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TEDxBigSky 2020: The power of talk and action

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The 2020 TEDx Big Sky speakers, Outlaw team members, and community members pose for a photo at the conclusion of the event on Jan. 25. PHOTO BY JENNINGS BARMORE


BIG SKY – Whitney Petty strummed a chord on her guitar while Molly Sides lightened the mood with a few jokes that paired well with her technicolored suit. Sides and Petty are the founding members of the Seattle based all-female rock n’ roll band Thunderpussy, and were the final speakers of the TEDxBigSky speaker series that took place last Saturday, Jan. 25.

If you were in the audience of the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center five minutes prior, the mood was a bit heavier, but that’s the power of “Connection,” the theme of this year’s fourth-annual event put on by Outlaw Partners, publishers of this newspaper, featuring 10 passionate talks by those looking to connect and spread their truth.

“If I threw a piece of string out to one of you tonight who I know really well, it wouldn’t take long for us to work that piece of string around the room, because we’re all connected,” said Outlaw Partners CEO and Founder Eric Ladd—also the publisher of this newspaper—motivating listeners with a powerful call to action, which he says is an essential follow-up to events like TEDxBigSky. “We could create this big, beautiful, powerful web, but let’s do something with it.”

“Dammed to Extinction” Director Michael Peterson (left) and Writer Steven Hawley (right) present at the 2020 TEDx Big Sky conference on Jan. 25. PHOTO BY JENNINGS BARMORE

Outlaw Partners Media and Events Director Ersin Ozer, who introduced each speaker throughout the night, emphasized the importance that TEDxBigSky maintain a larger impact beyond the local stage. 

“At Outlaw we tell stories … but this event is bigger than Outlaw,” Ozer said. “Our company was founded on the Code of the West, and      a couple credos      stand out: ‘Always finish what you start     ’ because our job is not done; ‘When you make a promise keep it     ’ because everyone in the audience made a promise to take action; and ‘Do what has to be done     ’ because we all have an opportunity to help, so why not?

“While people are still inspired from the event, I encourage everyone to pick one speaker that they feel a connection with and take action to help them with their cause,” Ozer added.

Speakers included Kate Atwood, founder of Kate’s Club, the Atlanta, Georgia-based nonprofit that supports children through the grieving process after loss; Chris Adams whose positive life view (and obsession with Pearl Jam) has helped him share his story about living with Crohn’s Disease; Steven Hawley and Michael Peterson spoke of their recent project, “Dammed to Extinction,” a film that screened at Lone Peak Cinema the previous night and highlights the effects plummeting salmon populations have on Orca whales.

Christine Baker encouraged us to “speak our truth” in order to spread compassion; Bobby Gill, talked about his work with the Savory Institute and their efforts to regenerate the world’s grasslands through holistic management; and Riley Becker, a young advocate whose passion for climate change was sparked after counting the steps it took to reach the Mer De Glace glacier in Chamonix, France, only to find that they had increased upon a later visit.

“Every new experience you have in life you’re probably underqualified for,” said speaker Bob Hall, who kicked off the second half of the series with a theme adopted by his late father, whose words “You’ve got this” served as a driving force in his life. “That’s a liberating thing,” he added, “that you don’t have much to lose.”

Amanda Stevens speaking about her husband’s battle with ALS, and the steps in getting people affected necessary, ground-breaking treatment. PHOTO BY JENNINGS BARMORE

Hall was instrumental in securing funding for the new Big Sky Community Center, an accomplishment in good company on his lengthy resume. He spoke of life’s “second mountain” – the concept, based on David Brooks’ eponymous bestseller, that after securing our own stability and success, and in order to lead the most fulfilling life, your ambitions should involve helping others.

Following Hall was Olympic skier Bode Miller with a talk on the power of emotion, and Amanda Stevens, who spoke on behalf of her husband Eric Stevens who was diagnosed with ALS last August at the age of 29. Together, they are raising awareness about the effects a tedious bureaucratic process has on patients fighting terminal illness.

In the audience, a woman in the second row pulled out a full-size box of tissues. “I took this from the hotel room,” she said, offering them to her surrounding seatmates. “I heard we might need them tonight.” By the time Amanda Stevens finished her talk, the tissues were spent.

ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s, is a motor neuron disease that robs the body of its ability to function. More than 30,000 Americans die of ALS annually and a patient’s life expectancy is just 2-5 years. Although it was diagnosed 150 years ago, only two treatment options exist and they do nothing substantial for the quality of life of the patient as they slowly revert to a state hauntingly described as a “glass coffin.”

NurOwn, a treatment produced by a small biotech company in Israel called Brainstorm Cell Therapeutics, has been shown to slow, stop and even reverse symptoms of ALS for the first time in history. Although it passed phases 1 and 2 of testing, it has been stuck for more than 10 years in the FDA trial process. This means a life-changing treatment for ALS, a fatal disease, is on the same pathways as acne and migraine medication, Stevens said. Each day without treatment is a day lost, a frustrating predicament you can hear in Stevens’ voice as she addressed the audience.

“At what point does the scientific method surpass human compassion, decency and common sense?” Stevens asked. She paused, taking deep, steading breaths and fighting back tears. “If we allow people to die while waiting on science, then we have failed as human beings to help those facing an unimaginable hell.”

Amanda and Eric are traveling to Washington, D.C. to advocate for ALS patients across the country.

“We have a term at the fire department that says ‘You risk a lot, to save a lot,’” Stevens said, speaking on behalf of her husband. “I think the FDA needs that same approach. People are dying, and there is treatment showing promising results. You have to risk a little bit more to give these people a chance.”

The 2020 TEDx Big Sky speakers, Outlaw team members, and community members pose for a photo at the conclusion of the event on Jan. 25. PHOTO BY JENNINGS BARMORE

Between speakers, audience members were already living up to the night’s theme, making connections of their own. “I saw you guys in Copenhagen over a decade ago,” said one man frantically, reaching two rows down to shake the hand of Peal Jam guitarist Mike McCready, who was featured in Adams’ talk earlier in the night. “Your music changed my life.”

Being one of 280 learning about grief, the extinction of animals, chronic diseases and climate change, you can feel a bit underqualified to do much about it, which, as we learned from Hall, is how we’re supposed to feel when we’re taking on something new.

Maybe the most powerful thing we can do to keep the momentum going is talk about these amazing moments, encourage action and ensure that this event impacts lives beyond the stage.

“It’s going to happen from this room,” Ladd said. “It’s good place for it to happen – we’re at the top of mountains, we’re at the headwaters of streams—let’s do it.”

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