Speakers and organizers are ready to put on a virtual TEDx Breckenridge event on Oct. 3

FRISCO — Like many Summit County residents, Micah Shanser knew the area had a gem that is generally underappreciated by the many people who come to the area to visit. For him, it wasn’t a backcountry getaway, local watering hole or underrated ski run. It was the people.

Shanser is the founder and volunteer lead for TEDx Breckenridge, a local, independently organized version of the famous TED Talks, which will be held from 5:30-8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 3, being broadcast virtually from the Riverwalk Center in Breckenridge. The program features 11 speakers delivering 10 talks, as well as an introduction from Breckenridge Mayor Eric Mamula, presentations from Building Hope Summit County and the town of Breckenridge and a musical performance from Park County-based band Split Window.

Unlike many hidden gems, which some locals may try to keep secret, Shanser and the event’s organizers actively sought the opportunity to share the thoughts and experiences of the community with areas around the world. While the invitation to apply to speak at the event was open to anyone anywhere, most of the selected speakers live in Summit County.

“It’s giving a platform for voices who may not be heard and for people outside our community to see more than just our tourist activities,” said Leah Rybak, the event’s director of marketing and content. “There’s more to our community than just that.”

Shanser expects that this year’s program will showcase the knowledge, wisdom and talent he feels is found abundantly in Summit County. For Rybak, being able to have the TED name associated with the event only serves to boost that goal.

“Having the recognizability of TEDx helps elevate the experience,” she said.

Rybak added that the TED organization also requires independent events to adhere to a variety of standards: the events must be locally run, cover a diversity of topics or disciplines and be free of any commercial, religious or political agendas. The speakers are all required to undergo training from speaking coaches to help them deliver polished talks. She expects that all of these requirements will not only help the event to serve as a showcase for Breckenridge, but also to stimulate conversations around the community.

The idea of generating local conversations and connections also resonated with Shanser.

If You Go

What: TEDx Breckenridge
When: 5:30-8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 3
Where: Virtual event, broadcast from the Riverwalk Center in Breckenridge
Cost: $25

“A big piece of it is wanting to stimulate big ideas and conversation in Breckenridge,” he said.

A theme of connection

Preparations for the event started before the novel coronavirus pandemic, and that included selecting the theme of the talks: connection, which was picked in December 2019. In February, applicants all submitted their talk proposals, which had to based around the idea of connection, and the finalists were chosen in March.

For some of the speakers, the theme was ultimately what brought them to apply to speak at TEDx Breckenridge.

Summit High School’s 2020 valedictorian and salutatorian, twins Jenna and Jordan McMurty, wanted to share their thoughts about how they had connected with Summit County’s senior population. When an English teacher at the high school made the announcement about the upcoming TEDx event, they knew it was the opportunity they had been looking for.

“We knew we had a story to tell, and we really wanted to tell it to the community,” Jordan McMurty said.

“There’s missing connections in our society, and one of those missing connections is with different age groups.” Jenna McMurty said. “Our call to action is for others to seek out friendships and mentorship instead of focusing on the stereotypes that divide us.”

Another speaker, Lisa Lee, works as a gifted and talented teacher for Wheat Ridge High School and had given three TEDx talks before, speaking on education and social issues at events in Colorado and Georgia. She’d been looking for an opportunity to speak about a much more personal topic, and the Breckenridge event was the perfect place to give it.

I knew what I wanted to talk about; I just didn’t know how it was going to happen,” Lee said.

Lee, who is now in her 60s, plans on getting more personal than she has ever been before in public, with the ultimate goal of helping others build empathy for people who are different from them. She hopes her talk will encourage others “to see through the eyes of another, to look at things differently and to accept people who are different when they come their way.”

For others, the nature of Summit County made the theme a natural fit for what they had to say. Just before the call for speakers was put out, Jaci Ohayon had a friend who told her that she should give a TED Talk. In 2018, Ohayon was a driving force behind the effort to bring a Haitian boy named Jonas to Summit County so he could get a better education and ultimately better his life. Ohayon said that the Summit County community is particularly unique because of how connections are often made here.

