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Can TEDx talks change the world?

Q&A with Rahim Sajan, TEDxCalgary’s curator and co-founder
October 30, 2014
"The vision is to create a garden of ideas and a culture of conversation — and in doing so, make Calgary not just the best city in the world but for the world," says Rahim Sajan, TEDxCalgary curator and co-founder.

"The vision is to create a garden of ideas and a culture of conversation — and in doing so, make Calgary not just the best city in the world but for the world," says Rahim Sajan, TEDxCalgary curator and co-founder.

Rahim Sajan, BSc’01, BEd’03, is a teacher in and outside the classroom. Whether he’s at a remote First Nations community, an inner-city high school, youth jail or an auditorium of Calgarians attending a TEDxCalgary talk, Sajan is always striving to create conditions that engage people to learn. 

As a high school teacher by day with the Calgary Board of Education and co-founder and curator of TEDxCalgary the rest of the time, Sajan is intent on making Calgary better through the power of ideas, conversations and community. Want proof he’s making good on that? Just ask Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who traces his decision to run for office back to giving a TEDx Calgary talk. 

Next month, Sajan and his team will host TEDxCalgary Truth(s) at the University of Calgary to explore what he describes as “what we know, what we don’t know, and how we navigate the space between.” Here’s what we learned from a conversation with Sajan about his own education, motivations and vision for community engagement. 

Q: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

A: A game ranger. Growing up in Tanzania, surrounded by some incredible national parks, this was somewhat of a realistic goal.

Q: How does your university education play into your current career?

A: Both teaching and curating for TEDxCalgary have a lot in common; both roles ask me to deliberately construct learning spaces and require me to be incredibly resourceful with limited resources. My training in the old master of teaching program allows me to question traditional ways of teaching and figure out new objectives and ways when needed. 

Q: What’s the story behind the start of TEDxCalgary?

A: I had just graduated from Leadership Calgary (a Propellus initiative) in 2009 and was keen on doing something powerful with what I had learned. Discussing this with a group of fellow Leadership Calgary grads, we kept coming to the same point: our city was fragmented and in silos. We felt there was a need to create a mechanism to convene people so that we could create conditions for ideas to take root. TED was launching this experiment called TEDx at the time and was looking for people to join. It came at a fortuitous time. I was compelled to take on the biggest adventure of my life.

Q: What do you do as TEDxCalgary’s curator?

A: I am responsible for the entire narrative thread of any event that we hold. From theme to speakers as well as the logistics of running the organizations, it all ultimately stops on my desk. But that being said, TEDxCalgary is a team and it cannot exist without that team. 

Q: What are you trying to achieve with TEDxCalgary?

A: TEDxCalgary is a civil society organization that is deeply connected to our community, both locally and globally. The vision is to create a garden of ideas and a culture of conversation — and in doing so make Calgary not just the best city in the world but for the world. Everyone on the team is working to come up with unique stories and processes to engage Calgarians, and indeed the world, in ideas that are worth spreading. We are creating authentic conversations and a legacy of high quality digital artifacts that will live online for years to come. 

Q: You run an entirely volunteer-run, non-profit organization in what’s essentially your free time outside of a full-time job. What motivates you?

A: I am profoundly inspired by the energy, creativity and collaboration I see around me and I’m interested in shaping the conversation so that all this wealth of time, energy, and talent can be applied to benefit humanity on a global scale. TEDx audiences are multipliers and often lead the charge within their own spheres of influence. I’m convinced that this is a way to create change rapidly, harnessing that power, to answer some of the biggest challenges that humanity faces. 

Q: What’s involved in putting together this event year to year?

A: From speakers to the video editor, to the usher directing them to their seats, to the blog writer, everyone is a volunteer. At one point a few years ago, we calculated that it takes about 2,500 volunteer hours to run a small 100-person event! Now, we have a much larger operation but still, every detail is thoughtfully accounted for and designed for the audience experience. We’ve crossed over the 100,000 video views mark and this growing library of talks/digital artifacts is an incredible thing to have contributed to.  

Q: This year’s theme for TEDxCalgary is Truth(s). What does that mean to you?

A: The reason for seeking truth or truths is intimately entangled with judgments. Navigation and the tools that you use really do impact your judgment. There is a quality standard that does exist in arriving at a truth. 

Q: Where do you get your best ideas?

A: I read a lot. I’m someone who reads more then sleeps. Someone dear to me said to me once, "Buy more books then you can read, read more then you can remember and remember more then you can use.” I have taken that to heart! 

Q: What’s your favourite book?

A: Where Hope Takes Root by HH Aga Khan IV. 

Q: Favourite TED talk?

A: Chimamandie Ngozi Adichie’s The Danger of a Single Story

Q: Who is your dream speaker?

A: David Quammen. He is, perhaps, one of the most remarkable science writers alive today. His book the Song of the Dodo is one of my all time favourites.

Q: And lastly, what is your personal motto?

A: I am more ignorant then I am wise.  

The TEDxCalgary Conversation Comes to Campus 

On Nov. 15, 2014, Sajan and TEDxCalgary bring Truth(s) to the University of Calgary. The event will take place at the great staircase of the Energy Environment Experiential Learning Building and five out of the 11 speakers and performers have a UCalgary connection. For tickets and a full speaker lineup, visit TEDxCalgary

  • Dr. Munir Sheikh, former Chief Statistician of Canada, is an executive fellow at the School of Public Policy.
  • Dr. Joe Arvai is a professor and Svare Chair in Applied Decision Research. He is based in the Department of Geography, the Institute for Public Health, and the Institute for Sustainable Energy Environment and Economy.
  • Aritha van Herk is the author of Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta and teaches creative writing and Canadian literature in the Department of English.
  • Dr. William Ghali is the scientific director of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health and professor in the departments of Medicine and Community Health Sciences.
  • Beverly Jacobs is the former president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada. She is currently working on an interdisciplinary PhD in Holistic Aboriginal Health, Law, and Indigenous Research Methodologies at the University of Calgary.