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Originally published Tuesday, April 2, 2013 at 7:17 PM

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Gates Foundation taps into worldwide audience

Melinda Gates, who used a similar event last year to announce her birth-control campaign, will host a TEDxChange session Wednesday, tied into more than 200 sites around the globe. But is it a conversation, or PR?

Seattle Times science reporter

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When Melinda Gates takes the stage in Seattle Wednesday morning, she’ll be standing in front of several hundred people — but her real audience will be in Ghana, Port Au Prince, Kabul and other corners of the globe.

The forum, called TEDxChange, is the foundation’s own take on TED, the franchise that features short, snappy talks on topics from cosmology to the social benefits of computer games. Wednesday’s event at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will feature a religious scholar, a young activist from Niger and two children from the slums of India.

Their presentations will be translated into eight languages and simulcast to more than 200 sites around the world, said Tom Scott, director of global brand and innovation for the foundation.

The goal, he said, is to start conversations that could lead to action on issues the foundation supports — from polio eradication to empowerment of women and girls.

“One of the things we’re really looking at and trying to understand is how do you engage with communities on issues of global health and global development and find ways for people locally to get involved and be active.”

TED-type events have demonstrated their power to spread ideas. Nearly 1,500 videos posted online draw millions of viewers. When Melinda Gates used TEDxChange last year to announce the foundation’s new focus on contraception, 29,000 people watched live. Within a month, more than 300,000 people had viewed the video of her talk online.

But the TED franchise has come under fire recently, with critics saying it dumbs down complex ideas, promotes technological fixes for the developing world, and has been co-opted as a PR tool.

“In TED world, problems of aid and development are no longer seen as problems of weak and corrupt institutions,” Evgeny Morozov wrote last year in The New Republic. “They are recast as problems of inadequate connectivity or an insufficiency of gadgets.”

Scott said Wednesday’s event won’t be just a megaphone for the foundation’s priorities. Many of the satellite events will feature their own speakers, and focus on local priorities. “Where the real excitement happens is at the individual, community events,” he said.

Julie Dixon, one of the scheduled speakers, praised TED and its spinoffs as a way for people around the world to share stories and lessons. “It doesn’t matter if you’re Bill Gates, or if you’re a person off the street,” said Dixon, deputy director of the Center for Social Impact and Communication at Georgetown University.

Dixon will talk about the use of social media to galvanize support for causes, and the way people can leverage their own efforts by enlisting friends and others.

“When you think about things you can contribute ... money is the first thing that comes to mind. But there’s something to be said for being able to utilize your influence,” she said.

Another of Wednesday’s speakers, Cathleen Kaveny of the University of Notre Dame, crossed paths with the Gates Foundation after Melinda Gates launched her push to make contraceptives more widely available in Africa and India. Kaveny, a professor of law and theology who describes herself as being “pro-life without being pro-culture wars,” met with foundation staffers to help explain the Catholic Church’s stance on birth control.

But her subject at the TEDxChange event, which has the theme of “positive disruption,” will be the way religion can help break down the status quo and replace it with something better.

One of her examples is a long-running program where American nuns raised money and provided training and education to help nuns in Africa cope with the AIDs epidemic there.

“They were not supplanting the African sisters, they were offering them a helping hand,” Kaveny said. “The idea is not to impose solutions on other people.”

Other speakers include Halimatou Hima, a young woman from Niger who will discuss the importance of education for girls; and Salim Shekh and Sikha Patra, two children from Calcutta whose efforts to bring clean drinking water to their slum are featured in the film “Revolutionary Optimists,” which was partly funded by the foundation.

The event begins at 9 a.m. and will be streamed live at: http://tedxchange.org.

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com

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