5 Activists Who Received Standing Ovations at TED2023

Crowd gives standing ovation at TED conference

2023’s ‘Possibility’-themed TED conference was full of awe-inspiring moments. 

From good news reports, climate innovations, and artificial intelligence for good — to vulnerable conversations about death, mental health, and human rights — attendees were left ready to take their marching orders to fill the world with more good.

Speakers were supported by audience members, sprinkling notes of laughter, applause, and cheers at the perfectly appropriate times. 

Countless speakers were celebrated with standing ovations, too, one of the most thoughtful gifts any TED Talk-er can receive.

It feels almost inconceivable to try to narrow down our favorite moments, but we’re here to share some of the love with five activists who moved the TED audience to their feet at this year’s annual conference. 

Meet the activists who received standing ovations for their TED Talks

Golshifteh Farahani

Iranian Actor, Musician & Activist

Golshifteh Farahani at TED2023
Golshifeth Farahani speaks at TED2023: Possibility. Photo courtesy of Jasmina Tomic / TED (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

During TED’s first session in Vancouver, Golshifteh Farahani spoke live via webcam from Rome. 

The Iranian artist and activist has spent her life studying classical music and working as an acclaimed professional actor, but in 2008 was accused of working with the U.S. CIA and has since been exiled from her home country of Iran for the last 15 years.

In that time, Farahani has continued to push boundaries, acting in over 30 films, releasing several songs, and in her environmental and human rights activism, advocating for Iranian women’s liberation. 

She spoke especially to this struggle for freedom in her TED Talk, reciting a list of “I am” statements, positioning herself in the shoes of so many individuals who have been on the front lines of the fight for equality in Iran.

“We can all decide today to be the bridge, to unite, rather than separate,” she said.

Farahani ended her talk with a quote from the poet Saadi:

“Human beings are members of a whole, in creation of one essence and soul. If one member is afflicted with pain, other members uneasy will remain. If you have no sympathy for human pain, the name of human you cannot retain.” 

Though she wasn’t physically in the room at TED, she lifted a pair of headphones to her ears at the end of her talk so she could take in the and show gratitude for the thunderous applause filling in the venue in Canada. 

Nadya Tolokonnikova

Russian Artist & Activist; Founding Member of Pussy Riot

Nadya Tolokonnikova on stage at TED in front of an image of Pussy Riot's iconic protest in Russia
Nadya Tolokonnikova speaks at TED2023: Possibility. Photo courtesy of Gilberto Tadday / TED (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Nadya Tolokonnikova, a conceptual artist, activist, and founding member of the feminist protest art group Pussy Riot, brought a delicate balance of rage and hope to TED2023.

The Russian activist gained global notoriety — and was sentenced to prison — in 2012 following the performance of “Punk Prayer,” an anti-Putin piece she staged with comrades inside a Moscow cathedral. She started a hunger protest and was sent to a Siberian penal colony before her release in December 2013 — and continued a life dedicated to resistance.

In 2021, she was declared a “foreign agent” by Russia. Although she now lives in exile, Tolokonnikova has plenty of work to continue. She is a co-founder of the independent news outlet Mediazona, art platform UnicornDAO, and raised more than $7 million for Ukrainians last year.

At the start of her TED Talk, she asked audience members to stand while she walked them through her sentencing, and throughout the rest of her speech, explored her years of activism and resistance. 

She closed with a message directly to Putin, “wanted criminal to wanted criminal:”

“You have already lost,” she said. “That’s why you’re so afraid. The world is on Ukraine’s side. And in your final hour, when you pray, to whoever you pray to: know that she is on our side. She is on the side of truth.” 

Gus Worland 

Mental Health Advocate; Founder of Gotcha4Life 

Gus Worland on stage at TED 2023
Gus Worland speaks at TED2023: Possibility. Photo courtesy of Jasmina Tomic / TED (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Gus Worland, an Australian TV and radio personality, took to the TED stage to tell the story of losing his dearest friend and mentor to suicide. 

