TEDxBrandeisUniversity hosted its second annual conference on Saturday, titled “Illuminations Within.” Facilitated by master of ceremonies Karthik Rangan ’18, this year’s talks centered around the importance of self and historical reflection as a means of solving current global issues, especially those pertaining to navigating discussions of community, social interactions and mental health.

TEDxBrandeisUniversity seeks to spark new conversations and meaningful discussions and serves as a platform for students, faculty and alumni to express their ideas and experiences. This year, the event consisted of six speakers, including alumni, graduate students and undergraduates, each with their own story to tell.

Naya Stevens ’17 initiated the event with an examination of the importance of code-switching through her piece titled “Say Less: A Lesson in Code-Switching.” Code-switching is the act of adopting different language or even personality traits in separate social circles to safely navigate through social spaces. She explained that she learned to code-switch out of necessity during the summer of 2003 while attending the Fresh Air Fund camp, a summer enrichment program that busses inner city children of color to rural and suburban areas along the east coast and Canada to stay with a host family. 

Stevens explained that although she was nervous at first, she wanted to to “spread her wings” and live in another family’s house. Even though she enjoyed her stay with her host family, and continued seeing them for “three more summers,” there was a critical culture shock and cultural disconnect that she had to learn to navigate. Through this experience, Stevens explained, she came to the realization that she “could not walk in the world and be herself.” 

She used code-switching as a response to feeling misunderstood, and has since used this skill for interviews, classes and fellowships. Concluding her presentation, she explained that code-switching helps us navigate our social spaces and asked the audience to examine how we tell marginalized stories, since code-switching helps many people of color express themselves in different social circles.

Stevens was followed by Dr. Ryan Collins Ph.D. ’16, who discussed what we can learn about mediating social difference today from the ancient Mayan city of Yaxuna, located in Yucatán. He began by explaining that the “social differences” we observe when different societies communicate with one another “is not only based on shared cultural beliefs, but also on how social spaces establish social distinctions on a societal base level,” highlighting the evolution of social spaces and communities. 

As an anthropologist, he focused on what causes people to congregate through social interactions, specifically on the influence that historical and contemporary plazas have on social solidarity. His research analyzes the social plazas of Yaxuna as a case study for the evolution of social spaces. Dr. Collins explained that “while we do not think about the effect that spaces like malls and plazas have on us,” social spaces such as these “bring communities together on an abstract notion that exists outside of themselves” such as a march for a cause or a space for discussion. “Rituals of social solidarity include protest events and marches, and it is important that we retain these as points for our own experience with one another,” he said, “before the importance of these spaces fades from our memory.”

In his talk, “The Silent Epidemic,” Ethan Saal ’19 explained the importance of acknowledging the dangers of depression and shared his own struggle with the mental illness. After taking time away from Brandeis, he used his support system to re-establish himself. 

He told the audience that in his support system, he visualized a tree — one of nature’s strongest foundations — with roots, each having an important group, including his parents and his tennis team, that supported him. Explaining the symbolism, he said that “a tree can withstand a storm only if its roots are firmly grounded,” and said that these supporters gave him the love he needed to survive. 

Saal’s talk highlighted the negative stigma surrounding mental health, depression and anxiety. He explained that while initially struggling with depression he “did not know what was going on,” and did not seek help because he had a “fear of vulnerability” and was struggling to reclaim himself at the time.

“Change must come from within,” Saal explained, and prompted the audience to ask themselves, “What resources do I have?” and “What are my next steps?” He believes these are questions that can help others understand and combat mental illness. Saal closed by explaining that although he is “still making adjustments, he is perfectly imperfect, and has not come up short in his lifetime.”

Joel Burt-Miller ’16 concluded the event with “The Healing Power of Our Stories.” In it, he argued that each of us carries our own distinct story, and only by acknowledging and expressing our story to others can we come together as one community. 

He began by requesting for the lights to be dimmed down to see what the audience would imagine with “the removal of light.” As members of the audience explained that they felt uneasy and worried, Burt-Miller used this experiment to demonstrate that just as light is necessary for providing us safety and security, so too we must help illuminate the path of understanding by showing others what makes us vulnerable through our stories and histories. 

One example he provided was  a reflection on his study abroad experience in South Africa. He explained that when communicating with the people in the community, he found that “there was a disconnection between this community, and their perceptions of themselves, and how the greater community viewed them.” 

This was a crucial point of understanding for him, Burt-Miller explained, as he was able to use his experiences from his conversations while abroad to understand his father’s story. His father had been diagnosed with a mental condition before Burt-Miller was born, and he had felt “deceived” upon realizing his father had withheld the information from him. Burt-Miller understood that his father was unwilling to share his story due to the “paralyzing stigma of mental illness,” resulting in a social disconnect between Burt-Miller and his father. 

“In this instance, a narrative was removed from the equation, resulting in a disconnection,” Burt-Miller explained. Referring to his earlier metaphor about light, Burt-Miller explained that “without light, we are blinded and isolated. It is the same with our stories.” 

He concluded by saying that “the moment we stop sharing our stories and stop listening is the moment we cut ourselves off from those connections. Regardless of who we are, our stories are the threads that connect us together.”

—Editors note: Andrew Baxter ’21, a Justice editor, performed at TEDxBrandeisUniversity.

—Editors note: This article and headline was updated to include the accurate title of the event, TEDxBrandeisUniversity, which was originally listed as TEDx Brandeis.