Shoham Arad: Ideas Into Action : TED Radio Hour Anyone can have a big idea. But how do those big ideas come to fruition and grow? Director of the TED Fellows program Shoham Arad walks us through several speakers who turned a spark into a movement.

Shoham Arad: Ideas Into Action

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MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: And as we all know TED is about big ideas, but sometimes the people with those big ideas need a little support and encouragement.

SHOHAM ARAD: Yeah. Like, imagine the biggest way they can possibly have impact, the biggest version of what they're dreaming about.

ZOMORODI: This is Shoham Arad.

ARAD: And I am the director of the TED Fellows program.

ZOMORODI: Now, for someone who has not heard of the TED Fellows program, how would you describe it?

ARAD: So we're in our 12th year. And what we do is every year, through an open application process, we bring 20 new fellows into our community, and we give them a platform to amplify their ideas.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

JEDIDAH ISLER: Great things happen at intersections.

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NIGHAT DAD: And knowledge is freedom.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MUNDANO: I'd like to challenge you...

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CHRISTINE SUN KIM: We need to start thinking harder...

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MUNDANO: ...Try to see the world as one.

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KIM: ...About what defines social currency.

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ANDREW BASTAWROUS: There has to be an easier way.

ZOMORODI: So today on the show, Shoham Arad brings us a curated selection of some of these remarkable TED fellows. These are people who had an idea, turned it into a movement and are now taking their vision global. Shoham, welcome.

ARAD: Hi. It's so nice to be here.

ZOMORODI: So how do you choose these fellows? Do you get lots of applications?

ARAD: So we get thousands and thousands of applications. And at this point, because we're only choosing 20 a year, we wind up with a less than 1% acceptance rate.

ARAD: Holy moly.

ARAD: So it's really hard to become a fellow, and we wind up with really exceptional people. Mental health innovators, epidemiologists, medical imaging innovators, dermatologists, artists, photographers, conservationists, electric aviation entrepreneurs, filmmakers and cultural innovators - it runs the gamut. I mean, if TED is ideas worth spreading, the Fellows program is, like, the action item there. It's, like, the people in the field, the people doing the work. They're the people who are, you know, embedded in communities, who are solving problems locally, who are then trying to make a bigger global impact, but who are really examining all kinds of intrinsic issues. They're people who have dedicated their life to something, honestly.

ZOMORODI: So out of the hundreds of fellows with whom you have worked, you have narrowed it down to a handful that we are going to talk about today on this episode.

ARAD: Yes.

ZOMORODI: So let's start with the first speaker you brought to us.

ARAD: OK.

ZOMORODI: This is a graffiti artist and activist based in Brazil, and his name is Mundano. His talk is called "Trash Cart Superheroes."

ARAD: (Laughter).

ZOMORODI: OK, so tell us about him and them.

ARAD: So he is a street artist. He's a graffiti artist, and his artistic practice - painting in the streets of Rio and Sao Paulo - led him to come into contact with workers known as catadores, which translates in English to collectors.

ZOMORODI: So what are these collectors collecting?

ARAD: They are collecting trash and recycling, basically. They are part of an informal but essential economy. So they're doing a service for their local communities and for their cities and ultimately for their countries. They're just not often recognized.

ZOMORODI: OK, let's listen to Mundano describe these catadores, these trash cart superheroes. Here he is on the TED stage in 2014.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MUNDANO: Our world has many superheroes, but they have the worst of all superpowers, invisibility. For example, the catadores - workers who collect recyclable materials for a living. Catadores emerged from social inequality, unemployment and the abundance of solid waste from the deficiency of the waste collection system. Catadores provide a heavy, honest and essential work that benefits the entire population, but they are not acknowledged for it. Here in Brazil, they collect 90% of all the waste that's actually recycled. Most of the catadores work independently, picking waste from the streets and selling to junkyards at very low prices. They may collect over 300 kilos in their bags, shopping carts, bicycles and carrocas. Carrocas are carts built from wood or metal and found in several streets in Brazil, much like graffiti and street art.

ZOMORODI: Wow, Shoham. Catadores collect 90% of all the waste that's actually recycled in Brazil, he said.

ARAD: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: So Mundano wanted to celebrate...

ARAD: Yes.

ZOMORODI: ...And help these workers who are providing this service. What did he do?

ARAD: So what Mundano wanted to do was he wanted to draw attention to them, and he wanted to make visible what has been invisible, to make visible people who are doing this essential work - what he calls essential and honest work, and it's true. He started by painting their carrocas, their carts that they use.

