TEDx speakers advocate for innovation, connections


Anna Paige

At a TEDxMSU Billings presentation, band leader John Roberts, center, talked about the importance of giving young music students as many tools as possible to learn their craft.

Hip hop artist Supaman (Christian Parrish) began TEDxMSU Billings by asking audience members to turn to their neighbors, shake hands and connect.

That quest for connection was threaded throughout Montana State University Billings’ first organized TEDx event, held Saturday on campus and featuring 11 speakers from Billings and the surrounding area.

Speakers, selected by committee, were asked to make presentations on the theme of “Innovation in Action.” Though talks varied from music to math to the medical field and more, each propelled the concept of community and the mission of TED, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ideas worth spreading. TEDx events are self-organized, combining live speakers and TEDTalks videos to spark deep discussion and connection.

Amanda Green, TEDx organizer and a graduate of MSU Billings, said the event included a mix of speakers, music and performers in order to offer a robust look at innovation.

“There is innovation all around us in everything we do and listen to,” Green said. “I wanted performers who could show culture and innovation. They too have those stories to tell.”

Green applied for and received the TEDx license while working for the university.

“We are a university that is supposed to inspire the next generation of the workforce,” Green said. “What better way than to provide an avenue for experts to come and talk about what they do and why they do it.”

Speakers included students, doctors, artists, a yoga instructor, musicians, nonprofit leaders and community innovators.

Eric Halverson, chief operating officer for development at the Center for Children and Families, told the audience, “I am not an expert.” Halverson said he learned humility when he recognized the giants that came before him in his field and the astronomers who taught him to sit back in awe.

“When you look into the darkness of the many issues our society faces, and you feel discouraged about how seemingly intractable those issues are, I encourage you to stand on the shoulders of these scientific giants and enjoy the view,” Halverson said.

This led Halverson to address the challenges his field presents from a foundation of knowledge from others, and to develop a competitive advantage by harnessing the wonderment he feels when looking up at the night sky—the same feeling many parents feel when they look down at their children.


Anna Paige

Dr. Eric Arzubi talked about what he said was a mental health crisis in Billings.

Dr. Eric Arzubi, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Billings Clinic, discussed his transition from bond trader to physician. He found his calling helping children in states of crisis.

“We are at the epicenter of a mental health crisis here in Billings, Montana,” Arzubi said, before listing the patient intake numbers at Billings Clinic’s psychiatric unit: 160 adults and 80 children in the past 30 days. If the clinic had more beds, the number would probably be higher, he said.

“I have some families that drive six hours to see me,” Arzubi said. “Because of our geography, they don’t have the services they need. And a lot of those children end up on a lot of medication. It’s sad, and it feels helpless.”

Yet, Arzubi found his power in innovations outside the traditional prescriptions.

“We have incredible tools in our toolbox already. We just need to be open to looking at what’s available, engaging our teams, and not hoping that there will be a magic pill out there,” he said.

MSU Billings student David Fredrickson, speaking on addiction as it relates to trauma, also referenced the lack of a miracle pill.

“The traditional treatment is where we end up,” he said. “In order to break the cycle, we have to understand the cycle.”

Fredrickson advocated treating the whole family in cases of domestic abuse related to drug or alcohol addiction, while also advocating being a voice for your passions. “Get out and disseminate information to your peers, even if that comes in the form of picking up your trombone and sharing your soul.”

Trombonist, bandleader, session player and composer John Roberts, who spoke about the influence of Africa in all forms of music, brought a collection of musicians with him to perform. The group, called John Roberts Y Pan Blanco, played a funky mix of West African beats and classic salsa.

“Why can a bunch of boys from Montana be playing African music?” Roberts asked. “Because we have been playing it our whole lives.” African music is heard in metal, rock and roll, the blues and jazz—even classical, Roberts said.

Roberts advocated for every possible tool to be used by music students to be successful in the competitive world.

“Especially with YouTube, students can hear everything at all times,” he said. “There is no reason to separate these styles, and they should all be taught with equal style and worth.”

While technology was praised, it also elicited some calls for caution. Business communication consultant Nikki Schaubel centered her talk, “The Power of Connection,” on technology disconnecting us from relationships.

“We think that technology is the be-all, end-all, and it is tearing us apart from what actually makes us feel connected, which are close personal relationships,” Schaubel said. “When your phone is in front of your face, that is the relationship you are building, and even when you don’t mean to, that is what is happening.”


Anna Paige

Erika Willis spoke last, touching on the subject of personal accountability.

Erika Willis, who heads up the market development team at Elation, a Billings-based business that helps organizations transform work by investing in employee engagement, closed the event with a talk on personal accountability.

At 17, Willis found herself transformed from carefree teenager to teenage mom.

“Everything I thought about myself had been stripped away,” she said. “I was not the cheerleader. I wasn’t the athlete. I wasn’t the life of every party anymore. I had no idea who I was.”

Willis detailed a moment in high school, three weeks after finding out she was pregnant, where she felt an incredible sense of judgment.

“The judgment I thought I was feeling from all these people was not about these people,” Willis said. “The judgment I was feeling was my own. In that moment I had the most beautiful feeling of gratitude and forgiveness that I’ve ever had. I understood that this was my moment. I got to choose how I wanted the rest of my live to go. No one else was going to save me. That’s the moment that I found my freedom to create.”

Willis acknowledged that self-accountability is not the most popular thing to talk about.

“It’s very personal, and it’s individual and it’s messy,” she said. “And yet it’s the thing that we need to do to create. There are lots of tiny moments in every day to move into accountability.”

The TEDxMSUB planning committee will need to decide whether it will reapply for the license, Green said, but the goal is to have another one on campus with increased student involvement.

For more details on TEDxMSUB, visit www.tedxmsubillings.com, and watch for TEDxBillings, returning to the Billings Public Library in January 2016.

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