TEDxBillings: ‘Out of the box’ ideas from all over the map


Liz Welch

Last year’s TEDxBillings event featured ZooMontana Director Jeff Ewalt, right, and emcee Jason Harris, the radio DJ better known as Big J.

The Rev. Michael Mulberry is passionate about food, but in ways most people most likely have never considered.

He considers food from both a political and a spiritual perspective, looking at what we do to the earth and to ourselves in the growing and the eating of it. Along the way, he talks about immigration and the prophet Daniel and Daniel’s refusal to eat “the king’s meat.” He talks about the abundance and diversity of food promised by God in Genesis, about agricultural practices, “food deserts” and victory gardens.

Fundamentally, in the United States, he said, “where we are with food is, we’ve lost our minds.”

Mulberry will share his passion, touching on all those points and more, during a day-long series of presentations that are part of this year’s TEDxBillings, which will run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. this Saturday at the Billings Studio Theater.

Nine other speakers will also give presentations, interspersed with videos of previous TED Talks. TED was founded in 1984 as a conference dedicated to the sharing of ideas in Technology, Entertainment and Design, and in 1990 the annual conferences began. TEDx refers to smaller, independently run events.

Details, details

Tickets for TEDxBillings are $75 each. You can buy tickets and find out lots more about the event by going to the TEDxBillings website.

In Billings, the TEDx is hosted by Drake Smith, a retired CIA engineer, and organized by Liz Welch. The first two TEDx talks were held at the Billings Public Library, which opened just before the first event. This year, the event will be held at Billings Studio Theater, 1500 Rimrock Rd.

“We loved being at the library,” Welch said. “It was new, it was fresh, it was a perfect match for TEDxBillings. But there were limitations to it.”

One was the lack of space. So many family members and friends of the presenters wanted to attend that there weren’t many seats left for the general public. That shouldn’t be a problem at BST, Welch said.

The other limitation was the lack of a large stage and professional light and sound, making possible the kind of theatricality that people watching the national TED Talks were accustomed to.

In a press release from TEDxBillings, this year’s presentations were described as focusing on “the shifting paradigms in a multitude of mediums—art, energy, law, interpersonal connections, community engagement—and breaking out of ‘traditional boxes.’”

For Mulberry, the senior minister at Billings First Church (United Church of Christ), breaking out of the box means thinking about food in a new way, as reflected in the title of his talk: “A New Kosher: Spiritual Practice and Our Relationship with Food.”
Mulberry said contemporary “food advocates” like Michael Pollan, the author of “In Defense of Food” and other books, write about food from a secular point of view, but end up sounding a lot like people more interested in spirituality or even kosher practices.

The Jews developed rules of kosher food preparation and consumption as a way of defining “their identity as distinct and faithful,” Mulberry said, and food advocates see benefits for both individuals and society arising from a mindfulness about food.

Mulberry has served as a missionary in Chiapas, Mexico, worked with Guatemalan refugees and was part of an emergency delegation to Oaxaca, Mexico, when a teachers strike there turned violent. He said many Latin Americans, asked what the United States could do to help them solve their most pressing problems, answer, “Change your agricultural policies.”

In Oaxaca, for instance, farmers have long grown some of the most nutritious corn in the world. But, Mulberry said, when the United States dumps corn onto the Mexican market at a price lower than it costs to produce it—in violation of World Trade Organization rules—subsistence farmers in Oaxaca are faced with a dilemma. They can stick it out and starve or try to migrate to the United States.

If they choose the latter option, they must deal with the hellish dangers of illegal immigration, and then, if they make it, the threat of arrest and deportation. In other words, Mulberry said, our immigration policies punish the victims of our agricultural policies.


This photo of the Rev. Michael Mulberry was taken during one of his mission trips to Chiapas, Mexico.

On an individual level, he said, Americans’ food habits have spawned unprecedented levels of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity and other maladies. In an era of sophisticated medical care and equipment, he said, “we’re sicker than we’ve ever been.”

Mulberry had much more to say—it’s a wonder that any of the presenters can stay within the TED limit of 18 minutes—so we can only touch on some of his suggested solutions. They include things like “meatless Mondays,” shopping at Farmers Markets and encouraging community-supported agriculture, which involves consumers buying directly from farmers.

“Food is one of the few places where you can affect the world by your individual practices,” Mulberry said.

Although TEDxBillings works with the speakers to hone their presentations, Welch said, “Most of them are already the experts in the field, so we don’t have to do a lot of grooming on that.” Mostly what they do is work on making the presentations more personal and reflective, making them something “other people can really understand from a human perspective.”

“We really try to get a wide swath of experiences to cover the entire TED platform,” Welch said.

Here’s a brief look at the other speakers and their topics:

♦ Matt Lennick, a downtown resource officer in Billings, will talk about “Innovative Community Policing.” Lennick and his associates provide law enforcement services, but also work with agencies and groups to give street people lasting help for their addictions and other problems.

♦ Kiah Abbey, a Billings native and now the Bozeman program director for Forward Montana, a youth-led organization that works to get young people involved in government, will speak on “Embracing the Millennial Voter.” She’ll talk about why older generations should welcome, not fear, millennial civic engagement.

♦ Anna Paige, a writer and photographer who has worked in marketing, public relations, brand development and digital strategy, will speak on “Living as a Pack: What Dogs Can Teach Us About Trust.” Paige is also a greyhound rescuer who will examine the question, “When you live in days but love in lifetimes, how do you say goodbye to a best friend?”

♦ Sheryle Shandy, director of the Billings Food Bank, will talk about “Food for Today … Hope for Tomorrow.” That phrase has always guided the food bank’s mission, even as it has grown from generating food for other programs to doing so much more.

♦ Ben Reed, the owner of Winpower West, a renewable-energy company in Billings, will speak on “Solar vs. Coal, the Real Battle.” He will focus on the future of energy and the accelerating process of change as humankind continues to innovate with desirable technologies, and what impact those changes might have on economic health.

♦ Charles Ringer, a kinetic steel sculptor who lives and works in Joliet, will talk about “The Natural Creative Process Through Trial and Error.” Ringer is an advocate of being creative, but he also says that in working toward some goal, you may find that the process itself is more important. One result of that approach is learning from your mistakes, finding out what’s wrong and fixing it.

♦ Dave Pauli, who has worked in the animal/wildlife protection field for decades, mostly with the Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society International, will speak on “Seeking a Humane Economy.” He believes that the best way to deal with urban wildlife conflicts is by applying a few practical and economic principles, like sustainability and cost effectiveness, to the issue.

♦ Lynda Bourque Moss, a former state senator from Billings and vice chair of the Northwest Area Foundation, will speak on “Women Build Montana.” She will talk about the legislation she sponsored that led to the creation of two murals in the state Capitol that honor Montana women—Native Americans, homesteaders, educators, laborers, women at work and at home—as community builders.

♦ Roy Pack, the founder and CEO of multiple businesses and a consultant who has helped troubled organizations with turnaround efforts, will speak on “Honoring Conflict with Consensus.” He describes that as the process of leaving behind emotional and biological attachments to situations in life that arise out of conflict.

You can read extended biographies of the speakers and descriptions of their presentations at the TEDxBillings website.

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