ZOMORODI: Describe them for me.

ARAD: So he has a very signature style. They're very brightly colored. They often have really recognizable kind of symbols. He has a very signature style of face that's kind of cartoonish. They're often also covered in phrases like - let's see, some of them say, recycling respect. Some of them say, my work is honest. Is yours? My cart doesn't pollute. I saw one that said, long live the collectors, which I love.

ZOMORODI: That is so cool. OK, so in addition to being eye-catching, he took this idea of what could have just been a local exhibit or temporary movement, but he turned it into something global.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MUNDANO: By adding art and humor to the cause, it's become more appealing, which helped call attention to the catadores and improve their self-esteem. And also, they are famous now on the streets, on mass media and social. I have painted over 200 carrocas in many cities and have been invited to do exhibitions and trips worldwide. And then I realized that catadores in their invisibility are not exclusive to Brazil. I met them in Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, South Africa, Turkey and even developed countries such as the United States and Japan. And this was when I realized that I need to have more people join the cause 'cause it's a big challenge. And then I created a collaborative movement called Pimp My Carroca.

(LAUGHTER)

ZOMORODI: Pimp My Carroca.

ARAD: It's the obvious next step, Manoush (laughter).

ZOMORODI: I love that. But what was the point? Is it to say, you know, pay attention to people who are helping you that you ignore? Is it to actually - I mean, these are poor people, right? Is it to help them get more resources or get them out of poverty so they don't have to do this?

ARAD: I think, for him, it's all of those things. So he's always been an activist and an artist. He is interested in not just drawing attention to this, but since then, he's really become more explicitly interested in making improvements to their lives.

ZOMORODI: So when he first started doing Pimp My Carroca in Brazil, what kind of effect did it have? Did it work?

ARAD: I think it worked in a lot of ways. I think it worked for the people who are involved, for the catadores themselves. I think it gave them a lot of essential voice that they didn't have before. Something as simple as drawing attention to something changes it. And I think it also worked in that it recognized people beyond Brazil in the same kind of category. People started taking part of more collective action.

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

ARAD: People started caring a little bit more about what was happening. Mundano built a team around continuing to provide services for this very specific group of people.

ZOMORODI: And he's really saying two things, right? He's saying let's talk about increasing respect and visibility for the catadores but also very tangibly increasing their income as well. Tell us more about how he's done that.

ARAD: Yeah, so I think, like so many of our fellows, he's expanded his own vision of what impact means. And he went from thinking about supporting a group of people in his community and on the ground where he lives to really thinking about how he could create a marketplace that's built with equity. And he started a nonprofit app, a platform called Cataki. So basically, like, it's a connective device, right? It helps the people who hire them get their recycling picked up. It creates a more efficient route for people who do this work. And it also creates a kind of market value for what they do. It makes their job better. And he's done all of this with the catadores themselves, so based on what they actually need - like, how to create - and they did create - a kind of minimum wage for them during a pandemic.

ZOMORODI: So the app - just to clarify - it connects the catadores with people who - like, companies, essentially, who are like, well, we have all of these recyclable materials.

ARAD: That's right. Yes.

ZOMORODI: Come and get it.

ARAD: Yeah. I mean, and it helps everybody.

ZOMORODI: And are we talking about doing this just in Brazil or in other countries as well?

ARAD: Yeah. So right now, it's just in Brazil, but he has a team that's working on expanding the app. I think there is, like, a real demand for it. It's proven to be incredibly successful. I mean, this is also somebody who's a graffiti artist, right? So it's, like, this really different approach to something like entrepreneurship. A lot of people could have created this app and kind of made it for profit, made it more like Uber. And what he's doing is basically creating something that is needed for this population. He's also working now on creating electric vehicles for catadores. So it's backbreaking work, right? It's like, they're carrying hundreds of kilos worth of stuff. So they're addressing some of the real health concerns that happen as a result of this work.

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

ARAD: So he continues to work on a lot of different parallel paths, all towards a vision of justice.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MUNDANO: So catadores are leaving invisibility behind and becoming increasingly respected and valued. Because of their pimped carrocas, they are able to fight back prejudice, increase their income and their interaction with society. So now, I'd like to challenge you to start looking at and acknowledge the catadores and other invisible superheroes from your city. Try to see the world as one, without boundaries or frontiers. Believe it or not, there are over 20 million catadores worldwide. So next time you see one, recognize them as a vital part of our society. (Speaking Portuguese) Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

ZOMORODI: When we come back, more with TED's Shoham Arad and the fellow who wants to eradicate preventable blindness for everyone, no matter where they live.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BASTAWROUS: It still makes no sense to me. How is it we've - in a world where glasses that completely changed my life have been around for 700 years, yet 2 1/2 billion people still can't access them?

