In the shadow of war, TEDx events in Ukraine envision a brighter future

Scenes from  TEDxIvanoFrankivsk in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine and TEDxKyivNationalEconomicUniversity (TEDxKNEU) in Kiev

Scenes from TEDxIvanoFrankivsk in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine and TEDxKyivNationalEconomicUniversity in Kiev

Long after the last speaker left the stage of TEDxIvanoFrankivsk in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine this past June, the audience showed no signs of dispersing.

“Nobody wanted to go,” said organizer Christina Vintoniv. “They were taking photos and dancing.”

Vintoniv welcomed this joyful display, as it stood in stark contrast to so many of the hardships that have defined Ukraine’s recent history. In the past two years, the country has experienced a political revolution, mass protests, military clashes with Russia, an economic crisis and ongoing violence that has left thousands dead and hundreds of thousands displaced.

“Every day we hear a lot of bad news. You see war everywhere,” said Vintoniv. “At TEDx, people can just relax and hear positive ideas. They can see others smiling, and meet interesting people. There is no war at our conference.”

At TEDxIvanoFrankivsk, 100 people gathered at the Philharmonic Society concert hall to watch eight speakers share thoughts on the theme, “From Past To Future.” According to Vintoniv, who teaches at a technical university, the theme captured the current mood in Ukraine — a delicate balance between acknowledging past struggles and imagining future potential.

The day’s program included talks on Ukraine’s economic future, the prescient wisdom of molfars (traditional Ukrainian healers) and space exploration. Sergei Dobrianski, a participant in Google’s Lunar XPrize competition, traveled to Ivano-Frankivsk from Canada to talk about his team’s efforts to bring 3D printing to the moon. “Things would be a bit boring,” Dobrianski told the audience, “if we don’t try to achieve the impossible.” During the mid-day break, he gave a demonstration of a 3D printer in action, creating tiny 3D letters to spell out “TEDx.”

A standing ovation from the TEDxIvanoFrankivsk audience (Photo: TEDxIvanoFrankivsk)

A standing ovation from the TEDxIvanoFrankivsk audience (Photo: TEDxIvanoFrankivsk)

Ivano-Frankivsk is a small city of about 225,000 people in western Ukraine. While the majority of the recent violence took place in central and eastern Ukraine, Vintoniv said the ongoing conflict has taken a toll on everyone. “Every minute we are thinking that in eastern Ukraine, there are a lot of people who are fighting. It’s very difficult.” As an organizer, one of Vintoniv’s main goals was to create an atmosphere of positivity. If the impromptu audience dance party at the end of the day was any indication, Vintoniv achieved that goal. “After the conference, a lot of people asked me to apply [to organize a TEDx event] again. They said, ‘We want this joy again!’”

That same day, 300 miles away in Kiev, another TEDx event sparked similar displays of joy. TEDxKyivNationalEconomicUniversity (TEDxKNEU) was also dedicated to building a better future, at the university scale.

We had a brainstorm with TEDx volunteers, students and graduates, in which we found out the biggest problem in our university is that we don’t have a really close community,” said organizer Vasyl Grygorovych, a 21-year-old marketing student at KNEU. So we decided to call our TED, ‘Building the Community: U n’ I.’”

People packed out the event hall at KNEU to listen to nine speakers — including an actor, a philosopher, students, and teachers — share their perspectives on building a stronger university community. When asked to name his favorite talk of the day, Grygorovych insisted he couldn’t choose. “I’m like the father of nine children, and I can’t tell you who is the best, I can just tell you that all of them are great.”

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A speaker talks to the crowd at TEDxKNEU (Photo: TEDxKNEU)

At the end of the event, Grygorovych called the 15 members of his organizing team up on stage and introduced each of them to the audience. “I was trying to build this community around our university like, ‘Guys, come on, we are from the same university. We need to talk with each other. We need to love each other. We need to be with each other. I was almost crying.”

For Grygorovych, who has lived in Kiev for the past 15 years, the conflict has hit much closer to home. He was a student organizer during the early days of the revolution, present for the wave of protests at Kiev’s Independence Square, known as Euromaidan, where dozens of protesters were killed.

“I was in the center of everything on the Euromaidan, at the center of all the fights,” he said. “It really affected me on the emotional level. It shifted my paradigm. All the things which happened during our revolution totally changed my life.”

Right now, Kiev is relatively calm, but fighting continues in the east. With the specter of war hanging heavy over the country, Grygorovych and Vintoniv both feel that stronger communities and the free exchange of ideas will help Ukraine move forward.

“A lot of people try to emigrate and escape from all these problems,” said Vintoniv, “but who will stay here and who will develop our country? It is important to share new ideas. Ideas can solve problems.”

Grygorovych added, “When we’re making a community, we are getting closer to each other, and together, we are stronger. TED, for me, is the future of us.”

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