Tag Archives: TEDxOmaha

Strawberry-Blue Olive’s Excellent Adventure

February 14, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Strawberry-Blue Olive believes in the power of “ideas worth spreading. This heartfelt belief in the TED tagline—plus her love of innovation, creativity, and community—made her an apt fit to carry the mantle of TEDxOmaha when original license holder Brian Smith stepped away after 2017. 

If you’ve never “met” TED, it’s a nonprofit aiming to spread knowledge and ideas, most notably in the form of TED talks (mini-lectures clocking in at 18 minutes or less) and conferences. TED began as a 1984 conference co-mingling topics of technology, entertainment, and design, but it has evolved into a sprawling network of projects and communities worldwide. The TED mission is ambitious yet simple: to build “a clearinghouse of free knowledge from the world’s most inspired thinkers—and a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other.” TEDx events, which launched in 2009, are held locally in communities worldwide.     

“Giving a TED speech is unlike anything else. It’s not a motivational talk, not a conference speech, not a keynote speech. It’s something very different. It’s very prestigious and life-changing for people who deliver them,” says Olive, the executive producer and license-holder for TEDxOmaha. “[The aim] is to elevate what’s great within the community, because the [speakers] will inspire the audience to go and do great things themselves or to reach back to us and with their own idea worth spreading.”

Olive, who has a background in business, organizational leadership, and education, hails from the United Kingdom and spent 11 years working in Germany prior to moving to Omaha five years ago with her husband, Al Cagle, when his role in the U.S. Air Force transitioned to an Omaha-based job. The pair originally met at a Harley-Davidson rally in Norway. 

Olive says because she’d attended TED events elsewhere, she immediately looked into TED’s Omaha presence as a way to tap into the community. She later joined the effort as a volunteer. When Smith announced his departure, she stepped in to ensure TEDxOmaha would continue.

“I said to the team, ‘We cannot let Brian’s legacy go. We owe it to the community to continue this,’” says Olive, whose first order of business after securing the license was reaching out to all past volunteers and partners to gauge their needs, glean their knowledge, and understand how/if they’d like to be engaged in the future. “That’s something that’s never scared me—taking things over and setting up from scratch. As I’ve moved countries and changed careers, each time I’ve been thrown into an area I’m unfamiliar with, I have had to hit the ground running at top speed. So, that’s never phased me.”

While there are thousands of TEDx events around the globe, Olive says the Omaha area is particularly rich with them. 

“We have TEDxLincoln, TEDxOmaha, TEDxUNO, and TEDxCreighton,” she says. “A lot of communities don’t have the richness and diversity of ideas within their own community [to support multiple TEDx events]. We do.”

In addition to the main TEDx events, Olive says Omaha also has TEDxSalons and TEDxAdventures throughout the year to help “keep the momentum, ideas, and engagement going” year-round. Salons are held the third Monday monthly at KANEKO and Adventures occur throughout the community—everywhere from Kugler Vision to Joslyn Castle.   

One important challenge that Olive strives to address is achieving inclusivity. To her, that means creating community-wide awareness of TEDx events and ensuring a multitude of perspectives are at the table.

“Our vision is to promote positive interaction through the sharing of ideas,” Olive says. “Beyond providing events, our focus is to be of the community—to engage with others, participate, and collaborate within our community. So, if we are truly of the community, then we must work to be inclusive.”

Informed by her interest in education, and in an effort to include young people, TED-Ed is another program Olive would like to bring to Omaha in the coming years. TED-Ed is TED’s youth and education initiative, which brings the TED model into schools.

But for now, Olive and her “fabulous” team of volunteer leaders are busy planning TEDxOmaha’s 10th anniversary in 2019, which ultimately means choosing a theme and format, auditioning and coaching speakers, marketing the event, coordinating with partners, tackling logistics, and more.

Olive says they want to create “something special” to honor the decade milestone. Her other hope for TEDxOmaha’s future is to see the conversations sparked at the main event gain traction and create change within the community.

“We want to use the talks as a platform to start more conversations. I’m hoping we can build momentum around these conversations so they can take on a life of their own,” Olive says. “We have to explore where the synergy is in the community and how we can facilitate conversations to help the speakers elevate their ideas and bring in others to further discuss and move these ideas forward. And it doesn’t have to belong to [TEDxOmaha] all the way through, but if we can be the catalyst to start these conversations, that’s fantastic.”