ZOMORODI: On the show today, taking ideas and turning them into action. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. Today on the show, a conversation about taking ideas into action. We're talking to the director of the TED Fellows Program Shoham Arad. She has brought us a selection of her favorite talks from fellows, and she's filling us in on what they've been up to since they gave their talks.

OK, Shoham, the next speaker that you have chosen is Andrew Bastawrous.

ARAD: Yeah. So Andrew is an Egyptian British ophthalmological surgeon who - we met when he became a fellow in 2014. And at the time that we met him, he was a practicing medical doctor. And he had a great idea to go out into rural areas and communities and help some of the most vulnerable populations get the eye care they needed that they weren't getting.

ZOMORODI: And Andrew gave a talk in 2018 called "A New Way To Fund Health Care For The Most Vulnerable." But he starts with a very personal story about his own eyesight problems as a child.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BASTAWROUS: Things happened to me at the age of 12 that completely transformed my life. My teachers insisted that I would go for an eye test. I resisted it for as many years as I could because, as the only brown boy in the school, I already felt like a chocolate chip in rice pudding. And the idea of looking more different was not particularly appealing. You see; I'd associated an eye test with wearing glasses and looking different, not with seeing differently. When eventually I was persuaded to go, the optometrist fitted me with the trial lenses and was shocked at just how poor my sight was. He sent me outside to report what I could see. I just remember looking up and seeing trees had leaves on them. I had never known this. Later that week for the first time, I saw stars in the night sky. It was breathtaking.

In fact, the entire trajectory of my life changed. I went from a failing child at school who was constantly told I was lazy and not paying attention to suddenly being a child with opportunity and potential. But I soon realized that this opportunity was not universal. That same summer in Egypt, the home where my parents are originally from, I was with children looked a lot more like me but couldn't have been more different. What separated us was opportunity. How is it that I had this life and they had theirs? It still makes no sense to me. How is it, in a world where glasses that completely changed my life have been around for 700 years, yet 2 and a half billion people still can't access them?

ZOMORODI: Oh. I mean...

ARAD: I know.

ZOMORODI: ...This little boy - not so little - 12-year-old looks up and sees the leaves.

ARAD: Come on.

ZOMORODI: And he's like, what?

ARAD: What are leaves? I know. It's insane.

ZOMORODI: But what a menschy (ph) kid in that he also realized that many of his - had he been growing up in Egypt where his parents grew up, he might not have had access to this life-changing opportunity.

ARAD: Right.

ZOMORODI: So tell us what he did.

ARAD: So - OK. So at the time that we met him, he was a practicing medical doctor. And he wound up leaving his very comfortable and lucrative job as an eye surgeon. And he moved to Kenya to pursue this big idea that technology-enabled practices could mean that the 1.1 billion people today who can't access life-transforming eye care services might get a chance of receiving sight-restoring treatment. So he really went from kind of doing this idea on the side and developing a proof of concept and the kind of technology to dedicating his life to it full-time.

ZOMORODI: OK. So he leaves his life in the U.K. His family moved to Kenya. And his idea was to use technology that the people there already had on their cellphones in a new way.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BASTAWROUS: More people in Kenya and in sub-Saharan Africa have access to a mobile phone than they do clean running water. So we said, could we harness the power of mobile technology to deliver eye care a new way? And so we developed Peek, a smartphone that enables community health care workers and empowers them to deliver eye care everywhere. We set about replacing traditional hospital equipment - which is bulky, expensive and fragile - with smartphone apps and hardware that make it possible to test anyone in any language and of any age.

