TEDx Youth: Empowering a Community to Create Change, with Vision and Voice

Kathryn Wilke

Kate Wilke is an educator whose experience spans 11 years, 4 countries, and 5 grade levels. As a twice Returned Peace Corps Volunteer she is passionate about sustainable community development. Her current contributions to the American Nicaraguan School take great care to scaffold students through understanding (and to truly owning) the positive impact they can inspire through initiatives like Senior Capstone, TEDxYouth, and the Global Issues Network.


Three years ago I faced a crossroads in my career. Previously, I had cultivated professional experience as a Spanish instructor within high-needs New York City Public Schools that relied on Title I funding. As a second language learner and aspiring polyglot, I’d learned to recognize and wholly appreciate how healthy communication builds community through sharing of the self, which is an integral precursor to connecting fragmented individuals and societies.

Brooklyn students commit to Community Gardening & Service Learning initiative organized by Spanish Teacher & Advisory Lead

Brooklyn students and holders of Advanced Regents diplomas, thanks to outstanding scores in Spanish

Upon transitioning to Nicaragua, it was clear that native speakers of Spanish possessed generations of local linguistic and cultural knowledge that far surpassed what I could bring to the table. It stood to reason that native Nicaraguans would be better suited for a Spanish teaching position. So I had to ask myself: “What now? How should I reinvent my passion for communication and connection to effectively and dynamically serve my community?”

I vividly recall an “A-ha!” moment during my interview for the American Nicaraguan School, when my then-interviewer, now-administrator mentioned seeking someone “with vision” to prepare a TEDx elective that could enhance student voice at our school. Even as I mulled the opportunity over, it was impossible then to understand the extent of my own vision, or even what was possible to accomplish as a newcomer to the school culture.

I certainly had a lot going for me in the form of a diehard dedication to students, and as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer I was naturally drawn to and had experienced the possibilities of local and global change through strategic, community-led, grassroots development. Not to mention, I was an avid follower of TED, and could attribute much of my own digital learning and wonderment to hours that had been invested: listening, watching, exploring. Why not take on this new challenge? What could it do for my new adolescent students, who are at their own crossroads, to be equipped with an enhanced ability to share “one idea that could change the world?”

And so began the TEDxYouth@ANS initiative.

Students share community-building ideas at a fundraising activity to be shared at the event.

Students share ideas non-verbally.

Volunteers plan and lead breakout sessions to engage audience and connect talks.

At its inception, it was no more than a semester-long course that attracted students, many of whom selected it as the elective “path of least resistance.” The majority of participants were happy to attend and pass the days watching and unpacking Talks through the TED model, but were scarcely interested to prepare their own Talk or contribute to the preparation of a school-wide event. All, save one. There was one student who was so driven that he had actually already given a TEDx talk, at 12 years of age (…no big deal).

This particular student was an immense advocate of TED, and his passion and tenacity definitely helped incubate my own. When he insisted on taking the course again in the Spring semester, I encouraged him to expand his horizons: “It’s only a semester-long course. I’ll be teaching the same material you’ve already studied, but to new students. Wouldn’t you be bored? Surely there’s something else that draws your attention and could vary your experience!” He assured me that there was nothing else that would be offered as an elective that year that would challenge him or excite him in the same way. And so I tapped into the alleged “vision” that earned me the position in the first place, and said: “Do you think you might want to organize a TEDxYouth event?” And so it was that we began plans to co-organize an inaugural TEDxYouth@ANS event.

Engage Speaker – Emerge Student Organizer

Engage Speaker – Emerge Productions Lead

Engage Speaker – Emerge Speaker Coach

Engage Speaker – Emerge Speaker Coach

In its first year, elements of event preparation were a bit shaky, but positive. We were able to work together to train nine student speakers and two members of school staff to deliver eleven live Talks, four of which were captured and shared by TED with the global community. We were able to feature 10 student musicians, who performed in an ensemble, as well as two dance performances by a talented student ballerina; and we filled the audience with the requisite 100 attendees. Our event theme was “Engage” and our 11 speakers addressed topics of inclusion, feminism, determination, and wonderment. Apart from technological glitches that would result in losing much of the footage, it was a solid start.

Soundcheck.

Raising awareness and funds @ Kermesse

Some students use music to spread their message.

The next year would be transformative for our program. We no longer met during an elective block, but were able to make up for lost time by sacrificing countless afternoons, evenings, and weekends to fundraise, plan, and train our speakers. The few adults who remained committed to this undertaking shared responsibilities and diversified perspective by broadening leadership from one student organizer in the previous year, to a team of returning student participants who sought to propel the program forward and take initiative to the next level:

  • one student organizer (a former speaker from the “Engage” event)
  • two student-speaker coaches (former speakers from “Engage”)
  • a volunteer coordinator for the day of the event (former “Engage” event volunteer)
  • a student CFO to manage sponsorship, ticket sales, merchandise, etc. (former speaker from “Engage”)
  • a student Public Relations Lead (former PR volunteer from “Engage”)
  • a student Productions Lead (former productions volunteer).

Our follow-up theme would be “Emerge” and our team made it our driving commitment that the audience leave our event feeling rejuvenated and reignited “like a butterfly from a chrysalis.”

Leadership conducts speaker auditions.

We have merchandise!