Visit tedxomaha.com for more information.

This article was printed in the March/April 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Strawberry-Blue Olive

Strawberry-Blue Olive

Stranger in a Strange Land

December 30, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Growing up in London, Stuart Chittenden found himself a bit obsessed with America: its historical complexities, its social turmoil, its pioneering spirit, its glitz and glamor. He read tons of American authors, luxuriating in the majesty of the open road as portrayed in works like John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. He watched Taxi and Mash.

Eventually, Chittenden moved to Omaha, married an American woman (fashion writer Amy Chittenden), and landed probably the most interesting job title ever: chief curiosity officer for David Day Associates. He’s a perennial TEDxOmaha presenter and something of a conversation artist. His consultancy, Squishtalks, offers conversation-based workshops for businesses, organizations, and individuals.

Chittenden’s recent project, “a couple of 830 mile long conversations,” marks his most significant offering to the cultural fabric of our state (so far).

“a couple of 830 mile long conversations” traverses the state’s vast geography to explore the ways in which landscape—physical, historical—informs a sense of community. The effort, one that received funding from Humanities Nebraska/Nebraska Cultural Endowment, Omaha Creative Institute, and several individuals, is part field recording, part personal quest to understand an unfamiliar place.

Last summer, Chittenden packed some pricey mobile audio-recording equipment—on loan from Clete Baker of Studio B—into an aging R.V. and rambled west down highways and gravel roads seeking to capture a representative sample of the voice of Nebraska as it exists in the moment.

By recording unscripted, spontaneous conversations in public (libraries, cafes, sidewalks) he began to discover the feeling of life in Gordon, Chadron, Norfolk, Alliance, Broken Bow, and other places formerly alien to him.    

“I had a sense of what Nebraska could be,” he says. “I’d seen photographs. I’d heard people describe their experiences growing up in smaller towns. I expected to be surprised by some of the beauty in different places, and maybe to find some places to be a little drab—this idea of rural communities sort of collapsing in on themselves.”

That’s pretty much what happened. Some communities emanated vibrancy; others seemed bleak. The prairie’s “very quiet but intimidating beauty” struck him as sublime, most evidently in the lakes and waterways. The Sand Hills, greatly exaggerated by friends and colleagues over the years, did not blow his mind.

“Overwhelmingly, I was warmly received,” he notes. “I was really impressed with the courage of many people to engage with someone who was obviously a stranger. Even those people that didn’t choose to join in the conversation, they were warm.”

Happily, the conversations he recorded dug deeper than weather and the Huskers. “I remember one gentleman, he was in a mobile electric wheelchair. I literally sat on the curb for 90 minutes and chatted with him.”

As for how landscape shapes a community’s self-perception, Chittenden noticed a marked shift the further west he went. The primary difference between eastern and western Nebraska, he contends, has to do with geography’s time-compression effect. The buttes, vast skies, and wagon ruts of western Nebraska seem to shrink the years, creating a visceral connection to history.

That’s not to say the pioneering spirit is dead in Omaha. It simply takes a different form here: the entrepreneurial mindset.

“In Omaha,” Chittenden says, “they don’t look for wagons. They look for Warren.”

Visit 830nebraska.com to listen to stories from the project.


Ferial Pearson

December 1, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ferial Pearson knows what it is to be an outsider. Born in Kenya, she is an ethnic Indian, and a Muslim. Growing up in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, her family was no stranger to prejudice. Kenyans of Indian descent are a minority, and most Indians are Hindu, not Muslim.

Her mother was born in a hut. No one in her family had gone to college. Pearson’s grandfather saved money for much of his life so that she could get a degree. Despite this, her family regularly opened their home to strangers if they needed a place to stay.

Pearson is an instructional coach and clinical practice supervisor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Before that, she taught English at Omaha South High School. Many of her students were outsiders—immigrants, LGBTQ, low-income. Moved by the tragic 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Pearson challenged her students with a question.

Do modest acts of compassion have the power to change a person’s life?

Her students reacted and banded together in taking on the guise of the “Secret Kindness Agents.”

Anonymous acts of random kindness became contagious, and Pearson chronicled the results in a book, The Secret Kindness Agents: How Small Acts of Kindness Really Can Change The World. Inspired by a classmate suffering from juvenile diabetes, Pearson allowed the class to decide that every dollar from book sales would be donated to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. She told the story last year in a TEDxOmaha talk.