ARAD: So that was the original idea. The original idea is Andrew and his team developed this way to, like, give eye exams to people who don't have access to them. And then they also developed a way to take retinal scans, the type that are usually done with the heavy equipment. But then what they also further developed was a way to then connect people to the care that they actually needed, which was, like, the the bridge that hadn't been built yet.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BASTAWROUS: All that's needed is a single person on a bike with a smartphone, and it costs just $500. The issue of power supply is overcome by harnessing the power of solar. Our health care workers travel with a solar powered rucksack, which keeps the phone charged and backed up. Now we go to the patient rather than waiting for the patient never to come. We go to them in their homes. We give them the most comprehensive, high-tech, accurate examination, which can be delivered by anyone with minimal training. We can link global experts with people in the most rural, difficult-to-reach places that are beyond the end of the road, effectively putting those experts in their homes, allowing us to make diagnoses and make plans for treatment. So for patients like Mama Wangari, who've been blind for over 10 years and never seen her grandchildren, for less than $40 we can restore her eyesight. This is something that has to happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: So he mentions Mama Wangari. I mean, that is - it's beautiful. He - the video he shows when she first can open her eyes and realizes that she can see.

ARAD: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: And she gets up and dances. It's...

ARAD: It's amazing.

ZOMORODI: ...Awesome.

ARAD: Well, I also want to give a tiny bit of context about, like, what it means to be blind, especially in a rural community.

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

ARAD: Like, it's really - it affects people's entire economic and financial lives, and it can affect people for generations. They can't go to school if they're blind. They can't work if they're blind. You know, somebody might have to stay home and take care of their blind grandmother, for example. So it's, like, really hard to even understand how impactful something like this really is. But yeah, so that wasn't enough - right? - for Andrew.

ZOMORODI: Yeah (laughter).

ARAD: So he continues to serve thousands and thousands of people. But he then goes on to replicate his system in other countries across Africa. He goes to Botswana. He started a program to screen every single schoolchild by 2021. And that's been happening in more and more countries.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: So what sort of reaction did Andrew get to talking to people? Like, here's what we can do. What sort of help did he need after presenting the idea to get this very simple technology to more people so that more people can have their eyesight corrected?

ARAD: What Andrew wound up doing was connecting to - with none other than the Queen of England herself. Yeah, sure, go to the top.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

ARAD: So he continues to run Peek, his organization, but he wound up working with the Queen's Jubilee fund to raise a $1 billion catalyst fund - that's billion with a B...

ZOMORODI: Wow.

ARAD: ...That has gotten all of the Commonwealth countries to pledge to eradicate preventable blindness. That's, like, the complete eradication of preventable blindness. So his mission and his vision has obviously grown tremendously.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: So the next one is actually - it's not necessarily concrete. It's more celestial. So...

(LAUGHTER)

ARAD: Yes.

ZOMORODI: ...We're going to - the next person you brought us, astrophysicist Jedidah Isler, who gave a talk in 2015 that was called "The Untapped Genius That Could Change Science For The Better."

ARAD: Yes.

ZOMORODI: Let's talk about Jedidah.

ARAD: OK. Oh, I could talk about Jedidah all day every day.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

ARAD: Jedidah studies blazars, which are supermassive black holes that are at the center of whole galaxies that form around them.

ZOMORODI: What I love, though, is that she does make a incredibly complex topic like a black hole, like a blazar, relatable...

ARAD: That's right.

ZOMORODI: ...Because she compares herself and her identity to the stars that she studies.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ISLER: Beyond the physical landscape of our planet, some of the most famous celestial images are of intersections. Stars are born at the messy intersection of gas and dust, instigated by gravity's irrevocable pull. Stars die by this same intersection, this time flung outward in a violent collision of smaller atoms, intersecting and efficiently fusing into an altogether new and heavier thing. We can all think of intersections that have special meaning to us. To be intersectional, then, is to occupy a position at an intersection. I've lived the entirety of my life in the in-between, in the liminal space between dreams and reality, race and gender, poverty and plenty, science and society. I am both Black and a woman. Like the birth of stars in the heavenlies, this robust combination of knowing results in a shining example of the explosive fusion of identity.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARAD: So good.

ZOMORODI: She - yeah, she is very powerful. Tell us a little bit about her story.

ARAD: So Jedidah dreamed of becoming an astrophysicist since she was 12 years old. She had no idea that at the time only 18 Black women in the United States had ever earned a Ph.D. in a physics-related discipline.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ISLER: I began my college experience just after my family had fallen apart. Our financial situation disintegrated just after my father's departure from our lives. This thrust my mother, my sister and I out of the relative comfort of middle-class life and into the almost constant struggle to make ends meet. Thus I was one of roughly 60% of women of color who find finances to be a major barrier to their educational goals. Thankfully, Norfolk State University provided me with full funding, and I was able to achieve my bachelors in physics. After graduation and despite knowing that I wanted a Ph.D. in astrophysics, I fell through the cracks.

