TEDx / “Live ARTfully” by Jeremy Del Rio

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TEDx recently featured Thrive Collective’s co-founder and executive director Jeremy Del Rio at the University of North Carolina’s online “TEDxUNC Roots” conference.

“Live ARTfully: Six Essential Questions for Creating Masterpiece Lives”

What do 9/11, immigration, and eradicating artless education show us about the power of our roots to shape masterpiece lives? Explore six essential questions that fuel resiliency and empower us to live fully no matter life’s circumstances.

Watch his talk beginning at the 48 minute mark in the following video.


“Live ARTfully: Six Essential Questions for Creating Masterpiece Lives”

Presented by Jeremy Del Rio for “TEDxUNC Roots,” March 31, 2022

What do 9/11, immigration, and eradicating artless education show us about the power of our roots to shape masterpiece lives? Explore six essential questions that fuel resiliency and empower us to live fully no matter life’s circumstances.

At a recent event at the Museum of Natural History, a senior staffer at the Mayor’s office called to one of his colleagues. “I want you to meet one of New York’s greatest muralists,” he said. His introduction completely mischaracterized me, but not the Thrive Collective movement I lead. The exchange left me wondering: How does a recovering attorney who will never be mistaken for Picasso carry a reputation for producing some of New York City’s iconic public art?

My roots tell the story. Where I’m from. Who’s I am.

Moments after terrorists crashed the first airplane on 9/11, a stranger burst into the hotel lounge where my father was hosting a guest in Midtown. “Turn on the TV,” he shouted. “A plane just hit the trade center.”

Rick Del Rio joined a global audience watching live as the 2nd plane attacked the buildings. As a young man, he and his father had helped construct the towers, and ate lunch on the roof of the unfinished structures. Now he was compelled to return.

He jumped on his motorcycle and raced to the site. On the way, he remembered the advice from a colleague minister about wearing a clerical collar during emergencies. He stopped at his Lower East Side apartment and discovered his never worn collar still in its original packaging. He paused long enough to iron the wrinkles. The delay caused him to arrive minutes after the second collapse instead of standing there as the buildings came down.

A national magazine would later describe Rick Del Rio as, “not your grandmother’s pastor.” His regular church clothes showed off his tattoos. That day for the first time in his life, he wore vestments.

As dad approached, he thought he was looking at smoke from fire, not ash and dust from the collapse. He parked his motorcycle two blocks away, and only then did he glimpse the gaping hole in the skyline. A first responder holding a body bag saw the collar, and called him over. “Please pray for these body parts,” he asked.

The Fire Department Chaplain Mychel Judge was the first confirmed casualty on 9/11. Afterwards, dad was the only clergy member on scene, a physical reminder that hope was present despite the horror. For almost a year, he routinely spent 12 or more hours at the Pile. Firefighters nicknamed him Father Harley.

I and others joined Pastor Rick at Ground Zero the next day. I never made it to the office on the 11th, and I never returned. At the time, I was a young corporate lawyer at a prominent firm working on billion-dollar intellectual property litigation. Then at Ground Zero, I was walking ankle deep in legal documents related to similar transactions and knew that my short time in corporate law had ended. I followed my father’s example and helped him organize what became the Ground Zero Clergy Task Force.

In 2018, as a result of his time at Ground Zero, Dad was diagnosed with stage 4 thyroid cancer that had spread to his lungs and ribcage. The aggressive cancer required debilitating treatment. Miraculously he pulled through. Two weeks ago, a PET scan confirmed that the cancer is back, with new cells on his ribs, spine, and hip.

Today, as I give this talk, Father Harley is in Texas building temporary housing for migrant families and humanitarian workers. When he returns, the doctors will begin a new round of radiation, and possibly chemo.

As extraordinary as my father’s leadership on 9/11 was, it was rooted in a lifetime of ordinary, everyday choices he and my mother made in the service of the city they love. They inherited that love from my immigrant grandparents, who fled poverty and landed in Brooklyn during the Great Depression. My parents met during the social unrest of the 60s, and their multi-ethnic romance resembled West Side Story. To this day, my brothers are the only other humans I’ve ever met who are equal parts Puerto Rican … and Norwegian.

Rooted in this multi-generational legacy, I received an excellent education, and career options. After 9/11, I resigned at age 26 to coordinate relief work at Ground Zero. Fifteen months later, I committed full-time to the youth center I helped launch and lead since 1996. In 2011, that work evolved into Thrive Collective, a nonprofit that creates hope and opportunity through arts, sports, and mentoring in and around public schools. All of my grandparents met, married, and nurtured families in Brooklyn. I’m proud that Thrive primarily serves neighborhoods like those that welcomed them, including the high schools that received both of my grandmothers.

The impulse to run towards where the need is greatest… to see opportunities to serve in the midst of adversity… to dedicate one’s time, talent, and treasure to make the world around us better – these are the roots of resilience my ancestors gave me.

In 2014, a new opportunity crystalized. The City’s “State of the Arts” report documented the dramatic, decades-long decline of arts and music programs in NYC public schools.

