Truth Tellers: Notes from Session 1 of TEDWomen 2019

Author and playwright Eve Ensler discusses the power of apologies — and the four crucial components of a sincere one. She speaks at TEDWomen 2019: Bold + Brilliant, on December 4, 2019 in Palm Springs, California. (Photo: Marla Aufmuth / TED)

The stage is set for TEDWomen 2019: Bold + Brilliant! In the opening session, we heard from an extraordinary lineup of truth tellers: six speakers and two performers who shined a light on issues that matter — from immigration and abuse to leadership and how we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all — and shared new ways to look at old problems.

The event: TEDWomen 2019, Session 1: Truth Tellers, hosted by Pat Mitchell, Helen Walters and Kelly Stoetzel

When and where: Wednesday, December 4, 2019, 5pm PT, at La Quinta Resort & Club in La Quinta, California

Speakers: H.E. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Sister Norma Pimentel, Yifat Susskind, Gina Brillon, Heather C. McGhee, Eve Ensler

Opening: Reid D. Milanovich, vice chairman of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, welcomes TEDWomen attendees to the Cahuilla Valley, which has been his tribe’s ancestral homeland for thousands of years.

The talks in brief:

“I was the first woman president of an African nation, and I do believe more countries ought to try that,” says H.E. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She speaks at TEDWomen 2019: Bold + Brilliant, on December 4, 2019 in Palm Springs, California. (Photo: Marla Aufmuth / TED)

H.E. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Nobel laureate, former President of Liberia

Big idea: A nation needs women leaders to prosper. We must work together to remove the barriers that have kept them from achieving full equality and political representation.

How? When H.E. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf began her 12-year presidency of Liberia in 2006, she inherited the challenges of a post-conflict country: economic collapse, infrastructure destruction, institutional dysfunction. But most challenging of all was the damage women and children endured during the civil war, she says. Since then, she’s helped steward economic growth and the reconstruction of the nation’s infrastructure — but there’s still work to be done. On the TEDWomen stage, she announces the recent launch of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development, aimed at elevating women into strategic government positions — and breaking through the structural barriers that let inequality thrive. Only by working towards full gender equity can we ensure peace and prosperity for all, she says.

Quote of the talk: “I was the first woman president of an African nation, and I do believe more countries ought to try that.”


Sister Norma Pimentel, religious leader, sister with the Missionaries of Jesus, licensed professional counselor

Big idea: We must see that the immigrants detained at the border are part of the same human family as the rest of us. If not, we stand to lose our own humanity.

Why? In her work at detention facilities at the US-Mexico border, Sister Norma Pimentel has learned that the people there simply want what all of us want: safer, better lives for themselves and their families. While the humanitarian response has been impressive and many dedicated volunteers are helping out, the overall policies and procedures we have in place are causing great suffering — particularly for separated children and parents. We need to put aside our prejudices and and fears and treat migrants in ways that are respectful and compassionate.

Quote of the talk: “It’s important to be able to see [immigrants and refugees] as people, to be able to have a personal encounter when we can feel what they feel, when we can understand what they’re hurting. … It is then that we are present to them and we can make their humanity a part of our own humanity.”


Yifat Susskind, human rights activist

Big idea: In a time global strife and uncertainty, we can secure a brighter future by “thinking like a mother” — with optimism and empathy.

Why? When you think like a mother, you imagine better worlds and act to make them possible, says Yifat Susskind. Why? Because mothers are versed in a vital language: the language of love. When love drives how we act within our communities, we become empowered to repair the world and protect those in need of help. Empathy and optimism are powerful tools, she says, both in our private lives and across public policy. By thinking like mothers and acting with love, we can prioritize the most vulnerable and forge a luminous, resilient path forward.

Quote of the talk: “Love isn’t just an emotion, it’s a capacity. A verb. An endlessly renewable resource.”


A comedic interlude: Comedian Gina Brillon commanded the stage with an uproarious stand-up performance, poking fun at the lighter woes of womanhood and everyday interactions that make you think twice. For instance, she posed this winning question: “Have you ever had somebody say something wrong with such confidence that it made you question how you’ve been saying it your whole life?”


Writer and advocate Heather C. McGhee explores how racism leads to bad policymaking — and hurts the economic potential of everybody. She speaks at TEDWomen 2019: Bold + Brilliant, on December 4, 2019 in Palm Springs, California. (Photo: Marla Aufmuth / TED)

Heather C. McGhee, writer, advocate

Big idea: Racism is bad for everyone — even the people set up to benefit from privilege.

Why? Heather C. McGhee is a self-proclaimed “public policy wonk.” She investigates problems in the American economy: rising household debt, declining wages, shortfalls in infrastructure investments. Through her research and travels across the US, she’s come to a chilling conclusion: racism is making our economy worse, and not just in ways that disadvantage people of color. “It turns out it’s not a zero sum,” she says. “Racism is bad for white people too.” Take, for example, the subprime mortgages that precipitated the 2008 recession. African Americans and Latinos were three times as likely as white people to be sold these toxic loans, even if their credit was as good. But stereotypes blinded many policymakers to this reality, keeping them from stopping the crisis when we still had time. Now, McGhee says the way forward is to hold accountable the people selling racist ideas for profit — and start recognizing that we’re all on the same time.

Quote of the talk: “It’s time to reject that old paradigm and realize that our fates are linked. An injury to one is an injury to all.”


Disability is the spark for artistry, aesthetic and innovation, says choreographer Alice Sheppard. She performs with her collaborator Laurel Lawson perform at at TEDWomen 2019: Bold + Brilliant, on December 4, 2019 in Palm Springs, California. (Photo: Stacie McChesney / TED)

A special performance: Artistic director Alice Sheppard speaks about the work at her dance company Kinetic Light, which creates movement that challenges conventional understandings of disabled and dancing bodies. As she puts it: disability is the spark for artistry, aesthetic and innovation. She’s joined onstage by her choreographic collaborator Laurel Lawson, creating a stunning performance highlighting the movement of the dancers’ wheelchairs.


Eve Ensler, author, playwright

Big idea: After calling abusers out, we have to call them in. We need to invite them to take responsibility for their actions, to apologize and change. 

How? As a young child, Eve Ensler was sexually abused by her father, an experience that haunted her throughout her life. Thirty-one years after his death, she sat down to write the apology he never gave her —  expressing, in his own words, what she always needed to hear. Now, in the wake of the Me Too and Times Up movements, she shares the incredible power of apologies and how they could offer us a way forward. It boils down to four crucial parts: 1) Admit your wrongdoing in detail, 2) Ask yourself why you did it, 3) Sit with the suffering and hurt you’ve caused, and 4) Take responsibility and make amends. An apology, she says, is the only way for both the victim and the abuser to be free. Let’s create a better process that invites abusers to repent and become someone different along the way.

Quote of the talk: “We don’t want men to be destroyed, we don’t want them to only be punished. We want them to see us, the victims that they have harmed, and we want them to repent and change.”

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