It was a poster that saved my dream - and some really incredible people and programs. The American Physical Society had this beautiful poster encouraging students of color to become physicists. It was striking to me because it featured a young Black girl, probably around 12 years old, looking studiously at some physics equations. I remember thinking, I was looking directly back at the little girl who first dared to dream this dream. I immediately wrote to the society and requested my personal copy of the poster, which to this day still hangs in my office.

ZOMORODI: She's like, I'm not going to be able to get my Ph.D. in astrophysics.

ARAD: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: But then she sees a poster, and she's like, actually, you know what?

ARAD: Wait. Yeah...

ZOMORODI: Maybe I can do this.

ARAD: That could be me.

ZOMORODI: And then she gets back on this path to getting her Ph.D. And she ends up at Yale, where she unfortunately was not exactly welcomed by all her fellow Ph.D. students.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ISLER: It became immediately apparent that not everyone was thrilled to have that degree of liminality in their space. I was ostracized by many of my classmates, one of whom went so far as to invite me to do what I really came here to do as he pushed all the dirty dishes from our meal in front of me to clean up.

ZOMORODI: I mean, come on. That...

ARAD: I know. I know.

ZOMORODI: I would love to say that I'm shocked to hear that story. But Jedidah also mentions a study which said that all of the 60 women of color who were interviewed said that they had faced racialized gender bias like that, including being mistaken for the janitorial staff. And that was not reported by any of the white women who were interviewed for the study. But luckily for us, Shoham, Jedidah was not deterred.

ARAD: Yeah. Thank goodness. Jedidah actually became the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in astrophysics in Yale's then-312-year history.

ZOMORODI: Wow.

ARAD: Yeah. I mean, that is shocking.

(LAUGHTER)

ZOMORODI: Yeah. Give us the update. What has she been doing since?

ARAD: So where are they now? Jedidah, Dr. Isler, she's only gotten bigger in her thinking. And her work has only gotten more expensive. Jedidah has very recently joined the Biden-Harris administration.

ZOMORODI: She's in the White House.

ARAD: She is. So she's the assistant director for STEM opportunity and engagement in the science and society division. So she's basically at the table with a team of excellent and brilliant people who are making sure that STEM is considered at every intersection where decisions are being made around technology for our nation.

ZOMORODI: So spending some time in the White House, even if it means taking a few years away from the laboratory and doing research, that's very much at the intersection, as she says, of her work.

ARAD: Yeah. I think that's exactly right. So - and I want to give you, like - I think it's important and one of the things that I get to see that most people don't get to see is, like, how hard these trajectories are. Before Jedidah joined the Biden-Harris administration, she had already left - voluntarily left - her job. That's without another offer - because she knew she wanted to leave and do something different than a traditional academic trajectory.

And I want to highlight that she left a tenure track Ivy League position with no other offer because she believed that she needed to do something more. And that's a big deal. That's really hard. That can be really scary. And then this really special opportunity came along. So for her, being part of the Biden-Harris administration was a compliment between this moment in history and society and her biggest dreams of what she'd been wanting to do.

ZOMORODI: And unfortunately, though, as wonderful as that is, that means that there are now no Black women astrophysicists in academia.

ARAD: Yes. Well, OK. So not in academia, but in the Ivy Leagues. But what she's doing and I think what her work is now - where it is now - is exactly solving for that problem, right? Like, she is now making sure that the next time a Black astrophysicist leaves the Ivies, it doesn't mean there is literally no one else there.

ZOMORODI: When you worked with Jedidah, did you - like, was it hard for her to take the more personal route in a talk?

ARAD: That's such a good question.

ZOMORODI: Or was she like, this is my duty, and therefore, you know, I have to be what that little Black girl on that poster was for me? I need to be that for somebody else.

ARAD: I think Jedidah takes her role really, really seriously. And some of - I mean, honestly, you should search her name some time and see the kinds of responses she has gotten as a result of her talk. There is an elementary school that has like her photo on the wall. And kids make drawings of her. Like, it is - her very being on that stage is impactful. So I think she's very aware of what it means to see someone like her give exactly that talk. And she takes it really seriously.

ZOMORODI: I feel like she sums it up so beautifully at the end of her talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ISLER: I am now part of a small but growing cadre of women of color in STEM who are poised to bring new perspectives and new ideas to light on the most pressing issues of our time, things like educational inequities, police brutality, HIV-AIDS, climate change, genetic editing, artificial intelligence and Mars exploration. This is to say nothing of the things we haven't even thought of yet. Women of color in STEM occupy some of the toughest and most exciting sociotechnological issues of our time. Thus, we are uniquely positioned to contribute to and drive these conversations in ways that are more inclusive of a wider variety of lived experience.

