Meet The 2018 Ted Residents

See how they’re changing the way stories are told.

Photo by Jerm Cohen.

Meet Kemi Layeni and Savannah Rodgers, the creative 2018 TED Residents currently exploring NYC as they prepare to go up on stage in a few short weeks at TED. We spoke with them about what motivated their projects – A living dance history of slavery, and the cultural impact of LGBTQ+ films, what it’s like to live in NYC, and what they hope to accomplish after they present. Their stories were nothing short of inspirational.

Photo by Jerm Cohen.

Kemi Layeni

Where are you from?

I am from good ol’ Hampton, Virginia.

What fueled your creativity?

I come from an immigrant family and I’m an only child, so I had a lot of pressure on me to be either a doctor, lawyer, or an engineer. But in the back of my mind, I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker and do something creative. I didn’t do anything artistic until my second year of college in 2014, which was the first time I had ever taken an art class in my life. And that really cemented what I already knew inside of me.

Photo by Jerm Cohen.

What emotions did you go through when you found out you were the next TED Resident?

I honestly didn’t really think I was going to get it. It was so surreal because I always hope for things like this, but I never think that I could actually have it.

Have you found a community there, either through TED or activities outside of TED?

Yes I have. I really love the people in TED, I’ve made friends with residents and interns that work there. But I’ve also been involved in the comedy community as well as the acting community in New York so I’ve met a lot of people through that as well.

Photo by Jerm Cohen.

Give us background on your project and why you chose to bring it to TED

So my project combines dance, cinema, and music to reveal and expose the history and connections of specific landscapes that have a tie to the legacy of slavery. I believe that slavery was an experience that was felt traumatically especially in the body. And dance is about the body. I feel that dance can turn these histories into a living history. I am working with black dancers, choreographers, musicians, and composers because I believe the subject matter calls for it. I want everyone to learn something new that stays with them, but I especially want black people to know that I honor our history and the people who were forgotten or abused by history.

What do you hope to walk away with after TED?

I love people so I want to walk away with meaningful relationships, that’s probably the most important thing to me. And I hope to walk away a stronger artist and creative

Photo by Jerm Cohen.

Savannah Rodgers

Where are you from?

I’m from Olathe, KS.

What was high school like? What fueled your creativity?

High school was rough. To be fair, I think most people have a hard time in high school. It’s such a ridiculously vulnerable time to be alive. I just tried to write TV scripts without really knowing how scripts were structured. For the most part, I just watched a lot of content and tried my best to be a student of film.

How did you feel when you heard you got the TED residency?

Over the moon. Is there another way to feel when you get incredible news like that.

Photo by Jerm Cohen.

How has living in NY been different from where you grew up?

The change I’m most stoked about is the accessibility to different cultures, but also my own. I could go to a multitude of LGBTQ+ specific events on any given night here. It’s been fab.

Outside of TED, what has been the most life changing opportunity that has come from moving to New York?

I attended the New York Film Festival for the first time, went to Adobe MAX in LA, and I’ve been to see incredible Broadway shows that deeply affected me. While none of these things are singular events I would pinpoint them all as the things that changed me as a person. I’m grateful.

Give us background on your project and why you chose to bring it to TED.

In addition to my TED Talk, I’m working on a documentary on Chasing Amy (1997) and its cultural impact on the LGBTQ+ community. When I pitched this concept as the idea for my talk, my program leaders were enthusiastic. It was exciting to feel that validation from people I respected. They understood my passion for the movie and the representation it gave me as a closeted 12-year-old in Kansas. I knew by developing the project during the residency, they’d fully support it.

Photo by Jerm Cohen.

What do you hope to walk away with after TED?

A TED Talk, ideally. Other than that, I hope to walk away with friendships and connections that will last a lifetime. I have a good feeling I’ll be walking away with all that and then some.

Do you have plans after the Residency is over?

Tons. I have a lot I want to accomplish both professionally and personally. Luckily for me, I’m just getting started.

Inspired to explore more incredible work by Kemi and Savannah? Find them both on