TedXRiverside - Vincent Ta/HIGHLANDER

A mosaic of presenters showcased an Inland Empire filled with stories, struggles and self-discovery.

Wednesday, Oct. 16 opened with gloomy clouds and a morning chill — a threadbare, gray blanket atop the city of Riverside. Solemn-colored cars drove up and down the streets, with only the vivacity of a smattering of trees breaking up the monochromatic morning. It felt like winter long before winter had any right to make its grand entrance.

There was a startling departure from the canvas of gray. At the corner of Mission Inn Avenue and Market Street, a hubbub of voices emanated across the pavement as hundreds of people chattered with each other. A mixture of old and young, long-time residents and recent transplants, everybody seemed to pay no heed to the melancholy tones that first heralded the day. They were looking to the future, in anticipation of the Ovation for Innovation, also known as TEDxRiverside.

TED is a nonprofit that originated in 1984, and its mission is to share “ideas worth spreading.” To that end, speakers from all over the world give short presentations about their ideas, their work and their life experiences to an audience eager to learn. Individual cities and groups are free to hold their own TED conferences, so that’s just what Riverside did — and why several hundred people milled around outside the Fox Performing Arts Theater in far greater anticipation than the early morning hours warranted.

Michael Pazzani is UCR’s vice chancellor for research and economic development and chaired a committee tasked with bringing TED to Riverside. Pointing out that Riverside’s motto is “the city of arts and innovation,” Pazzani explained that the city was a perfect fit for TED’s mission. “I think it’s something interesting to call it (TEDx)Riverside,” Pazzani said. “Riverside is a whole lot better than its reputation.”

When the doors finally swung open, the stream of people rushed inside the warm embrace of the theater. With standing room only, the Spanish chandeliers dimmed, the spotlight illuminated the stage, and the audience clapped their hands together in a show of anticipation. The ovation for innovation had begun.

The speakers ran the gamut. Sarah Mundy, who is responsible for the maintenance of Riverside’s museums, devoted her talk to the struggle and perseverance of the Harada family, who immigrated from Japan and found success in the face of racism. UC Berkeley alumnus and businessman Giovanni DuBois spoke about his trip to Laos, where he overcame his fear of the unknown to travel to the hometown of a Laotian man he’d just met. “Fear is normal but we can’t let it hold us back,” DuBois intoned. “Instead, say yes.” Southern California native Gregory Adamson was an artist of few words, but extolled the importance of practice, effort and determination before dipping his hands in buckets of paint to bring splashes of color to an on-stage canvas. The audience peered quizzically at what appeared to be abstract art — until he flipped it upside-down, revealing a portrait of John Lennon.

Chancellor Kim Wilcox took the stage at one point to introduce Steve Breen, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and UCR alumnus, who explained that people should try different things in their lives and their work. A cartoonist by trade, he noted that drawing is like “throwing spaghetti at the wall … You never know what’s going to happen.” He showed off several of his cartoons throughout the years, ranging from politics (Barack Obama winning the 2012 elections) to the whimsical (a rainbow-maned unicorn about to impale a man on death row). At the end of the day, people shouldn’t worry about the day-to-day — but instead let what they love warm their hearts.

TEDxRiverside wasn’t just a venue for one group of people: It was attended by people of all ages and identities. Many members of the audience came from one of Riverside’s colleges, perhaps enticed by the student discount. Far more trekked in from local high schools, with the organizing committee providing tickets on the house to inspire ideas in students and light the fire of engagement. Two presenters, Nobel Prize winner and UCR alumnus Richard Schrock and CEO of Riverside-headquartered Bourns, Inc. Gordon Bourns, emphasized investment in the sciences and engineering, not just by the federal government, but by students emotionally into their studies.

Throughout the day, the common recurring theme was the story of overcoming hardship to reach a better future. Whether giving up all worldly possessions to spread goodwill across the United States by doing good deeds or dedicating decades to perfecting singing, every speaker reiterated that no path to success is paved with sunshine and candy. Adam Young’s story was emblematic of the day. Young was born with cystic fibrosis, a medical condition that causes the lungs to slowly cease functioning. Doctors said he wouldn’t live to see his 21st birthday. Yet he pursued his life’s passion: dancing. Struggling for breath, he still won multiple awards and even performed a dance while on oxygen. Not dancing was useless. After all, he said, “I’m dying. I’m not dead.”

Each speaker had some tie to the Inland Empire. Pazzani explained that when the committee tossed around ideas for attendees, many committee members discovered they had some relationship with a suggested speaker. Some lived in Riverside and others went to school or had family in the area. Some came to Southern California from across the country, while others were born and raised in the region and Southern California never left their hearts. Each never forgot where they were from and what made them great. While some may look at the Inland Empire as a desert wasteland, it is still part of our identity, Patrick York, a writer from Victorville explained in the last presentation of the day. “I am a desert rat,” he affirmed, not with shame or disgust, but pride warming his heart.

With the event finally over, attendees stepped back outside to greet the last rays of the sun. But it wasn’t the sun that warmed the city now — it was the sense of pride and feeling of determination that caused the early winter to melt the way a year of ice melts before a strong flame. The sun was setting over the Fox Performing Arts Theater, but new ideas — ideas worth sharing — were burning brightly in people’s souls.