“Up in Summit County, people are transplants and don’t really have any built-in connections,” Ohayon said.

For Ohayon, the enormity of the efforts she had to undertake to bring Jonas to the area made her realize that she needed to start asking for help instead of shouldering the entire burden herself. Once she did that, she discovered that a community full of transplants is very capable of making connections.

“Summit County is full of people who are willing to help if we take the time to ask,” she said.

For Ashley Hughes, moving to Summit County made her realize that different communities had a different form of “social currency,” or what she needed to have to make connections with other people. When she lived in Washington, D.C., the social currency was largely focused on the people she knew. But in Summit County, “gear is currency.”

Hughes found that, in the High Country, she was able to make more connections by sharing her outdoor gear and passions for doing different activities in the area.

Speaker Leigh Girvin works as guide and docent for Breckenridge Heritage Alliance and also records oral histories of the town from 1960 to the present. She’d been looking for the opportunity to tell the story of George Johnson, a man who came to Breckenridge in the 1970s and decided to become a modern-day mountain man. For her, the theme of connection is all about how Breckenridge’s past has helped shape the town’s personality.

“The Breckenridge that existed, that allowed him to live the life he did, shaped some of the character of the town we know today,” Girvin said.

One outlier for the event is composer Lucas Cantor, who is flying up from the Los Angeles area to deliver his talk, which will be focused on how people use computers to make art and how they make art without computers.

Cantor used artificial intelligence to finish Franz Scubert’s famous “unfinished” symphony and is currently working on a book about his experience with AI and the arts. His agent suggested giving a TED Talk would help him to refine his book, and a friend of his who knew Shanser suggested he apply for the Breckenridge event, which he originally thought was in the Los Angeles area, but was excited for the opportunity to come up to the Colorado mountains.

For Cantor, the concept of connection was focused on how people communicate. He emphasized that humans have many different ways to communicate and music is one of those ways.

“Everything is about human connection, and I hope that comes through in all of my work,” he said.

Sandy Lamb, who worked as a speaking coach for three of the event’s speakers, felt that the event’s theme ultimately related to one of the primary goals of TED Talks: to share ideas worth spreading.

“I would say that (ideas worth spreading) is about sharing your story to help connect with the world and give them a call to action,” she said.

The pandemic’s impact

The event was originally scheduled to be held in May but ultimately was postponed until October to allow the organizers to make adjustments to the format amid the ongoing pandemic. The event was planned to be held in-person with videos of individual talks released later on, but organizers shifted to making it an online broadcast.

One advantage of the new format is that it will allow more people to participate in the full event Rybak said.

For many of the speakers, the pandemic didn’t impact what had to say, but it did impact how they’ll end up saying it. Many of them said they were able to take advantage of the extra time to refine their ideas.

Lee had her talk written and more or less ready to go until three weeks ago, when she suddenly felt she needed to rewrite her talk. She typed it out again and read it to her wife, who usually provides ample feedback on how she can improve her talks. This time her wife didn’t provide any feedback, which Lee believes is a reflection on how the pandemic has given her time to slow down, be with her thoughts and be more authentic.

Cantor echoed Lee’s sentiments, saying that the opportunity to really focus on his talk over the past two months has “probably improved the talk.”

Hughes said the time allowed her to refine her talk, and she felt the pandemic has made the theme of connection all the more important.

“With anything related to TED, your audience is still the whole world, and this is meant to be relatable on a global level,” she said. “Because we’re talking about connection, it has a deeper meaning during the pandemic.”

When they were asked about the impact of the pandemic on their talk, Jenna and Jordan McMurty echoed Hughes’ sentiments.

“It definitely helped us realize the importance of our topic,” Jordan McMurty said. “Our definition of human connection has changed over the past few months.”

“Going through isolation gave us a new appreciation for connection in general,” Jenna McMurty added.

Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at through the end of the day Friday, Oct. 2. Those who buy a ticket also will be given the opportunity to rewatch the event later on.

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