Meet TEDGlobal guest host Pat Mitchell: A short Q&A

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We’re welcoming two guest hosts to TEDGlobal 2011 — Pat Mitchell, from the Paley Center for Media, who hosts Session 8, and Matt Ridley, whose 2010 TEDTalk was memorably titled “When Ideas Have Sex,” and who’ll be hosting Session 5. We asked both hosts a few questions about their plans for their session of TED. Here’s what we asked Pat Mitchell:

What drew you to this theme: “Embracing Otherness”? How are you defining “other” in the context of TEDGlobal?

One of the TED talks at TEDWomen in December was titled “Otherness” and the speaker, Elizabeth Lesser, spoke about how we tend to ‘otherize’ people who don’t look like us, think like us, believe as we do, worship as we do, etc. I was struck by the power of the concept of ‘otherness’ — and of course, we see how it plays how in our lives on so many levels … from bullying in school to waging acts of terrorism. We fear the ‘other,’ we demonize the ‘other,’ and the outcomes of this are certainly anything other than positive. So I thought about ‘embracing’ otherness’ is the way to start to bridge the lack of understanding, the miscommunications, the demonizing that results from fear and intolerance of what’s lies outside our comfort or knowledge zones. So at TEDGlobal, the speakers will talk about the embracing the otherness of poverty, revolution, culture, backgrounds and sharing their own stories of being ‘other’ or witnessing ‘other’ or helping to bridge from one othernesss to another.

Can you share your special instructions to your speakers — what are you asking them to bring to this session in particular?

I am very pleased that each of the speakers in my session is from a different country and culture: India, Yemin, Ghana, China, UK … and each of them was asked to talk about a different kind of otherness: Bunker Roy talks about the other side of poverty; Jarreth Merz bears witness to the other ways that democracy can work and survive in his country of Ghana; Yang Lan shares stories of the other side of China, its youth and its women, and Nadia Al-Sakkaf will bring front line reports of the other side of the revolution and conflict in Yemin, and actor Thandie Newton shares her personal ‘otherness’ story of growing up with multi identities and cultural influences as an actor, always ‘engaging otherness.’

It’s interesting that several of your speakers work in media — two journalists, a filmmaker, an actor. Do you find that people working in media perceive themselves as “the other,” or is it more a case of media people being sharper observers of otherness?

I think journalists and filmmakers are keen observers. And actors must also be sharp observers as they draw their characters and their stories from what they experience around them. After all, that is what actors, filmmakers, journalists are trained to be: observers. And then they do something with their observations. They put them into films, stories, roles. So it’s probably no accident that among the speakers on this subject are such professionals. I wanted these stories of how to engage otherness to be practical, to be real and to come from experiences and not from some sociological theory or construct.

Is there an inspiration or a lesson from TEDWomen that will inform your work at TEDGlobal?

Everything I heard at TEDWomen and everything I learned in the process of putting together the global gathering of women and men informs and inspires me constantly … on so many levels and in so many ways. I was surprised by how many ideas worth spreading were heard from the TEDWomen stage, and I’ve been so inspired to watch the conversations and dialogues that have been generated by some of the talks online. And I’m truly proud of the fact that there were speakers and subjects and sessions that had very little to do with being a woman or a man, but everything to do with the individual speaker’s idea or work that was somehow further strengthened or illuminated by talking about it in an environment where the narrative was focused and the community was engaged and receptive. There was a strong sense of community at TEDWomen, as there always is at TED conference, but this one was unique because the invitation was specific to a community of interests and as a result, there is a strong call to convene the community again which I hope we will be doing this year … and going forward.