This blog post was submitted as an entry in the Teen Impact contest and awarded as a finalist.
It all started on a stage in Long Beach, Calif. in February 2010 with a few words and a thought: The world needs "childish" thinking. At my widely watched TED Talk two years ago (TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design and is a prestigious conference and non-profit), I voiced an opinion that adults have a lot to learn from my generation. Through my work as a teacher, a student, author, activist and Huffington Post guest blogger, I see every day how true those words really are.
My speeches about youth voice admittedly stemmed from some frustration. Young people are often asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" and given advice about how to lead meaningful adult lives, but where's the encouragement to lead meaningful lives right now? Just think of the prevailing "let kids be kids" attitude. In the speeches that I deliver to adult audiences, I emphasize how "letting kids be kids" needs to mean letting us be everything we can be. I hope to personify that potential through the advocacy work that I do for literacy, feminism, ending world hunger and youth voice -- to literally be a walking "look what happens when you give us opportunities!" sign.
But my peers at school and around the world aren't going to be helped just by one person like me. It's too easy for audiences to pass me off as "exceptional," "a prodigy," "gifted." The point of my work is to make it clear that all youth can make "big miracles" happen.
We need a movement.
So in fall of 2010, and again in 2011, I organized the TEDxRedmond youth conference: A planning committee completely comprised of students, with all speakers 18 or under. We had speakers who had started charities, run businesses, fundraised, given speeches, taken pictures, written novels, climbed mountains -- it was a forum for the nation's best and brightest teens and the best part was that it was entirely peer-organized and driven. The ripple effects of the conference are continuing to spread. Our theme of "The Spark in All of Us" inspired the "typical teenagers" in our audience to find their inspiration.
To me, us teenagers are at the perfect crossroads of childish naivete and adult realism -- we still believe that problems can be solved, and now we also have the tools and knowledge to solve them. Alec Loorz, founder of Kids vs. Global Warming, anti-bullying activist Brigitte Berman, multimillion-dollar fundraiser Bilaal Rajan, the countless teenagers I know doing exactly that -- are our best persuasive arguments.
My work around youth voice has ranged from speaking to audiences of adults about learning from my generation, to starting a movement for peers to inspire each other. What began with a speech at a high-profile conference -- a desire to show the world that my peers and I deserve listening to -- has become a constant in all that I do. As I said in my TED Talk, "the world needs opportunities for new leaders and new ideas. Kids need opportunities to lead and succeed. Are you ready to make the match? Because the world's problems shouldn't be the human family's heirloom."
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