Emotionally, he explored the loss he endured — as well as the outpouring of support and connection he experienced when he shared his story on his radio show back home in Sydney, Australia.

When he realized how many folks had their own stories to tell, he started his foundation: Gotcha4Life, with the mission of making sure every person has someone they can turn to and be accepted and loved, “warts and all.” 

Worland’s mission is to bring suicide rates to zero, but he knows that changing those scary, overwhelming numbers can’t happen all at once — and instead urged the TED audience to focus on the people closest to them — “their village.”

Towards the end of his time, Worland asked everyone in the audience to close their eyes and think of someone they love and couldn’t imagine living without. Then, he had them shout out the name of the person who came to mind and promise to send them the following text message:

“I love you. I miss you. I’ll see you soon. xoxo”

In the subsequent days of the conference, he playfully threatened, he would ask everyone he saw what came of that conversation — one, that, at least, would make someone feel just a little more loved, and at best, would inspire a brief, but deeply important conversation about suicide prevention. 

Sixto Cancel

Foster Care Transformation Advocate; Founder of Think Of Us

Sixto Cancel speaks at TED2023
Sixto Cancel speaks at TED2023: Possibility. Photo courtesy of Gilberto Tadday / TED (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Sixto Cancel, the founder and CEO of Think Of Us, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing the foster care system, began his TED Talk with his own vulnerable journey through foster care.

He shared his story of life without a loving home, bouncing around the foster care system, which ultimately culminated in the realization that he had in fact had aunts and uncles who had served as foster and adoptive parents for longer than he had been alive — and were just 58 miles away from his last foster home. 

But he had no idea they existed — nor they he — until he was nearly 30 years old. 

“My whole life, I was 58 miles and a couple of questions away from being raised by people who would have loved me; my own family,” he said. 

This led to Cancel’s mission to gather data and insights directly from people with lived experiences in the system, and to replace the traditional foster care model with that of kinship care, placing children in homes with extended family members or adults they already know first and foremost.

Think Of Us is one of ten members of the 2023 cohort of The Audacious Project, and will receive over $47 million in grant funding to continue its life-changing — and systems-changing — work. 

“If we push just a little bit harder in this very moment, we can actually live in a new reality, where when children have to come into the foster care system, the first thing that is looked at is extended family and people that they know,” he said. 

“If we are able to achieve that, we will literally be able to ensure that millions of children will come off of that school bus, go into their homes, and look at family members, people that they know, and say ‘I am loved.’”

Sheena Meade

Criminal Justice Reform Advocate; CEO of The Clean Slate Initiative

Sheena Meade receives a standing ovation at TED conference
Sheena Meade speaks at TED2023: Possibility. Photo courtesy of Gilberto Tadday / TED (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Sheena Meade, the CEO of The Clean Slate Initiative, began her TED Talk by telling the story of her arrest: Where she was handcuffed in front of her children because an $87 check for groceries bounced.

Although Meade quickly rectified the situation, she spent years dealing with the hurdles that came with having an arrest on her record. 

Her work at The Clean Slate Initiative is to make automatic record clearance a reality for as many Americans as possible. So far, the organization has helped implement Clean Slate laws in ten states, where people’s records are cleared after a set amount of time being crime-free.

“We shift the burden from the person who made the mistake to the system that tries to trap them in that mistake,” Meade said. “Red tape: cut.” 

With the help of funding from The Audacious Project, Meade said up to 14 million people could have their records expunged in the next six years.

This story is one of second chances, creative problem solving, and political advocacy. 

“This record clearance problem is solvable and fixable,” Meade said. “And we’re doing the damn thing.”

Good Good Good is in Vancouver this week covering TED2023. This article is part of our ongoing, exclusive coverage of the conference, with more interviews and stories to come. Follow along here all week, or on social media with our hashtag #GGGatTED.

Follow along with Good Good Good’s coverage of all of the best positive news, hopeful progress, and ways to make a difference — all from TED — all week long: Instagram | Newsletter | Website

Header image: Photo courtesy of Gilberto Tadday / TED (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

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