It's a reminder that we cannot get to the best possible outcomes for the totality of humanity without precisely this collaboration, this bringing together of the liminal, the differently lived, distinctly experienced and disparately impacted. Simply put - we cannot be the most excellent expression of our collective genius without the full measure of humanity brought to bear. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

ZOMORODI: We'll be back with more from Shoham Arad on growing ideas into action and the TED Fellows program. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Be right back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. Today on the show, taking an idea and turning it into global action. With us is the director of the TED Fellows Program, Shoham Arad. Hey, Shoham. Welcome back.

ARAD: Thank you so much.

ZOMORODI: OK. So so far, we've heard about a graffiti artist, an astrophysicist and an ophthalmologist. And the next speaker you've brought us gave a talk called "How Pakistani Women Are Taking Back The Internet." Her name is Nighat Dad. Tell us about her.

ARAD: So Nighat is a Pakistani lawyer and an activist who fights against sex-based harassment online. Pakistan has a very serious history of violence against women. And Nighat is fighting that from a digital angle. She became a TED fellow in 2017, and that's when we met her.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

DAD: I come from a very small village in Punjab, Pakistan, where elders of my extended family didn't allow their women to pursue their higher education or their professional careers. However, unlike the other male guardians of my family, my father was one who really supported my ambitions. To get my law degree - of course, it was really difficult and frowns of disapproval. But in the end, I know it's either me or them. And I chose myself.

(APPLAUSE)

DAD: My family traditions and expectations for women wouldn't allow me to own a mobile phone until I was married. And even when I was married, this tool became a tool for my own surveillance. When I resisted this idea of being surveilled by my ex-husband, he really didn't approve of this and threw me out of his house, along with my 6-month-old son, Abdullah. And that was the time when I first asked myself why - why women are not allowed to enjoy the same equal rights enshrined in our Constitution. While the law states that a woman has the same equal access to the information, why is it always men - brothers, fathers and husbands - who are granting these rights to us, effectively making the law irrelevant?

ZOMORODI: I think that's crucial. What she's saying is, like, on paper, yes, all things being equal. But in reality, the culture is not keeping up with the law. And despite that, Nighat did get her law degree, and after that, a divorce. And then what happened?

ARAD: So she founded a nonprofit called the Digital Rights Foundation back in 2012, which works to address all the issues and women's experiences in online spaces and cyber harassment. So from lobbying for free and safe internet to convincing young women that access to the safe internet is their fundamental, basic human right, she's trying to play her part to address the questions that have bothered her for years.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

DAD: Pakistan is the birthplace of the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai. But that's just one aspect of Pakistan. Another aspect - it is with the twisted concept of honor is linked to the women and their bodies, where men are allowed to disrespect women, and even kill them sometimes, in the name of so-called family honor, where women are left to die right outside their house for speaking to a man on a mobile phone in the name of family honor. Let me say this very clearly. It's not honor. It's a cold-blooded murder.

ZOMORODI: So Nighat mentions Malala. Do you have a sense - like, how big a deal is it that Nighat is speaking out like this? Does she worry for her safety?

ARAD: Yeah, I think it's a really big deal. I've talked to her on multiple occasions over the years when she's been the target of threats. I worry about her. But I worry about a lot of our fellows, honestly. She's really smart, and she's really brave, and I love that we have even a small part to play in supporting her work.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

DAD: With a hope in my heart and to offer a solution to this menace, I started Pakistan's and the region's first cyber harassment helpline in December 2016...

(APPLAUSE)

DAD: ...To extend my support to the women who do not know who to turn to when they face serious threats online. I think of the women who do not have necessary support to deal with the mental trauma then they feel unsafe in the online spaces. And they go about their daily activities, thinking that there is a rape threat in their inbox. Safe access to the internet is an access to knowledge, and knowledge is freedom. When I fight for women's digital rights, I am fighting for equality.

ZOMORODI: So from what I understand, this hotline is kind of like an on-demand support system for Pakistani women who are experiencing cyber harassment.

ARAD: Yeah, that's exactly right. And I think, you know, it offers a few things. It offers legal assistance. It offers digital security help, and it offers mental health counseling. It also offers judgment-free support, which I think cannot be understated - you know, to know - to have somebody tell you, like, no, this is serious. This is dangerous. What you're feeling is real. And it's a way for women to know that they're not alone at a time in their lives that's pivotal and it's dangerous.