“That’s just the way I was brought up,” says Person. “If there is a need in the community, it is your responsibility. Whatever we have…whether it’s food, shelter, whatever…that’s a privilege. And we have to give back. It’s the Kenyan way.”

As a noted teacher, mentor, adviser, and advocate, Pearson’s passion for inclusion has been felt by a broad array of often disparate constituencies, ones whose common thread is that of “outsiderness.”

In 2010, she received the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network’s Educator of the Year Respect award. The next year she was the recipient of RESPECT’s Anti-Bullying Award. In 2014, Pearson was named one of Ten Outstanding Young Omahans by the Omaha Jaycees. This year she was the grand marshal of the Heartland Pride Parade.

She has also given her time to the Avenue Scholars Foundation, the Freedom Writers Foundation, and serves on the board of Inclusive Communities.

“I think of my community as my family,” Pearson says. “You can sit in a classroom and have all the resources possible. You can have the best teacher possible. But if you are hungry, if you are scared, if you do not have the vocabulary, if nobody read to you when you were little, if you’ve experienced trauma…how are you going to concentrate on what is going on in that classroom?”

Search Secret Kindness Agents on YouTube to learn more.


Secret Penguin’s Dave Nelson

December 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Seven years of touring full-time as a sponsored skateboarder leaves you with A) a lot of skateboarding product from your sponsors and B) a definite magnetism for skater kids looking to channel their energy.

“Skateboarders have an addictive personality,” confesses Dave Nelson, a former skateboarder for Untitled Skateboards and the owner of Downtown Omaha brand strategy and design firm Secret Penguin. “That’s all they think about…skating. They’re consuming, passionate people.” So when fellow skateboarder Mike Smith asked if he’d like to be on the board of a new nonprofit called Skate For Change, “I was like, yes, instantly. Completely excited about it.”

In his TEDxOmaha presentation last October, Smith explained that a closing skate park had offered him its ramps while he was working with homeless teenagers in Lincoln (TEDxOmaha is a local conference inspired by world-renowned TED events, dedicated to spreading world-changing ideas). Taking the opportunity and running with it, Smith started Bay 198, an indoor skate park in a Lincoln mall. “It answered a missing point,” Nelson says. “The kids needed a place that was genuine and safe.”

In the meantime, Smith had been skating through Lincoln on his lunch break, handing out socks and bottled water to the downtown homeless. Friends started joining him, then kids, then energy-drink maker Red Bull even stepped in with a launch party for the park and effort. “I’m just watching all of these skate kids pour their lives and their hearts and their souls into helping people,” Smith said at TEDxOmaha. “Feeding people.”

“He said when I gave him that board and took time to talk and skate with him, it made him realize that there are good people out there that do care about others.”

Secret Penguin handled the branding of the new incarnation of the skate park (now simply called The Bay) at 20th and Y streets in Lincoln. The Bay’s new park is made out of cement and bricks, “so it would feel more like the street,” Nelson explains. Most indoor skate parks are made of wood.

An indoor skate park for Omaha similar to Lincoln’s The Bay isn’t far from Nelson’s thoughts, but for now his typical haunt is Roberts Skate Park at 78th and Cass streets. He’s there about three times a week, meeting new people and trying new tricks.

“A few months ago,” he recalls, “I ran into this kid that I’d met at Roberts maybe 10 years ago.” The young man told Nelson that on that day, his parents were gone on yet another bender. His friends knew no one was home, so they broke into his house and stole all his stuff. The boy decided he was going to kill himself but first, one last skate at Roberts Park. He met Nelson there, who gave him one of the boards from his sponsors and talked with him. “He said when I gave him that board and took time to talk and skate with him, it made him realize that there are good people out there that do care about others,” Nelson remembers. “He said that was the first time he can remember feeling like someone cared. And that skateboard was a representation of hope to him throughout the years.”

On Saturdays, Nelson meets interested skaters at either the Mastercraft building, 13th & Nicholas, or in front of The Slowdown for Omaha’s own version of Skate For Change. “We’ll go hand the stuff out to whomever,” he says, referring to the donations of bottled water or socks received at the Secret Penguin office or purchased with donations forwarded from Smith. “Kids just get behind something like this.”

“We don’t need money,” he says, “just supplies.” Anyone wanting to donate water, socks, canned tuna, or hygiene kits can drop them off at the Secret Penguin office in the Mastercraft building.