Press conference, 2017

Ever seeking sponsorship

Ideas shared would range from the complex social-emotional undertakings of adolescence to experimentation with 3-D printing and algal biofuels; with a call to read, question, make better decisions, and protect ourselves and each other from sexual violence; with awareness also brought to the need for preservation of avian species. Below you’ll find a complete list of the talks, as they were ordered on the event program:

Mario Sanchez (HS Senior):
“Question everything…Even me.”

Elinor Ketelhohn (HS Freshman):
“Reading: The disregarded superpower of our generation”

Iris Kilmister (HS Senior):
“Freedom through flight: a bird’s natural right”

Diego Velasquez (HS Freshman):
“From Alpha to Omega: Upsetting the high school social hierarchy”

Youngil Seo (HS Senior):
“Be the friend you want to see in the world”

Nick Calles (HS Junior):
“The Talk: Version 2.0”

Raúl LeClair (HS Senior):
“Lending a hand: Printing infinite possibility”

Felipe Caldera (HS Senior):
“Algae is life: A greener future awaits”

María Cobos (HS Freshman):
“Don’t default: Own your potential”

Each speaker took the stage, with members of our Leadership team smiling with one-part anticipation, two-parts pride, confidence, and knowledge that everyone was amply prepared. We awaited each line with bated breath, each in our supportive roles, ready to help however possible. And as each student delivered the first and last line, we ended the same way we began, with individual and collective breath taken away. The event amplified impact as student artwork graced our stage, student volunteers led break-out sessions, and student soloists enhanced our program through music and dance.

This time, thanks to redoubled redundancy efforts taken by our Faculty Co-Organizer/Productions Lead (and former “Engage” speaker) Evan Wilke, we captured 100% of our footage. In the spirit of TED, this will help us spread the commitment and message of our speakers throughout the local community, while also sharing their unique vision with the rest of the world.

As our program continues to flourish (in addition to committed volunteers, we have instituted a full-year course with 13 participants who are enrolled and ready to collaborate), there is no telling how far we will travel along what feels like a seemingly exponential pathway and partnership of learning and positive community exchange. We have learned (increasingly) through the years how incremental each individual piece is to a well-organized whole. We just interviewed 16 applicants for Leadership roles, with a prerequisite that they have taken part in helping to build program in previous years. When asked why they wanted to participate in the TEDxYouth@ANS event this year, responses glowed with the enthusiasm and drive that is particular to young agents of change:

“I hope to join the Leadership Team because I want to help organize and bring to life an event that I believe will change the world, or at least change ANS youths’ point of view of it.”

“The dynamism, the energy, the passion and everything else that is put into this event is both incredible and unforgettable! Therefore, I want to continue to contribute and improve TEDxYouth@ANS so that it can achieve new heights.”

“TEDx has forever changed the way I think.”

“I have been a part of this event since the start and have been able to see it grow. Being able to see my ideas further implemented and see the event prosper even more than it has would be incredible…I am very grateful for [experience as a volunteer because] it has given me the opportunity to gain knowledge about TED, TEDxYouth@ANS and how to ignite community change.”

“This experience [has been] enriching, inspiring, and unique. I hope I can join the TEDxYouth@ANS leadership team since I plan to be very committed to this event all throughout my high school experience and beyond that in college and in life beyond school.”

“I want to be part of TEDxYouth@ANS 2018 to be able to use my experience and abilities to spread ideas. I want to be able to say that I impacted my community by communicating ideas worth spreading.”

“[This was an] enlightening, revealing and memorable experience. Being a speaker, I got to see how the event was organized from a pretty close perspective and it became something that made me passionate about creating change.”

“I feel that TEDx is a great way to motivate and influence people in my community, and since I personally don’t feel passionate about giving a talk, there will no better way to help than by making this event a reality. I hope to join the Leadership Team to make the event even better than years before, and personally make a greater impact here at ANS.”

Next week our Student Leadership will conduct interviews to select from among 13 hopeful applicants who seek to meaningfully contribute to this year’s program. Their ideas cover a wide range of issues that are significant to our student body: high school race relations, the importance of self-discovery, self-acceptance, and self-truth; diminishing the stigma of autism in the developing world, confronting fear to enjoy life, how small things can make a big difference to our carbon footprint, failure as a necessary element of success, the impact of adolescent depression and suicide, the importance of dreaming and doing, the value of STEM problem solvers, balancing personal expectations, and social media as a tool rather than a weapon. It promises to be an incredible event that continues the legacy of this program as a means to amplifying student voice.

And so it is that I am able to reflect, in awe of the past several years’ accomplishments and their shift toward enhanced communication and connection; feeling utter gratitude for the unique ways in which the seed of an idea can continue to transform individuals and communities into inclusive agents of sustainable change. This year students return energized, ready to expand on the legacy we initiated through “Engage” and “Emerge”, hopeful to inspire our community to “Evolve” in understanding and action that are necessary to meet the complex challenges of our time.

Needless to say, I couldn’t be prouder or readier to apply fresh perspective and perseverance to my part of this play. As faculty organizer I’ve undertaken care and responsibility to innovatively approach the evolving demands tethered to guiding a 21st century youth leadership movement; as they critically and compassionately share vision and voice to better the world we share.

Our 2017 yearbook photo features speakers, talent, leadership, and student volunteers

Follow the development of event planning progress through our FB event page, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Flickr and at TED.com.

Interested in starting a TEDxYouth initiative at your school? See TED’s Organizer Manual to learn how you can apply to wear TED’s brand to share “Ideas worth spreading” that will positively impact your students and community.

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