ZOMORODI: And what about Nighat? What is she doing now?

ARAD: After giving her talk, she went back and - you know, for a while, she thought about going into politics. And I think even that didn't feel big enough for her. And she wanted to move beyond the borders of her home country. So she's now working directly with multinational companies that we all know who know that they cannot move forward without the guiding principles of human rights within their businesses. And she can effectively be touching and helping millions of people. Like, she's the person we want in those conversations because she knows firsthand the extremes to which these issues affect women and marginalized communities.

ZOMORODI: We have now come to our very last speaker that you've chosen for this episode. This is an artist named Christine Sun Kim. Christine was born deaf, and in 2015 she gave a TED talk entitled "The Enchanting Music Of Sign Language," which, on the face of it, can sound counter-intuitive. But you're going to explain. Tell us how you found out about Christine.

ARAD: So actually, C.K. was just chosen as a fellow when I joined the team in 2013, and she was one of my first fellow friends.

ZOMORODI: Oh.

ARAD: And she's just - I know. She's just - she's very obviously brilliant. She's mainly been a visual artist and a performance artist, and all of her work talks about the idea of agency and what it means to be with and without a voice. She speaks up for her deaf community and for all marginalized communities through her work.

ZOMORODI: So let's start by hearing about Christine's relationship to sound, which I found fascinating. And the voice we're going to hear is her ASL interpreter.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KIM: (Through interpreter) I was born deaf. And I was taught to believe that sound wasn't a part of my life, and I believed it to be true. Yet I realize now that that wasn't the case at all. Sound was very much a part of my life, really on my mind every day. As a deaf person living in a world of sound, it's as if I was living in a foreign country, blindly following its rules, customs, behaviors and norms without ever questioning them.

So how is it that I understand sound? Well, I watch how people behave and respond to sound. You people are like my loudspeakers and amplify sound, and I learn and mirror that behavior. At the same time, I've learned that I create sound, and I've seen how people respond to me. Thus I've learned, for example, don't slam the door. Don't make too much noise when you're eating from the potato chip bag. Don't burp. And when you're eating, make sure you don't scrape your utensils on the plate. All of these things I term sound etiquette. Maybe I think about sound etiquette more than the average hearing person does. I'm hypervigilant around sound, and I'm always waiting in eager, nervous anticipation around sound about what's to come next.

ZOMORODI: She's so funny. So she's taught to believe that sound isn't a part of her life as a deaf person, but she's like, but it is because I have to be conscientious about how you all are relating to sound.

ARAD: Yeah. So, I mean, even listening to that clip of her talk, it's interesting because Denise, her interpreter, who's incredible, doesn't conjure up Christine at all. Like, Christine doesn't look like how that voice sounds. So even that gets you thinking about, like, what does it mean to have agency over your voice? What does it mean to think about sound when you're deaf? What does it mean for people who are hearing to think about sound differently? So, yeah, she makes work that shows that sound doesn't just have to be heard. It can be felt, seen. It can be experienced. It can mean something highly conceptual.

ZOMORODI: We certainly cannot do her work justice, but is there a favorite piece of her? Do you have a favorite example of that connection that she's making that you might be able to describe for us?

ARAD: Yeah. As a result of knowing C.K. and her work, I've actually been studying ASL for the last year.

ZOMORODI: No way.

ARAD: Yeah. It's an amazing language to learn. So in ASL, things like pitch and tone are conveyed in motion and spacing and expression, facial expression. And C.K. analyzes sound through empty and changing space on the page and movement or even, like, smudges in her drawings. She often refers to musical notations. The drawings that she makes are usually, like, one color on paper made of, like, soft charcoal or oil pastels, and they usually have text in them. And that text usually has multiple meanings. I'm very lucky to have - to own one of her drawings.

ZOMORODI: Oh.

ARAD: It hangs over my bed. It's one of my favorite things in the world. And it's a drawing of the notation in music that's called pianissimo P, meaning something that's to be played very quietly. And the drawing makes a kind of, like, a tree of the notations going down showing - and the idea or the notion of something getting more and more quiet but never silent. And it's beautiful as a drawing and as a meditation.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KIM: (Through interpreter) Everything that I had been taught regarding sound I decided to do away with and unlearn. I started creating a new body of work. And when I presented this to the art community, I was blown away with the amount of support and attention I received. I realized sound is like money - power, control, social currency. In the back of my mind, I always felt that sound was your thing, a hearing person's thing. And sound is so powerful that it could either disempower me and my artwork or it could empower me. I chose to be empowered.

