2012-11-09 / People

Cape man reaches others through Internet phenomenon

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

Adam Burk Adam Burk Nearly 30 years ago, a few smart people came together in California to talk about three topics they felt were shaping the future of the world: technology, entertainment and design.

Now, TED talks have become a worldwide cultural phenomenon. A new talk is posted each day that features someone who speaks on any topic under the umbrella of “Ideas worth spreading.”

Almost a billion people have viewed those online talks since the videos starting going up on the web in 2006. The list of TED speakers includes former President Bill Clinton and late Apple CEO Steve Jobs. The most viewed TED video, Sir Ken Robinson’s talk on how to reform education, has been watched more than 13 million times.

Cape Elizabeth resident Adam Burk discovered TED talks as many others discover them. A friend showed him a video on the web. Now, Burk is the executive director of TEDxDirigo, a statewide organization that puts together TED-style events in Maine.

TEDx organizations are located in communities across the world and they all follow a similar format, but Burk said within that framework there is room for local organizations to put their own spin on the brand.

The idea, Burk said, is to galvanize people and get them talking about ways to effect change on a local level.

“It’s fantastic for starting a conversation. It’s a really potent form of storytelling. It gets people energized and connected to information that’s hard to do otherwise,” Burk said.

TEDxDirigo began in 2010, when two separate ad hoc groups, one located in Brunswick and one in Portland, were both inspired to bring the ideas of TED to the state level. Both approached Russell Libby, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.

Libby told each group the other existed, and the organizations came together to merge and form TEDxDirigo. Since then, the organization has worked to set up talks from forward-thinking Mainers on a wide variety of topics at its annual fall event. TEDxDirigo also organizes smaller events throughout the year, such as viewing parties of TED conferences from around the world.

Burk said there are no restrictions on the topics speakers can tackle at a TEDxDirigo event. All the submissions, through the web page, live tryouts, or from the staff’s “short list” are considered, but only about 16 speakers can be chosen for an event out of 200 topic pitches. The starting point, he said, is whether the talk is emotionally moving in some way.

“There’s always the personal story, that’s your truth. You overcame something serious and hard core and you own that. That’s the universal and human element,” Burk said.

That element of shared inspiration is what has propelled TED from a oneoff event in 1984 to a global institution that has hosted events in Edinburgh, Scotland and Doha, Qatar.

But Burk said the TEDxDirigo team has to consider another element before it can pencil a speaker in, something he calls the “rigor component,” which is especially important in science or industry-based talks.

“Lots of people can pitch an idea that sounds good,” Burk said, “But does it stand up to what we know is viable or scientifically true?”

TEDxDirigo’s most recent annual event, “Villages,” was held at Bates College in Lewiston last month. The speakers discussed how people interact in a common space, and how the concept of villages will evolve in a society that has put an emphasis on “buy local” and “grow local” efforts, while simultaneously becoming more globally interconnected.

Burk said the event was TEDxDirigo’s most successful to date, and he hopes to have videos from all the speakers available online by Thanksgiving.

Burk is originally from New Jersey, but said he most enjoyed life while visiting his grandfather in Fairfield to fly fish and hike. So 10 years ago he moved to Denmark, became a Maine Guide, did some carpentry, and “put life together as we do as Mainers.”

Although TEDx organizations in every community follow a certain framework, Burk said the diversity of ideas and quality of character in Maine has made it a place where TEDx can thrive.

“There’s a celebration of humanity that happens and that’s one of the things we all love about Maine. People are commonly kind to one another and there’s a quality of ingenuity, thoughtfulness and kindness no matter what the field is,” he said.

Now, Burk is hoping to widen the reach of those ideas. He and TEDxDirigo cofounder Michael Gilroy created the Treehouse Institute, a nonprofit that will try to provide avenues for people to answer the “what’s next” question many are left with after the annual conference. TEDxDirigo speakers are unpaid, and to date all the money raised from the $100 ticket price has been put back into the organization. Now, Burk and Gilroy’s positions with the Treehouse Institute will be fulltime.

Burk also hopes to bring the TED phenomenon to Maine’s young people. Cape Elizabeth High School juniors and seniors will forego classes for a day on Friday, Dec. 7 to host a variety of speakers in a TEDxYouth event. Burk said Biddeford High School senior Elise Oliver is organizing an effort to put together a similar event in Biddeford in April.

For more information and to view speakers from TEDxDirigo events in the past, visit tedxdirigo.com.

Return to top