Artists, educators and innovators take the stage on Friday at the Paramount’s TEDxCharlottesville event. Among them are blues musician Daryl Davis whose friendship with members of the Ku Klux Klan has caused many of them to question their membership, National Geographic photographer Ami Vitale, who finds connections between cultures, and entrepreneur and cartoonist Chic Thompson, whose dyslexia enables him to see things in an innovative way. C-VILLE spoke with each of them about their life experience and what to expect at TEDx.
Davis, currently based in Silver Spring, Maryland, has spent the last 30 years befriending KKK members, about 200 of whom have subsequently left the KKK. How does he begin a conversation with a Klansman? First, he says, “You learn as much as you can about someone on the other side. Even though they may not like me, they respect my knowledge.” This also helps to keep his emotions in check. “If you go in blind, you’re apt to be very angry,” he says.
Davis, who is now 59, lived overseas in early childhood while his parents worked in the U.S. Foreign Service and he met people of all races and backgrounds. “I was used to what we call today diversity or multiculturalism,” he says. When his family returned to the U.S. in 1968, a 10-year-old Davis was one of two black children in the school he attended in a suburb outside of Boston. One day while his Cub Scout pack marched in a parade, white bystanders began throwing rocks and soda cans at him. “I didn’t realize I was the sole target until my den mothers and scout leaders came to protect my body with their bodies,” he says.
After he told his parents what happened, “They told me for the first time in my life what racism was,” Davis says. The concept was so foreign to him, he didn’t believe them. But six weeks later, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. “Then I realized my parents hadn’t lied to me,” he says. “A question formed in my mind: ‘How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?’ I’ve been seeking that answer ever since.”
And who better to ask than a Klansman? “I never set out to convert them,” he says. But after befriending him, many have questioned their beliefs and left the Klan. As a result, Davis has become a proponent of open dialogue and has come to believe, “When two enemies are talking, they’re not fighting,” he says. “It’s when the talking ceases that the ground becomes fertile for violence.” He further reasons, “Racism is learned behavior. …Dialogue made them this way. Dialogue can undo it as well.”
National Geographic photographer Vitale says she used to be shy, but looking through a camera lens helped her engage with the world. “By putting attention on others, it empowered me,” she says. Her work, in turn, empowers her subjects by making them visible. Photography, she says, “became this incredible tool for creating awareness and understanding across cultures, and countries.”
This concept has become her passion. “There is a universal truth that we have more in common than we often realize,” says Vitale. “And it behooves us as journalists and storytellers to give a broader vision of what the world looks like.” She seeks out “stories of love, courage and those that inspire empathy” to connect us.
Thompson is an entrepreneur whose résumé includes product development at W.L. Gore (maker of Gore-Tex), marketing at Disney, founding his own cartoon company and WAGiLabs, an incubator for kids’ ideas, and teaching creative leadership. Now a Batten Fellow of entrepreneurship at Darden, he says, “The most common question that I get asked is how did you go from dropping out of college to working as a chemist to drawing cartoons to now teaching at schools that would never accept you as a student?”
His answer is simple. “I see in opposites,” he says, a perspective he attributes to “the gift of dyslexia.” It causes him to “take a lot of supposed missteps,” but ones that have led him to success. “I love the magic of opposite thinking, because at first glance opposite ideas sound absurd, contradictory, illogical and fly in the face of all reason.” But on second look, he says, “They can open up possibilities, break through mental blocks and pull the rug out from under false assumptions.”