ZOMORODI: So she's using her artwork to become more of an activist, right? Like, let's talk about what Christine has been doing since she gave her talk. She acted as an interpreter at the Super Bowl, right?

ARAD: That's right. And honestly, like, if you have not seen her interpretation of the national anthem at the Super Bowl into ASL, just hit pause. Go find it on YouTube, and watch the clip because it's incredible. And it's beautiful. And it is by far my most favorite Super Bowl moment ever.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEMI LOVATO: (Singing) ...Proudly we hail...

ARAD: I mean, she is making big gestures. Like, for me, it's an embodiment of the national anthem. It is as powerful as an entire stadium of people singing together in unison.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LOVATO: (Singing) ...Through the perilous...

ARAD: It is really an interpretation. It's her decision about how big to make these gestures or how small to make them and how to convey the feeling behind the words in the song. So she's wearing this incredible outfit. She is incredibly striking. She's gorgeous. Like, you look at her, and you're like, oh, God, she's so cool, you know. And she is. She's just so cool.

ZOMORODI: It's true.

ARAD: So it's just - it's beautiful.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LOVATO: (Singing) ...In air...

ZOMORODI: But she was unhappy about her performance at the Super Bowl because the idea was to sort of highlight ASL. And she really didn't get much screen time.

ARAD: Yeah. I mean, she was only on screen for a couple of seconds, ultimately. But what it wound up doing was giving her another platform to talk about what that means, right? So she wound up writing an op-ed for The New York Times about the ways in which that continues to silence people. And you should go read it because it's really kind of the essence of a lot of her work.

ZOMORODI: I think it's interesting how she made me think about sound differently. She made me more curious to learn about ASL. But she also makes beautiful works on paper while talking about deaf discrimination and disability rights. It's so many different levels that she's working on.

ARAD: Yeah. One of the things she's been doing since that talk is billboards, actually. She's done a lot of political billboards. And she did this billboard - this story that I just love. She lives in Berlin now. And she was working with a deaf school there. And it's right next door to a school for the hearing. And they created this billboard that says if you spoke ASL, we'd be friends by now. And I just love that because it really flips the notion of otherness on its head. Like, just learn ASL, and we can all be friends. It's not a way of marginalizing and othering people. It's a way of connecting if you can just sort of slightly switch your mindset.

ZOMORODI: So, Shoham, as we wrap up, I guess I'm wondering, you know, after listening to all these speakers and their amazing ideas and all the things that they're doing, do they ever feel like giving a TED talk is subbing down their ideas? Or is it more a distillation of their work...

ARAD: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: ...In a way that makes it more - makes them more accessible?

ARAD: Yeah. I mean, I think that's true with all TED talks, but especially with the fellows. I think one of the things that's really true for fellows is that they're often representing much larger communities and often marginalized communities. So not only are they up there giving a short talk - our talks are shorter - but they're also up there with the weight and responsibility of the communities that they carry with them on their shoulders. So, you know, C.K. is up there giving a talk, and she's thinking about the entire deaf community when she's up there. And that's a lot. That's a really hard thing to do.

So we have to distill it to one idea, even though most of these brilliant people are doing, you know, 100 things at the same time. And I think that the thing that's interesting to me, too, is, like, when we talk about representation, we also talk about impact. So even though, in 12 years, you know, we have 500 and something fellows, what that really means is they're having an impact on millions and millions of people around the globe. Like, their work is impacting communities. Their very presence at the table is making change. So that representation on stage becomes really big when you think about it.

ZOMORODI: Shoham Arad is the director of the TED Fellows Program. Shoham, thank you so, so much.

ARAD: Thank you so much. It was so nice talking to you.

ZOMORODI: And thank you so much for listening to our show this week on TED fellows turning their ideas into action. And by the way, you can see some of Christine Sun Kim’s artwork at ted.npr.org.

This episode was produced by Diba Mohtasham and Fiona Geiran and edited by James Delahoussaye. Our TED Radio production staff includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Rachel Faulkner, Katie Monteleone, Matthew Cloutier and Harrison Vijay Tsui. Our audio engineer is Daniel Shukin. Our intern is Katie Sypher. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Michelle Quint.

I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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