Next TEDx speakers tackle the perceptions of information and beauty

Perception is the focus of two speakers with TEDxSnoIsleLibraries 2020. 

Chris Coward is a senior principal research scientist at the University of Washington Information School, director of the Technology & Social Change Group, and co-founder of the Center for an Informed Public. He deals with the perception of words and the threat of misinformation. 

Erica Steele is a master esthetician and cosmetologist from Oak Harbor. She helps women who have had a mastectomy understand and redefine their personal perception and definition of beauty. 

Coward’s talk, “Unmasking Misinformation,” is scheduled for 10 a.m. July 27. Steele will speak at 4 p.m. July 28 with a talk titled “Beauty for Life. Both TEDxSnoIsleLibraries talks will be presented in Zoom meetings that require registration and live on FacebookEvent host Phil Klein will introduce the speaker’s pre-recorded TEDx talk followed by a live question-and-answer session with the speaker. Each event is scheduled for one hour. 

TEDxSnoIsleLibraries speaker Chris Coward
Chris Coward

Chris Coward 

Coward studies issues of information access, digital inclusion, digital literacy, misinformation, and civic engagement. Much of his research involves partnering with public libraries to co-create new programs and services in these areas and working with marginalized and vulnerable communities.  

He and his multiracial family live in Seattle in America’s most diverse ZIP code, 98118.   

Why did you want to present a TEDx talk?  

At heart, I care about communityThe togetherness in our diversity of backgrounds, interests, ages, and every other dimension that creates the beauty of our social fabric,” Coward saidMisinformation is an affront to community. It tears at our social fabric and our everyday relationships with family and friends. 

Coward started studying misinformation in earnest two years ago, although he first came across it in the leadup to the 2015 election in Myanmar. He was working on an information literacy project after the country had recently lifted barriers to internet access. Mobile phone ownership exploded. 

Facebook, which became synonymous with the internet in the country, was used to foment violence targeting the country’s minority Muslim population,” he saidAs I worked on this in Myanmar, I also thought to myself, This couldn’t happen in America. 

Myanmar had been ruled by dictators for decades. Its citizens only had access to a few governmentsanctioned media outlets. The country’s education system was a shambles. As a result, people had scant experience evaluating different information sources, creating the perfect conditions for misinformation to spread and be effective. How wrong I was. 

What inspired your TEDx talk topic? 

Last year, Coward and his UW colleagues were awarded a grant from the Knight Foundation to establish a center to study misinformation and strengthen democratic discourse.  

I get to work with some amazing people at the forefront of misinformation research,” he saidMy interest is to take this research and collaborate with communities and community organizations – primarily public libraries  to develop new ways of addressing misinformation. In doing this, I’m less interested in creating, for instance, better factchecking tools, and more interested in creating better ways for individuals with different viewpoints to come togetheronline and offlineto talk about issues that matter to them.  

I’m not so naive to think that we’ll all become buddies, but I do think we can gain a better appreciation of others who we don’t agree with if we create better environments and experiences for these interactions to occur. 

What expectations do you have? 

Coward hopes his talk will demonstrate the public’s growing susceptibility to misinformation.  

Between our vulnerability as humans to believe things that fit our worldviews and the increasingly sophisticated tactics bad actors use to penetrate our defenses, it’s no wonder misinformation has become, in my mind, a foundation problem,” he saidWithout addressing it, it will make solving our real problems  from Covid-19, climate change, and systemic racism, to the everyday issues we face in our families and communities  nearly impossible. 

Coward also wants people to learn to take more care when they engage with information online. He’ll have suggestions. 

The tools we grew up to assess authenticity are no longer sufficient. They don’t take into account the ways misinformation exploits are personal beliefs to trigger psychological and emotional responses like confusion, fear, and anger,” he said. 

“Everyone I’ve spoken with, regardless of their ideological or political leanings, are concerned about this situation. No one likes that we’ve become so polarized. No one likes it when they can’t get together with their families over holidays without it unraveling into lots of shouting and hurt feelings. The approach many families take  avoiding touchy conversations altogether – is not good either. We should be able to talk about our differences without the pollution of misinformation. 

What have you learned from this experience? 

I hated speaking into a camera!” Coward said. I would have much preferred speaking live on stage, where I could have seen people, seen their reactions. 

TEDxSnoIsleLibraries speaker Erica Steele
Erica Steele

Erica Steele 

Master esthetician and cosmetologist Erica Steele is using her experiences to create a program to help other women who have had a mastectomy reclaim their beauty and confidence. In her free time, she enjoys playing viola and spending time with her husband and cats.  

Why did you want to present a TEDx talk? 

I wanted to reach a variety of people. Beauty, self-confidence, and relationships affect all of us,” Steele saidThe TEDx platform gave me an opportunity to share my idea with people whom I might otherwise never have the opportunity to connect with. People listen to TEDx talks to learn, to hear a different perspective. I hope that my talk might get some people to think about themselves in a gentler and kinder manner. I want to spread beauty. 

What inspired your TEDx talk topic? 

Steele said she drew inspiration from her professional experiences working with women and her own mastectomy journey. She earned licenses in esthetics and cosmetology so she could help other women feel beautiful. 

“After my mastectomy, I realized that we were missing the boat when it came to understanding why beauty is so important to us,” Steele saidBeauty gets a bad rap. We think of it as being superficial and that hurts our ability to talk about it and embrace it in healthy ways. 

I wanted to give this talk because so many people, especially women, cant see their beauty,” she continuedThey dont think theyre enough. They wont be in family pictures or look in the mirror. How can you believe that someone loves you when you dont love yourself as you are? This affects us in how we interact with one another and our quality of life. I realized beauty had less to do with how perfect we were and had everything to do with forming meaningful connections with others based on us as whole people. 

What expectations do you have with your talk? 

Steele said she doesn’t have expectations for her talk, but she has some hopes.  

I hope that at least one mother will choose to be in the family photo this year even though she gained 10 pounds during quarantine,” Steele said. “That one man who is going bald will find the confidence to stand up straight and realize that his sense of humor is what makes him special, that someone who recently retired wont say that it doesnt matter what they look like anymorethat a woman who had a mastectomy and has been afraid that someone wont find her attractive will look at herself in the mirror and see her worth, just as she is. 

What have you learned from this experience? 

“I’ve learned that it is much harder than I thought it would be to distill my message. What I share is a drop in the ocean to what I think about my topic,” she saidIt really makes me curious about all the other TED talks I’ve listened to and how much more the speakers would have liked to have shared.