Organizing for an Intellectual Revolution
The current demand for political participation among Tunisians outstrips the available supply of institutions capable of supporting and expressing popular will. To address this imbalance, motivated civic leaders are transforming their grassroots communities into viable institutions. One specific community provides a useful example to illustrate the optimism that these institutional movements are inspiring: TEDx.
The TEDx movement in Tunisia has grown quickly in the last year. Based on the format of the popular American conference series, these events usually feature inspirational speakers as well as curated activities like music, poetry, and art. The first Tunisian TEDx event was held in September 2010, just a few months before the Ben Ali government fell.
In the time since, there have been 10 more TEDx events and an additional six are already planned for the remainder of 2012. However, as is clear from the geographic distribution of the Tunisian TEDx series, it is still largely an elite and coastal institution.
TEDx in Tunisia
The People of TEDx
Many of the organizers, volunteers, and attendees are young, affluent and technologically-savvy. At the largest TEDx event of 2011, the crowd was approximately 60 percent male and 40 percent female, and the age distribution was heavily clustered between 21- to 32-year-olds. Many of the events take place in universities, strengthening the symbolic connection to youth communities.
The TEDx loyalists are the faces of Tunisia’s idealistic middle class. Fortunate to live in Tunis or another major coastal city, they have received the best educations their country can offer, and they enjoy stable access to the technologies they need to be connected to a global community.
Thus, it is no surprise that they have been drawn to the TEDx format. The model places strong value on personal achievement and social optimism— two values that this community of Tunisian young people desperately needs as they search for jobs and opportunity in an otherwise sluggish economy.
Its attendees are also fanatical in their support. A headline event in Tunis sold out more than 2,000 tickets in a mere 15 minutes. The day’s activities were broadcast online to hundreds of viewers from all over the country, and the event boasted a list of volunteers that was several hundred deep.
The TEDx Community Message
A unifying theme of the Tunisian TEDx movement is a push for a new intellectual life in the country; individual event themes include “Imagine History,” “inTolerance,” and “How to Become a Creative Genius.”
The curators and participants share a common frustration with the failure of the previous government and other elite institutions to create solutions that adequately addressed the economic and social challenges that Tunisians face. While many of the young people in attendance may have seen their families benefit from the previous regime, they also recognize the inherent instability and inequity of the Ben Ali era. With their expensive foreign-brand clothing and iPhones, these talented, privileged young leaders talk passionately about the regional disparity and unemployment that plague their country.
Ultimately, the TEDx organizers and attendees want to inspire a new generation of political and cultural leaders to have the intellectual curiosity and emotional courage to create institutions that are responsive to the demands of all Tunisians, not just a select few. As computer scientists, entrepreneurs, and social media marketers, these individuals also envision a new business environment that supports innovation and embraces the role of small and medium-sized businesses in creating economic growth.