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Year of the Woman: Richmond’s annual TED talks bring inspirational women to Grace Street Theater

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Given the results of the recent midterm elections, if ever there was a year to focus on women who are shaking up the status quo, 2018 is it.

With a nod to the dynamic and diverse women who are pushing boundaries and rising up all over the country, Richmond's latest TED talk event, TEDxGraceStreetWomen, takes showing up as its theme.. The name, short for technology, entertainment and design, is a decades-old nonprofit started in California as a forum to bring together speakers to give talks that inspire ideas worth spreading. Richmond jumped on the train in 2013 and it's been popular.

But after five years of scheduling dozens of speakers and organizing multiday events, the all-volunteer team behind the local talks needed some time off, or at least to plan a smaller, simpler event. The result is TEDxGraceStreetWomen: Showing Up, scheduled for Dec. 8 at the Grace Street Theater, with 13 speakers and an entertainer.

Those first five years meant the organizers had developed a rich pool of women they'd flagged from previous events for possible speaker openings, making for a speedy selection process. "We wanted to highlight women doing interesting, dynamic things in their field," explains volunteer Risa Gomez. "We took a deliberate approach to diversity — content and race — to make sure all voices were represented."

It turns out the most challenging voice to represent was that of a man.

"We wanted to find a male speaker, someone who was a signal-boosting advocate for women, someone whose core business model and philosophy involved speaking out for women," Gomez explains. "We couldn't find a real, live one."

What they did find was a group of women with fascinating stories to tell. Emcee Sheila Battle, a speaker, writer and consultant came to the organizers' attention when she won an open mic night at Gallery 5 in 2016 for her Fifteen Minutes of Grace talk, a natural tie-in to the theme. "It was kind of like the planets aligned with Sheila's talk, the Grace Street Theater and that whole Grace Street corridor," Gomez says. "There's such a concentration of restaurants, shops and bakeries. We wanted to highlight what's going on there."

The range of topics covered by the speakers made it easy for the organizers to find sponsorship because, according to Gomez, companies such as Capital One, the title sponsor, see value in TED because the content is enriching the community. Attendees can look forward to a diverse array of speakers.

Community advocate Katie Amin emigrated from Jerusalem to the U.S. when she was 13, a difficult move for a young teenager. Although it took her a while to fit in, she found her passion while volunteering for a local rescue squad. After becoming a certified emergency medical technician, Amin moved into the world of firefighting, proudly wearing her hijab to her job as a firefighter at the male-dominated Enon Volunteer Fire Department.

"She's got a really great story on imagining yourself as part of the community in a way most females wouldn't normally do," Gomez says.

University of Richmond associate professor Angie Hilliker is a biologist with a special interest in the properties of yeast.She also teaches brewing science for the university's beer brewing certification program. After a centuries-old bottle of wine was discovered in the basement of the John Marshall House, Hilliker joined forces with the house and Ardent Craft Ales to extract DNA from the liquid in the bottle, reproduce the yeast and create a beer from the historic yeast.

Addressing the technology portion of the TED acronym is preservation architect Jobie Hill, who works to save slave houses by mining pertinent data. Hill dug through ex-slave narratives recorded by the Federal Writer's Project in the 1930s and examined slave dwellings to explore the influence the houses had on their inhabitants, with a four-year focus on locations in Virginia.

The speakers run from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. followed by an event along Grace Street until 5 p.m., with stops at Rappahannock, Pasture, Julep, Champion Brewing, Pop's Market and Secret Sandwich Society. "It's an opportunity for participants to interact with each other and the speakers, but also to discuss the talks," Gomez says.

For those who can't attend, viewing parties are encouraged. Several have already been planned, including at the American Civil Liberties Union, the Women's Business Network and Parlor Salon, although anyone can hold one. Details are on the website.

"We want it to be an inspirational day that maybe offers an aha moment where you learn something or are exposed to something new that encourages you to dig deeper," Gomez says. "It's the process and learning that's the valuable element of it."

"TEDxGraceStreetWomen: Showing Up" is held Dec. 8 starting at 9 a.m. at Grace Street Theater, 934 W. Grace St. tedxgracestreetwomen.com.

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