5 Questions for Alyssa Bottone at TEDxNewport


Alyssa Bottone has organized Newport’s first TEDx conference, which will take place at the Jane Pickens Theater on November 5. The event will also be live streamed online. Photo by Meg Heriot.

Founded on the principles of religious freedom, Rhode Island has been a place for social and philosophical thought leaders since its inception, and Newport, its most “lively experiment” has long been an important locale where interesting thinkers come to rub shoulders. This weekend, TEDxNewport will shine a spotlight on a handful of them.

Organized by Alyssa Bottone, the conference brings together some our most innovative, entrepreneurial, and creative locals in the spirit of sharing conversation and sparking debate. The list of speakers has a fascinating range – marine biologist Kelly Kittel, photographer Onne Van Der Wal, religious studies professor Sean O’Callaghan, and emergency management experts (and sisters) Amanda and Kate Leese among them.

TED, which stands for “technology, entertainment, and design,” originated in 1984 as a four-day conference held in California and dedicated to “ideas worth spreading.” The under-20-minute presentations quickly became a phenomenon both online and off, and sparked independently organized events, known as TEDx spinoffs. (Coincidentally, TED was founded by Richard Saul Wurman, who resided in Newport until recently.)

The conference theme, “Tides of Change,” explores fluctuations both physical and philosophical in a city that’s used to ebb and flow – of the ocean, seasonal population shifts, history, and so much more. Though the live audience is limited to just 100 people, the event will also be broadcast live. We caught up with Alyssa to learn more about the inaugural event.

Why is now the right time to launch TEDx Newport?
Right now it feels like there’s a frenzy of activity happening in Newport. New businesses, networking groups, collaborations – so many new ideas. If you assess the folks involved, I think you’ll find some common traits among them: I see highly inventive, resourceful, curious individuals, who are finding ways to contribute, in one way or another, to the common good. There’s also this level of intellectualism that’s pretty evident when you start asking about people’s interests – whether related to their work or not – and I think given the opportunity to explore new ideas, a lot of Newporters will soak up the knowledge and find creative applications for what they’ve learned.

What qualities did you look for in the 13 speakers and topics you selected?
The mission of TED is to share “ideas worth spreading.” Knowledge. Information. Concepts. All this purely for the sake of expanding your mind. The integrity of the platform is protected by removing anything commercial, political, religious, or otherwise potentially self-serving. We’ve coached the speakers to present in a way that allows room for the audience to draw their own conclusions, to take their minds somewhere they might not have been before. I focused on collecting ideas that covered a wide range of topics as well as their context and relevance to Newport. I looked at credentials in terms of education and experience to avoid promulgating any pseudo-science or any of the aforementioned variables that could otherwise interfere with the mission.

The other part, of course, is the speaker. Does this person have a unique point of view? An experience that other people can connect with? Expertise in a field that most others haven’t been exposed to? As the license holder, I’m also the curator of the event, but I opted to assemble a committee for feedback before making the final decisions. I had them cast votes on the finalists to get an idea of how the program would be received by a bigger audience. It’s not an election process; it’s cultivating the sense of variety, fascination, and enlightenment that these speakers will share with the listeners.

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The theme for the inaugural event is “Tides of Change.” How does this connect the speakers and Newport, and how did you come up with it?
“Tides of Change” reflects the movement I described earlier, with residents seeking out new ways to connect with each other. It reflects the changing world on a broader scale, with advancements in telecommunication and access to information that’s grown at an unprecedented rate. It’s a nod to island life – we are very literally affected by changing coastal patterns. Also, it’s metaphorically a reference to the narrative we hear so often about Newport being a magnet that draws us back again and again like the pull of the moon. Finally, there’s something called the intertidal ecosystem, an environment that exists only between the water lines of high and low tide. Organisms that live there have adapted to life under constant change. I see this as reflective of Newport residents who adjust each summer to the influx of tourism, yet continue to thrive in the winter months through their own adaptations.

What do you hope will seep out of the TEDxNewport event and into our community?
I hope more than anything that people really indulge their curiosities. The freedom to explore within your own mind is something we all have; our minds are our greatest tools, and the drawing boards for any challenge. I hope people learn something, and I hope they feel more inclined to reach out to others in the spirit of learning. I hope the collaboration never stops.

The TEDxNewport audience is limited 100 people. Why?
To host an event for more than 100 people, the organizer of any TEDx event must have attended a TED Global Conference or been a TED fellow. You can learn more at the TEDx Program website.

Meaghan O'Neill is a writer, editor, blogger wrangler, and the founder of Puddingstone Post. She was formerly editor-in-chief of TreeHugger, Discovery Channel online, and TLC's Parentables. Her writing has appeared in numerous print and online publications, and her book, Ready, Set, Green: 8 Weeks to Modern Eco-Living (Villard/Random House) was published in 2008. She lives in Newport, RI with her family.

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