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UMass Boston holds inaugural non-profits TEDxBoston

Chancellor Marcelo Suárez-Orozco and UMass Boston alum and entrepreneur Paul English chat on stage during the TEDx Boston at UMass Boston. Photo submitted by Valentina Valderrama Pérez / Mass Media Staff.

On Jan. 8, UMass Boston hosted TEDxBoston, welcoming 16 different non-profit leaders from the Commonwealth and beyond. Participants narrated how their life path took them from some of the darkest places to becoming leaders of some of the most groundbreaking organizations to date.

The event was produced by John Werner, TEDxBoston license owner, who served as the event’s host. Vice Chancellors for University Advancement Adam Wise and Allison Duffy collaborated closely orchestrating the event. Entrance to the event was free to lower the barrier of entry.

UMass Boston, as one of the most diverse universities in the nation, was an ideal stage for diverse non-profit leaders who are tackling today’s biggest issues. Furthermore, the event attracted a multifaceted audience with members of all ages. Thus, Werner continuously
encouraged attendees to “cross-pollinate,” meet one another and strengthen the wonderful non-profit network in the process.

“We want this event here at UMass Boston to be known as the place to meet the latest and greatest inspiring nonprofits,” Werner said.

Entrepreneur and UMass Boston alum Paul English—who had the original idea for TEDxBoston to take place at UMass Boston—was later asked about the most effective methods of promoting the nonprofit community to continue to see growth and success.

“Promotion of nonprofits begins with storytelling starting from the caretakers who are doing the one-on-one work with those in need, using stories to bring others into their support network,” he said. “I call this ‘friendraising.’ The nonprofit leader should then use their original friend circle to continue the storytelling, to bring in friends of friends. It is critical that the nonprofit shows people the actual work, as when people see the actual work—and meet the actual people being helped—they can then visualize how they might be able to help as a volunteer and/or funder.”

English was also asked about the inspiration behind him organizing this event.

“Helping alleviate suffering in other humans is the most noble act we can do, and it nourishes my soul each time I help someone,” he said. “I’ve always been a fan of the TED conference, and even spoke at TEDxBoston in 2021. A few months ago, I was clicking through TED videos on YouTube, and the idea popped into my head of taking over TEDxBoston for a day to highlight some incredible nonprofit leaders from Boston and beyond.”

English, a founder of several companies including travel search website Kayak, was among the first to take the stage. He discussed his personal journey with bipolar disorder and how this led him to create the Bipolar Social Club, an online platform where people in the bipolar disorder spectrum can support each other.

The first block also included Founder and President of Humanity Rises Kel Kelly, CEO of Silver Lining Mentoring Colby Swettberg, and Founder and Executive Director of the Pan-Mass Challenge Billy Starr.

“Don’t be afraid to start, and don’t be afraid to fail,” Starr said when asked for advice on starting a nonprofit. “You’re young; you can afford to fail—you’ll learn more from failure than anything else.”

The event continued at the hands of Geralde Gabeau. Her journey to non-profit work began after she migrated from Haiti and noticed the need for more navigable social, educational, economic and health systems for new migrants in the United States. This made her develop the Immigrant Families Services Institute, a place where migrants can find guidance to access all kinds of aid, from legal to healthcare.

When given the chance to ask Gabeau how UMass Boston students can get involved in her program, she said they are currently “looking for an army of volunteers of students who can come and teach [their] new immigrants the language of English and help them fill out forms.”

Gabeau also gave advice for first generation and international students at UMass Boston.

“Never lose hope, because hope is all that you have,” she said.

The next block of talks included Executive Director of Embrace Boston Imari Paris Jeffries, Executive Director of La Colaborativa Gladys Vega and Director of Give Directly Paul Niehaus.

Jefferies, also a UMass Boston alum, spoke about the passion for creating monuments of hope and love, with its success rooted in asking communities how they want to celebrate certain monuments. Jefferies also took the chance to credit Paul English for his philanthropy and the effect it had in propelling the Boston Common monument, titled “The Embrace,” into existence, which honors Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King.

Recalling the moment the statue was unveiled, Jefferies said he cried on stage, as the moment felt like “a relief.” The statue represents not only the love of the Kings, but also the embracing of loved ones after traumatic moments like the COVID-19 pandemic, which restricted people from any close contact with many loved ones.

The stage continued to welcome President of Bridge Over Troubled Waters Elizabeth Jackson, President of Boston HealthCare for the Homeless Jim O’Connell, CEO and Founding Partner of the My City At Peace division of Parcel P3 Reverend Jeff Brown, as well as Co-Founder and CEO of Sanku-Project Healthy Children Felix Brooks-Church.

The last block of the event began with Paul English interviewing UMass Boston Chancellor Marcelo Suárez-Orozco. Chancellor Suárez-Orozco was able to discuss the significance that nonprofits have in shaping communities. He noted that, given the turmoil societies are facing around the world, “democracy needs to be nurtured and NGOs are the vertebra of a society that is moving towards correcting the tremendous inequalities we are facing today.”

He also highlighted the need for empathy.

“First we need to listen,” he said. “We need the empathic gymnastics that puts us in the shoes of others […] to manage a world that is going to throw tremendous challenges to us now and moving forward.” Suárez-Orozco also reiterated the importance of UMass Boston’s existence as the only public research university in the greater Boston area.

To conclude the event, the audience welcomed President of NamaStay Sober Nicoletta Longo, President of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts Rahsaan D. Hall, and CEO of Root Capital Willy Foote. Hall explained the work non-profits must take on moving forward.

“We’ve got to move away from those deficit-based narratives […] and move towards an asset-based approach that has a critical examination of the relationship between race and class,” he said.

TEDxBoston’s website states that recordings of the talks will soon be available online. [1]


[1] https://tedxboston.com/portfolio/umass-january-2024/

About the Contributor
Valentina Valderrama Pérez, Features Writer