Listening as an Act of 'Positive Disruption': What I Learned From 2013 TEDxChange

04/05/2013 04:43 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2013

I don't know what it is about Melinda Gates, but I have always been intrigued by her. Truthfully, I have not really ever known why.  Maybe it's the fact that despite being one of most powerful women in the world, she comes across so calm, cool and collected.  Maybe it's that I'm impressed that with so many other things she could be spending her time doing, she focuses a lot on her foundation work and her commitment to bettering the lives of women and girls around the world. 

So when they invited me to be one of six live bloggers for the 2013 TEDxChange on April 3rd, with the theme "Positive Disruption," I was curious how as the host of this event, Melinda Gates, would handle that theme. Would she cover controversial topics? Were the speakers going to be defiant? Would we see her take a stronger stance as an influential public figure?

But as I watched the hour and a half program, I finally figured it out.

Her power comes in her desire and ability to listen.

I had the opportunity to meet Melinda Gates at the inaugural TEDxChange event in New York City in 2010, as she and Graça Machel visited the special media invitees where approximately 20 of us had access to speakers, the itinerary and a pretty decked out media room at the Paley Center in NYC.  It was there I was able to ask her a question that relates to my personal passion of recruiting artists (primarily local artists) in my filmmaking endeavors and global health advocacy.  During her talk, she had mentioned a Somalian artist who I had known for many years who was on the up and up (K'Naan).  She referred to the power of music in reaching people.  And instead of referencing mega Western-celebrities who are often the face of pressing world problems, she showed a picture of this "dusty foot philospher" waving a flag during his 2010 World Cup Tour.  She also chose the popular Sierra Leonean hip hop group, Bajah + The Dry Eye Crew, to be the featured musical act for the event. 

In my world, these artists made sense in terms of the reach and the influence they have on the ground.  But how did Melinda Gates -- who I would assume doesn't know or doesn't have the time to learn much about the international hip-hop scene -- choose some of the most credible socially-conscious artists from the so-called developing world? Again, it must have to do with her ability to listen to a wide variety of people.

Yesterday, I watched closely as she maneuvered through the TEDxChange event with grace and ease.  It became apparent that most speakers who took the stage seemed to be ones she sought out (not the typical faces we see representing our issues.)  Halima Hima, the young advocate for women and girl from Niger, had met Melinda on her trip to see why fertility rates (and hence maternal mortality/morbidity rates) were so high in Niger. Impressed by her work and passion, Melinda invited her to speak.  Reading Roger Thurow's book on extreme hunger and malnutrition inspired her to reach out to him.  After the amazing poem by Brooklyn-based, Nigerian-born young spoken word poet, David Fasanya (who I'm happy to say I know from my work as a teaching artist in NYC for the nonprofit, Urban Word NYC), she used her stage time to read tweets from her viewers.  As she closed the conference, instead of having the cameras focused on her, they showed images of people attending the various TEDx groups from around the world. 

In short, she comes across as strong, but humble. She does not pretend to have all the answers and she makes it more about the real people doing really important work on the ground, then about her.  Something that someone of her stature in the world doesn't necessarily need to do.

When I met her at the TEDxChange event in 2010, I had the opportunity to tell her about my new media initiative that unites artists and activists around maternal health and ask her if she felt creative communities were important in global health advocacy. She lit up when she gave a resounding "absolutely" and answered with a very articulate and honest demeanor.  As she got up to leave the room, she leaned over me to pick up one of my postcards and she gave me a certain look that said to me, "I hear you."  I'm sure it's a similar look that she gave Cathleen, Halima, Roger and other so-called regular people committed to their work. As anyone knows, having someone of influence really listen to you and give credence to an idea you are working so passionately on, even with a glance, can give you an extra ounce of inspiration that can keep you fighting for the things you believe in.

I'll close by saying I was expecting there to be much more tension in the room given the theme of "positive disruption," which to me meant we are all given license to challenge the status quo for the greater good.  That we all could ask tough questions, criticize the things that aren't working and introduce innovative ideas to confront and overcome the controversy that circles around the issues of humanitarian aid and international development. 

I'll say that although I did have a few criticisms of the event:  I was unhappy to notice how few people of color there were in the audience (which was especially evident when the cameras scanned the audience as Cathleen Kaveny spoke about racial injustices and MLK, Jr), and given the controversy around Monsanto, I was hoping that it would be touched on in Roger Thurow's presentation about small farmers; I mostly felt it was more a unifying than divisive event. I felt the speakers were genuine and inspiring, I was happy to see youth given such a strong platform and I loved that they mixed up speakers with videos to promote the crowdfunding site Catapult and a new GOOD "Pop Up Fellowship" for innovators, giving additional opportunities to involve a greater number of people in the "business of doing good."

As an activist/filmmaker and someone who feels like I'm always struggling to get my voice heard, what I realized (and this is a genuine thank you to Melinda Gates), is tat sometimes a whisper can be more powerful.  That you don't have to push hard all the time to make progress. Because Melinda Gates hosting the TEDxChange event showed me that some disruptors, with gentle voices, open ears, and a committed heart can be just as powerful as those who disrupt by stirring controversy.   I'm appreciating that listening can also be an act of "positive disruption."

To watch the TEDxChange event online, visit

Lisa Russell, MPH is an Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker, a global maternal health advocate, a teaching artist and co-founder of You can catch her as an invited speaker at the IFP and United Nations Envision Film program which focuses on addressing global issues through documentaries on April 11th in NYC.