LONG BEACH, California — Shane Koyczan, the Penticton spoken-word poet and author, left attendees at the TED conference near tears with his self-effacing look at the effects of bullying through the eyes of being both a victim and a bully.
In the week since his anti-bullying video, To This Day, was released on YouTube as part of Pink Shirt Day, it has been seen nearly 5.2 million times.
The power of that video — which explores the effect hateful and bullying words can have —led the organizers of the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference to quickly change the agenda and draft Koyczan to speak to its 1,400 attendees on Thursday.
Koyczan, who is accustomed to large crowds — he delivered the slam poem We Are More at the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Games — was nonetheless nervous when he stepped onto the TED stage, looking out at a packed audience.
“Oh, so many of you,” he said.
Koyczan struck a nerve with the crowd of wealthy venture capitalists, scientists, philanthropists and all-around over-achievers when he told them how so many people like him start their lives conditioned to failure.
“They asked me what I wanted to be and then told me what not to be,” he said of his first teachers.
Koyczan first warmed the crowd up with humour, talking about how he sabotaged a bully by giving him fake answers to a test.
But he then grew serious, telling the story of why he now hates pork chops — he was given that name by school bullies who twisted a favourite meaning he shared with his grandmother.
Koyczan’s potent message came at the end of a day of TED Talks, which is built around new and different ways of looking at communication; indelicate conversations that dealt with issues like sex and bodily functions; and secret voices, which dealt with repression and exploration of nature.
It was into this last and powerfully emotional session that Koyczan’s poetry was delivered. He followed talks by psychologist researcher Eleanor Longden about dealing with her schizophrenia, and activist Hyeonseo Lee’s description of reunification with her family after escaping repressive North Korea.
Koyczan said later he became emotional at the end when attendees leaped out of their chairs and gave him thunderous applause. This was the same set of people, he said, who might in their childhood also have been called “geek” and “fatty.” There may have been some who were bullies, too.
“Having seen TED from a distance, I always thought if ever there was a place for someone like me, the outcasts, people who maintained who they are despite being told what they were, it was TED,” he said.
Neil Gershenfeld, the director of the Center for Bits and Atoms at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, stopped Koyczan in the hall after the performance and enthusiastically shook his hand.
“I wanted to thank you. That was just gorgeous,” he said.
“I thought it was wonderful, moving and compelling.”
Koyczan said he’s been astonished by the reaction to the video, which was done for free in collaboration with a group of 80 artists and Giant Ant Studio.
“I am not necessarily surprised that so many people are passionate about the message,” he said. “But I am surprised at how quickly it has been picked up. I think this resonates with a lot of people.
“I think everybody gets bullied in their own way. Even athletes probably get it from their parents,” he said.
“To a degree, everybody gets bullied. Really, the object of the project was to put an arm around the shoulder of somebody who needs it.”
He said he could have used the power of the video in his own childhood.
“For me, growing up and going to school and not seeing any anti-bullying posters and not hearing people talk about bullying was very desolate. Hearing about it now is reassuring because people care about it. People are working on the problem and that is some measure of comfort.”
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