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Talk about leadership: TEDxCreightonU brings an array of speakers to the stage for a day of insight, calls to action

Brimming over with energy and electricity, the Ahmanson Ballroom of the Harper Center positively crackled with ideas as Creighton University hosted the inaugural TEDxCreightonU Friday afternoon.

Nearly 400 people turned out to hear 14 dynamic speakers – drawn from the University’s faculty, alumni and student body – tell tales of growth, innovation and renaissance all aimed at the event’s theme: “Lead.” Held during the University’s 140th anniversary, TEDxCreightonU explored lessons and ideas from across its schools and colleges.

“Just like TED Talks, we are an innovator,” said Creighton President the Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, SJ, PhD, in opening the event. “The topics we’ll hear about today are diverse and further demonstrate how our campus community is engaging solutions and leading conversations to take us into the future.”

Meditating on topics ranging from homelessness to happiness, minimalism to generational angst, health care to sobriety, food justice to mental health, and the oft-ignored history of Omaha’s fraught race relations, the speakers brought forth what lessons they’ve learned, be it over the relatively brief period of a traditional undergraduate’s life or lifelong work in academia or community.

At the root of several talks were themes key to leadership: simplify, collaborate and celebrate.

Speaking on intergenerational conflict and revolution, both Leah Georges, BA’06, PhD, an assistant professor in the Graduate School and a Creighton alumna, and Cory Wilson, a law student, reflected on what people, unhitched from the expectations of their birthdate, can accomplish.

“This focus on generational cohorts has created a space where we’ve just forgotten that people are people,” Georges said. “To know who we really are, how we really work. I think we can get there. What if we radically, simply — not easily — meet people where they are? We are so much more similar than we are different. People want work that matters, they want support, they want to be recognized, they want better coffee. Eighty-year-olds text message and 20-year-olds crochet blankets.”

And in so doing, the generations, Wilson said, can learn from one another to work to change the world for the better.

“Many of the generations we consider to be our greatest generations left incredibly rich legacies of rebellion,” he said. “They had the courage to rebel against the inherent wrongs of their time when the tyrannies became the status quo. What if we started right here and asked ourselves what the greatest wrong is today that’s become the status quo?”

The hyperpolarization of the society, Wilson and other speakers noted, may just be the crucial locus where change can be effected.

For Creighton alums Dawaune Hayes, BA’16, and Josh Dotzler, BA’09, who closed out the program with a set of stirring talks on connecting culture and communication in North Omaha, that change is afoot in telling stories and making connections.

“The stories of our past directly inform our present and future,” said Hayes, who revealed a new project, North Omaha Information Support Everyone (NOISE), that is putting journalism and community action in the hands of North Omahans and their neighbors. “We all share in the human experience but we all have a unique story to tell. When we reveal our perspectives in a meaningful way, we inspire empathy, compassion and action.”

Dotzler, a former Bluejays basketball player who now leads Abide, a nonprofit aiming to create a new definition for Omaha’s inner city, said it’s one thing to do charitable work, another to connect that work to the roots of change.

“Many times we come into a community and offer programs and service but they’re disconnected from the culture of that community,” he said. “The culture of our community matters. Charity can happen from a distance. Charity is well-intentioned desire to see change happen. But it doesn’t necessarily connect with the culture of a community. One day in Omaha, Nebraska, there will be a new vision of what our inner city is.”

If it sounds impossible, other speakers talked about the mounting challenges of other movements facing other leaders, some who may have been perceived as unprepared for or overmatched by daunting realities but who nevertheless drew on reserves of strength.

Creighton history professor Heather Fryer, PhD, from the College of Arts and Sciences, spoke of the steady, quiet leadership of Patrick Okura, a Japanese American who, with the help of Boys Town founder the Rev. Edward J. Flanagan, helped bring about a quiet civil-rights revolution stemming from the unthinkable hardship Americans of Japanese descent faced during World War II.

“Leaders don’t always have to have followers and if they do, they don’t have to focus on them,” Fryer said. “What they need to lead is a consistent set of values they believe in. They show them, share them, and don’t care about the response. They invite people along. Leaders don’t have to disrupt and destroy to start a revolution. Fr. Flanagan didn’t change one thing he was doing at Boys Town to make Boys Town a civil-rights incubator. He kept doing what he was doing.”

That leadership is something borne out of millennia of human experience, as recognized by Todd Darnold, PhD, of the Heider College of Business, who spoke about how, in finding values in the simple and the connective, people stand to do worthwhile, good and important things in their lives and the lives of others.

“This is ancient wisdom,” he said. “When we live intentionally, purposefully, and for meaning, we will lead great lives.”

Talks presented at TEDxCreightonU will be available for viewing in mid-May at tedxcreightonu.com.

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Creighton University is a Jesuit, Catholic university bridging health, law, business and the arts and sciences for a more just world.