Ariell Johnson was shaking.
It wasn’t immediately obvious but the tremors in the notecards she clutched on stage gave her away. That, and she wasn’t pretending otherwise.
“Sorry,” she said. “I’m shaking because I’m nervous.”
Johnson had taken the stage earlier this month at the biannual Ignite Philly to talk about her relationship with comic books. She loved them, she said, but maybe she shouldn’t love them so much because of how rare it was to see someone who looked like her — a black woman — in them.
“Why is it that we’re always looking for ourselves in these mediums?” she asked. “It’s because we want to see ourselves being amazing.”
We don’t want to always be the sidekick, she said.
“We wanna be the hero sometimes too.”
Johnson’s talk was stirringly brave, honest and touching. It’s hard to talk about race with people you know, much harder in a room full of strangers that are, for the most part, white. That’s why she stole the show for us at the 15th version of Ignite Philly, an event where Philadelphians, as curated by a small organizing team, are invited to talk to about anything for five minutes to a packed house at Johnny Brenda’s, the Fishtown concert venue and bar. It’s one of Philly tech scene 2.0’s oldest traditions.
Greater representation of people of color in comic books is “important for the growth and the health of the medium,” Johnson said, adding that diversity shouldn’t be treated like a formula.
“We are not just plot devices to move a story forward,” she said.
Johnson is opening a comic book shop cafe called Amalgam Comics in Kensington. It’ll be a space to push this conversation forward.
“Geek culture has always been a place for outsiders,” she said.
Below, find more highlights from the event. (And excuse our lateness, we blame Philly Tech Week presented by Comcast, which came right after Ignite and kept our editorial team a bit stretched.)
“Becoming other preserves yourself.” — Amber Levin, talking about Krampuslauf.
Best Civic Hacking Shoutout
The most bicycled street in all of Philadelphia is Spring Garden Street, at least according to CyclePhilly, the mobile app built by civic hackers at Code for Philly. The Spring Garden Street Greenway team quoted that data as they explained why and how they wanted to beautify the dilapidated and dangerous street that cuts across the whole city. (Twenty-one percent of all crashes on Spring Garden involve bikes, they said.) Their plan is to make the street not life-threateningly scary.
(Not sure what it says about us, but though we understand the need, we also felt a little defensive and protective of Spring Garden’s urban grit.)
The Big Check
Every Ignite Philly, one speaker from the previous event gets $1,000, made up of ticket proceeds. This time, it went to Rachel Ford of sewing education program Made Studios.
Best College Course
Dr. Timaree Schmit, a Ph.D. in human sexuality, gave the crowd a five-minute course in sex positivity, the idea that sexuality should be embraced, celebrated and focused on consent. She called it “a fundamental human rights issue.”
People who are in power use sex negativity to stay in power, she said.
Her calls to action: “Be brave. Tell people what you fucking want. Listen to what they fucking want. … Be an activist all the time.”
Best Comedic Relief
Sometimes, after a series of inspirational and moving talks, you just wanna laugh. Thanks, Eric Steele. Speaking in more puns than we thought humanly possible, the developer explained how to make Tom Cruise look taller. “He’s so dang proportional,” he said. (Sorry, folks, we can’t remake his jokes right now. This was one of those “You had to be there” talks. Hold out for the video.)
Best Use of “Disrupt”
As part of the tech scene press corps, we hate the word “disrupt.” (Hint, hint.)
But we let Patrice Banks get away with it because this one felt warranted. Banks, a former “auto airhead,” is launching an auto mechanic shop that caters to women. It’s called Girls Auto Clinic. There’s nothing else around like it in the male-dominated industry, she said. It’s a completely underserved market. Banks couldn’t find a female car mechanic so she went to night school and became one.
Best Name Checks
West Philly rapper Sterling Duns talked about love, and in an Ignite Philly first, as far as we can tell, the whole thing rhymed. In another unique Ignite Philly move, he dropped references as wide-ranging as bell hooks, Maya Angelou and Master Splinter. (Yes, from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.)
Best Rallying of the Troops
We give this one to Young Involved Philadelphia president Nick Marzano, who urged the crowd to “hope local,” specifically, in terms of politics. Ignite Philly has been on a bit of local politics kick (PlanPhilly editor and political mover-and-shaker Jon Geeting spoke at the last one).
Here was Marzano’s winning rallying cry: “We don’t have to wait for that aspirational candidate. We can own our city and we can change our city and we can support the young politics movement.”-30-