Stealth Unitarian: Rev. Karen Speaks at TEDx Saskatoon

KFG-TEDx-TalksOn a Saturday in late October, Rev. Karen Fraser-Gitlitz, 3/4 time developmental minister for the Unitarian Congregation of Saskatoon and 1/4 time consulting minister for the Unitarian Fellowship of Regina, took to the stage among a slate of other speakers at TEDx Saskatoon, the independent lecture series based on the TED Talk model of ideas sharing. The full-day event brought together diverse speakers sharing thematically linked ideas on the topic of “Elevate.” Rev. Karen spoke to CUC eNews editor Sarah Baxter about the TEDx experience:

CUC eNews: So, what did you end up talking about at TEDx?

Karen Fraser-Gitlitz: I was talking about cross-cultural relationships and the big piece was about getting over [that hump], for those of us who shy away from feeling like “oh I’m going to offend somebody or do something embarrassing,” or thinking it’s not going to go well, getting over that hump.

CUC: Did you apply to speak, or were you asked?

KFG: You have to apply. So there was a video interview process, and in this particular case you clicked on the link and they asked you two questions and you recorded a little video of yourself speaking, and you also sent in some stuff as well. They wanted a bio, and they had questions for us, you know, what would we talk about, that sort of thing.

CUC: Right, so did they say what theme they were going for ahead of time? Or did that sort of emerge?

KFG: Yeah, the theme was “Elevate,” and it’s funny because it was initially kind of a struggle for me to figure out, oh, what exactly does that mean, and then when I started to write my talk it actually came together quite quickly. I had a number of stories that I realized I wanted to talk about, sort of elevating our general social discourse around cross-cultural relationships and getting along together as a community. This was right in the middle of the election, too, with electioneering, and there was a lot of stuff going on. It helped me pull us down to our kind of more, basis or racist approach to things, so it was very important to me to be speaking about elevating ourselves to another level, and how that happens not just through policy and programs, which are important, but through our individual acts and our divisions, you know: who we talk to as we’re walking down the street, or who we talk to in the grocery store and how we talk to them. Those individual choices have a ripple effect.

CUC: Did you feel like that was well-received? How was the crowd?

KFG: It was good. It was a really neat day. I was really impressed by the talks that the organizers had put together. I felt that there were lots of points of connection between the talks which was really interesting. And I thought people were very interested in what everybody had to say which was really cool. You had to pay money to go, but they got 250 or 300 people there, I think, so they were all the types of people who wanted to be there and talk about ideas and society and improving things, so it was a really cool group of people to talk with.

CUC: Did you find preparing for this sort of event to be very different or very similar to when you prepare to preach at the [Saskatoon] congregation?

KFG: Well there are similarities and differences. I guess the similarities are that a good story is always something that’s important and connects to people. The difference is, I don’t know the people I’m speaking to quite so much. One of the cool things about being in a congregation is that you’re having an ongoing conversation about things, and the sermon is one way of having an impact in the congregation’s ongoing dialogue. But in the TED format, well one of the interesting things about TED is that lots of people are familiar with it, so they understand the format, and they give lots of space in between the session for people to talk, and the day was divided into four sessions and between each session the people who had just spoken were given places to go to, and it was announced, so if you wanted to come talk to me for example, you knew that I would be standing by the staircase after that session was ended, so the 3 or 4 speakers would be in various places and people could go around and talk to them, and that was really cool.

CUC: Did you have a lot of people come up to you?

KFG: A fair number. I was the very last speaker, so I had a number of people come up to me, but I felt that the conversations would have been longer if it had been earlier in the day. People were kind of ready to go home. So I didn’t have quite as much dialogue as I would have liked but I felt like there were people who were very interested in the message, and I felt that when I was speaking people were really engaged with what I was saying.

CUC: About the differences between public talks and sermons, it sounds like if you were preaching to congregants that the message would be the same. What about the way you speak? Did you feel like you needed to tailor the language at all? Do you normally preach in a UU-specific way? Or was it really just knowing the crowd that you found different?

KFG: I think when I’m speaking to the congregation, I’m not just abstractly speaking about community-building, I’m speaking about our community and building it, and I may also be speaking about the wider community. I’m usually doing both at the same time, but I use examples that make sense in our context. So in speaking to a TED talk it’s a much more general thing. So there is a difference in the preparation I think. Some of what I would say in a sermon was exactly the same, but the specific examples, or the specific conversation about where we are as a congregation – because I think that the congregation itself is a kind of learning lab for how to be community – [would be different]. So when I’m speaking about community-building to the congregation I’m using very specific stories, because I know, I have a sense of what’s been happening and I want to talk about that. But when I’m speaking to a TED talk, the learning lab in this case was our city, because it was very much focused on Saskatoon. It was, “how do we change things in our city?” So the audience is the whole city, rather than the congregation, and I can’t know as much about the whole city than I can about the congregations.

CUC: Was this one of your first times speaking at this sort of event? Or do you regularly give public talks as well?

KFG: I’ve certainly given public talks before, it’s not the first time, but it’s the first time I’ve spoken at a TED conference.

CUC: Do you think you’ll try and do this more regularly? Do enjoy finding these new platforms to share these sorts of messages that you like to talk about?

KFG: Yeah, I think that’s an important part of what I do as a minister is taking what we have to say as Unitarians out into the community. And it was really cool to be able to do that, to be a bit of a stealth Unitarian in a way.

CUC: I contacted the TEDx Saskatoon organizers to ask them if there was anything in particular they could tell me about why they chose you [as a speaker]. And they mentioned two things, they said they liked your storytelling abilities, and also they mentioned your involvement with Essential Voices, as something that spoke to them. Can you just tell me a little bit about that?

KFG: Sure, so last year I worked with outreach ministry with the United Church of Canada. ICM [the outreach ministry of the local Riverbed Presbytery] had developed a way of working as an organization and they were excited about it and thought it had much to offer, so they decided to have an outreach campaign to raise awareness of what they were doing.
I was hired as one of the three people on that team to do that outreach work. So what we were promoting was a mutual mentorship in governments and not-for-profits of people with professional experience and people with lived experience. So for example, if your not-for-profit is working on homelessness, what we were saying is that there should be a paid position in your organization for somebody currently with lived experience of homelessness. In some ways it’s difficult to do because it’s different from what organizations normally do, and it does take extra time and energy, but it allows the organization to have more credibility in the community and more impact in their work in the community as a result, so the three of us on the team were going around promoting that way of working.

CUC: Is there anything else about your experience of giving a TED talk that you would like to share?

KFG: I just thought it was a really neat thing, and I would encourage Unitarians who are looking for a platform outside the walls of their congregation to consider giving a TED talk. I think it’s something that is surprisingly easy to do. I say that obviously as someone with experience public speaking and I was certainly nervous beforehand, I was very nervous, but the people who come to hear TED talks are interested in ideas, they are interested in meaning-making and that’s something that we do particularly well, so I think we’re a natural fit for a TED conference and the TED format.

Videos of TEDx Saskatoon’s October 24th event are posted at