Camden’s first TEDx conference tackles privilege, deep fakes, quantum physics and healing a touch-starved generation

Camden, the City Invincible, hosts its first-ever TEDx conference, inviting five speakers to share their innovative ideas with interested participants.

Queena Bergen performs onstage

Queena Bergen performs original spoken word poem, “Diamonds are Forever” (Photo Credit: Laura Yamamoto/TEDxCamden)

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The Beatles, fake Tom Cruise, and TikTok — Camden’s first TEDx conference covered it all.

On March 9, five prolific speakers and three talented artists attracted over 100 guests to Camden High School, the conference’s host. The theme for that day, “Invincible,” was inspired by Camden itself.

Through annual conferences and independently organized TEDx talks in local communities, the non-profit TED shares innovative ideas and promotes curiosity worldwide. After directing conferences at Rutgers University-Camden in 2022 and 2023, conference organizers Pariti Sutaria and Melissa Maselli sought something “different” and partnered with Camden.

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Katrina McCombs, superintendent of the Camden City School District, welcomed attendees to “an opportunity that empowers voices.”

An audience in front of a stage
Over one hundred people registered to attend the TEDxCamden conference on March 9, 2024, in Camden, New Jersey (Photo Credit: Jochebed Peace Airede/WHYY)

The day’s premier speaker was Hae Jun “HeyJune” Jeon. In 2020, Jeon started her company Pheydrus to “help people improve lives through storytelling.”

In her talk, “How to Change Your Future with Quantum Relations,” Jeon proposed that “all possibilities exist.” If not, The Beatles might not be famous; record labels thought guitar bands were unmarketable. But Brian Epstein, their manager, recognized their “upward potential.” Thus, outcomes change alongside one’s perceptions.

dancers perform onstage
Wanda Dickerson (far left), co-founder of the UADDE, performs alongside dancers, including Bintou Bangoura (center), who joined the troupe in her early teenage years (Photo Credit: Laura Yamamoto/TEDxCamden)

The Universal African Dance and Drum Ensemble (UADDE), the day’s first performance, led an electrifying tribute to West African culture. For Sekou Dickerson and Bintou Bangoura, a drummer and dancer respectively, the ensemble connects them to their family and culture. Dickerson’s late grandfather, Robert, founded the UADDE and Bangoura emigrated to New York from Guinea, Africa, as a child.

The audience then listened as Emmy-nominated executive producer, writer and director Paul Epstein further explored the significance of perception. Epstein showed audience members a deep fake video of Tom Cruise, a digitally-engineered portrait designed to make a stranger resemble him.

Paul Epstein speaks onstage in front of a slideshow with photos of Harrison Ford
Paul Epstein recognizes the positive impact of generative artificial intelligence (AI) in ‘de-ageing’ actors like Harrison Ford (Photo Credit: Jochebed Peace Airede/WHYY)

With an impending presidential election, truth is more important than ever: a deepfaked politician can deny an election result; a deepfaked journalist could support the allegation.

“We may never make it back to the idea of truth ever again,” warned Epstein.

Queena Bergen, an international performance artist and cultural ambassador for the United States, performed her original composition “Diamonds are Forever,” which was written in 24 hours. Per Bergen, the “pressure” of the moment made it “profound.”

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Following a video address by U.S. Senator Cory Booker, storyteller and speaker Jason Browne mused on the dangers of ignoring privilege. Browne argued that “unlearned” privilege harms others, as one can control only what they know. He maintained that privilege can catalyze, not just impede, creating space for those without it.

The Camden Contemporary Dance Theatre concluded the day’s performances, performing “Time is of the Essence.”

The next speaker, David Goodman, was a proud Camden resident.

“In spite of what some people may think, Camden has some good folks, some resilient folks,” said Goodman.

Goodman’s life testifies to this resilience. Speaking onstage with Sutaria, Goodman described battling bullies and familial instability in his early childhood. In the ‘90s, he realized his dream of becoming an actor after his wife, Jada, encouraged him to pursue theater roles. Now, he has starred in shows like “Law and Order.”

Enraged by the killing of George Floyd, Goodman started Humanity Pictures, his production company. Goodman wanted to create content that would compel viewers to humanize others. The springboard was “Black FatherHood—The Other Hood,” a documentary designed to present Black men as loving fathers and subvert negative perceptions of them “in other aspects of society.”

Rue Yi, the conference’s final speaker, also underscored the urgency of preserving humanity. A full-time freelancer, they argued that current language practices have created the modern-day Tower of Babel, the Biblical origin of miscommunication. In a generation where communication occurs almost solely online, attacks on “faceless” personae are easy because there are no consequences.

The only solution, Yi posited, is physical touch. Body language is needed to make interactions more personable again.

“Let’s make touch an intentional, careful practice,” they said.

Jahmara Smith, a Rutgers University-Camden alumna, was happy to have TEDx in her hometown. “Being from Camden, [and] not being spoken for and represented, it was just a reminder that I can do it. I can conquer.”

The TEDxCamden 2024 conference is available to view online.

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