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TEDxCUNY challenges borders and promotes belonging

The TEDxCUNY conference returned to the Tribeca Performing Arts Center on Nov. 20 and examined borders dividing and uniting people.

Speakers shared personal stories of barriers they experienced in their lives. Physical borders of walls and immigration policies along with racism and bigotry were a few topics brought up.

“There couldn’t be a timelier theme,” Ann Kirschner, dean of Macaulay Honors College at CUNY, said.

Speakers were people like CUNY students to a firefighter and even Jorge Ramos, a journalist for Univision and Fusion.

Cheyn Shah, a senior at Queens College, helped organize the conference. He felt pleased with the speakers’ ability to share their experiences.

“We think they’ve done wonderful work and they really brought themselves 100 percent to the talks that they gave,” Shah said.

Shah expressed concern with problems in CUNY, and said these conferences would help bring a diverse group of individuals together.

“I think that CUNY has a community problem and there is a lack of student involvement,” Shah said. “But these conferences bring together people from all over to get involved and, even though I am graduating, I hope this lives beyond me.”

Each speaker criticized not only physical borders like walls and prison bars, but also political and social borders causing divisions between cultures.

Sean DesVignes, a poet and Brooklyn College student, spoke about the power of music and poetry when bringing people and ideas together.

“Music can happen when change doesn’t, and beyond these borders we are influencing each other,” DesVignes said.

Aashna Shah, a senior at Macaulay Honors College and a winner of the Student Speaker Competition, brought up difficulties undocumented immigrants face in the U.S.

“The life of an undocumented immigrant is more challenging that simply crossing the border makes life unbearable and no aspect of our lives is guaranteed,” Aashna Shah said.

Jess X Chen, an artist, filmmaker and activist, criticized U.S. immigration policies and its culture of racism.

“We are made invisible by a hetero-normative, white-supremacist and xenophobic culture. We refuse to be silent. We are radical activists dedicating our lives to creating a free world for future generations,” Chen said.

In addition, the conference highlighted the adversity many overcome to achieve their dreams.

Jason Ramos, a firefighter, is someone often found in big wildfires across the country. He talked about his job and how he helps firefighters by refusing to let others doubt his own capabilities.

“It’s all about making a difference. A lot of people point out that I don’t have a degree in engineering and I tell them they’re right,” Ramos said. “But I have a degree in passion and a lot of people don’t have that.”

Cheyn Shah feels optimistic about TEDxCUNY’s future and hopes it grows in the future.

“I want to see it get bigger. I still want to highlight CUNY students and faculty and I still want to emphasize the diversity and inclusiveness. But I want to see higher-profile speakers and just grow across CUNY and the world,” Shah said.

Phil Vallone

Phil is a junior majoring in Political Science and minoring in Journalism. He is also a Marine Corps veteran who served in Afghanistan in 2013. He covers events and activism at CUNY. After graduating, he plans to cover politics and activism around the world. You can follow him on Twitter @philvallone or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/journophil. Contact him at philvallo[at]theknightnews.com

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