonfly. I love that talk. OK. So Cloe, let's say someone is listening and they're thinking, you know what? I have a good idea for a talk. How will they know if their idea is good for the TED stage, if they should even take the steps to submit it?

BROOKS: That's a great question. So, I mean, I think one thing that we tell people is to think about the difference between a topic and an idea. So a topic example might be something like, we need to fix the opioid crisis. Like, of course, that's fascinating. And most people would agree. But what's the idea within that? So an idea might take that a step further, like a specific angle that stems from that topic with a unique message or a solution or an insight. So a talk idea that actually became a talk from that topic might be, in the opioid crisis, here's what it takes to save a life. So we're actually hearing about, you know, the steps to potentially end this, person by person.

ZOMORODI: OK, got it. Now, let's say a person has thought through all of that. They still think their idea's legit. What should they do? How can they get their idea to you and your team?

BROOKS: So please, please spread the word if you know someone who has an idea worth spreading, or if you are that person, apply. It's still open until the end of January. So you can apply at go.ted.com/ideasearch. And winners will be invited to give TED Talks, either virtually or in person.

ZOMORODI: Cloe Shasha Brooks is speaker development curator at Ted. Cloe, thank you so much for spending this hour with us.

BROOKS: Oh, thank you so much, Manoush, for having me.

ZOMORODI: Thanks so much for listening to our show this week on TED's Idea Search. And again, for more information on how to submit your idea, visit go.ted.com/ideasearch. And as always, to learn more about the people who were on today's show, go to ted.npr.org. And to see hundreds more TED Talks, check out ted.com or the TED app.

Our TED radio production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye, J.C. Howard, Katie Monteleone, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Christina Cala, Matthew Cloutier and Farrah Safari, with help from Daniel Shukin. Our intern is Janet Wujong Lee (ph). Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Michelle Quint.

I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.