I can’t imagine a world without visual or performing arts, music or film, or any expression at all. And neither can you. Yet New York City sentenced a quarter of a million of our most vulnerable New Yorkers to an artless education every day in over 400 public schools. Children who most required the skills to imagine a world that doesn’t yet exist and make it so, were systematically deprived of the experiences that awaken that creative imagination.

Together, we can eradicate this injustice by connecting artists and youth workers with local schools as teaching artists, art directors, coaches and mentors. A lifetime of community youth development led me to co-found Thrive Collective to help bring art back to all NYC students and schools. Since then, we have directly served 20,000 students at nearly 200 schools in all five boroughs, five states, and Mexico. Perhaps most gratifying for a non-artist like me: to date, our artists and students have produced 225 school and community murals totaling over 100,000 square feet of public art; with almost fifty in production this spring.

To live artfully means to love well; create memories; and change the world.

I’ve been accused of seeing the world through rose colored glasses. I’ve been dismissed as an idealist and a dreamer.

There comes a moment in every one of our classes when the twinkle returns to our students’ eyes. When cynicism transforms into anticipation. When disbelief becomes expectation. When impossible dissolves into, “I’m Possible.” I live for those moments. They become memories that alter the trajectory of a life.

Most of our students resist being called artists. They expect that few will pursue careers as muralists, filmmakers, and musicians. But everyone has an opportunity to create a masterpiece life.

The greatest stories aren’t those captured on film or canvas or song lyrics, nor chronicled in newsprint. They’re not tweeted by publicists nor pitched by pundits.

The truly great stories are the ones we live every day.

Not the facades we disclose in our selfies. But the self-portraits we create through authentic lives well lived in the service of others.

To live ARTfully means to celebrate great stories being written.

Each day we stand on the edge of the greatest story we’ll ever tell. The best part: no one else can tell your story better than you can. You have full creative control!

Of course, some will try. “Haters gonna hate.” We all know that. Deadbeats will try to beat you out of life. Leaches and scoundrels will try to suck you dry.

But none of them can control your story. Unless you choose to surrender the pen. Or the paintbrush. Or the smartphone. Or, fundamentally, the power and freedom of your will.

Today, as you consider the narrative of your life, remember that every great story must answer six essential questions. Who? What? When? Where? Why? And How?

Some of the questions have been partially answered for you. You couldn’t decide when or where you’d be born, for example.

Some of the characters have been inherited from other people’s stories, like cousins, colleagues, and neighbors. But you can determine the part they play in your epic life, and you can invite new characters into the journey. The people and places may change, but the central character never will.

Embrace the opportunity to answer other questions that arise along the way. Seemingly trivial ones, and big ones too, like:

  • “Who is my neighbor?”
  • “What can I give?”
  • “How can I help?”
  • “Where can I serve?”
  • “When can I start?”

These kinds of questions delight the creators within us all, and empower greatness when we realize that, in fact, we alone have the power to decide.

Some of the questions might still feel uncertain, like the, “Why?” Some of us take years — lifetimes even — to figure out our purpose. That’s ok.

Enjoy the ride, and in the meantime, take cues from the things that bring you joy. What excites you in the morning? What activates your imagination? What do you dream for your children?

The place where your greatest joy and the world’s greatest needs collide, that’s where you’ll find your purpose.

As we close, here are five suggestions that respond to the, “How?” If you forget everything else I’ve said tonight, write these down. They’re even tweetable.

  1. Take Action
  2. Embrace Responsibility
  3. Serve Humbly
  4. Lead Courageously
  5. Love Sacrificially

To take action means to take initiative and seize every moment. Life isn’t for spectators. Stop watching other people live their lives, and start living yours.

To embrace responsibility means to welcome the consequences that your choices create – the good, the bad, and even the ugly. Learn from your mistakes and keep making new ones.

To serve humbly understands that life happens best when lived with others. Communities thrive when we seek to enhance and support those around us, finding their best and collaborating to co-create enduring beauty together.

To lead courageously means a willingness to go first, even if there’s no guarantee than anyone else will follow.  Sometimes the right thing requires defying expectations and rejecting the status quo. Always, creating a life requires us to fashion something that has never before existed.

Finally, to love sacrificially means to love even when it hurts. No greater love exists than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

My relentlessly determined, immigrant grandparents modeled it for me, and my parents too in their response to 9/11. I hope to continue their legacy in Thrive’s quest to eradicate artless education for all students and schools.

I’ve learned that when we live like this, more often than not, you’ll leave your audience wanting more.

Stories that demand sequels.

At Thrive Collective, the standard to which we hold ourselves accountable is: “Do you love it?” We’ve learned that our mission matters, our people matter, our work matters, our results matter because we love it. Lots of “its,” actually. That love compels us to persevere through the hard times, and makes the good times sweeter. We can’t stop / won’t stop working until and because the love is real.

Today and every day, there is so much to love! So many worthy organizations, inspiring stories, and generous neighbors. So many great choices.

We salute all the great causes and champions who live on mission because you love “it.” Thank you for the faith, hope, and love that drives you.

As I close, I want to invite you to make a commitment tonight. A commitment to find a love so deep, so compelling, that you’ll fashion a life that pursues it with your whole heart, mind, soul, and strength. You have been equipped for this moment, and the lifetime to come.

It’s time to live ARTfully.

Create a life worthy of a sequel.


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