Carmel Valley students have ‘Conversations That Matter’ at short-form TEDxYouth event

Drummers pounded out powerful rhythms leading a procession of students into the Proscenium Theatre at Canyon Crest Academy recently.

The stimulating beat set the tone on March 30 for a unique experience for students who were selected to attend a short-form TEDxYouth@SanDiego event, called “We Can’t Wait: Conversations That Matter.”

Four hundred high school students engaged with leading experts who focused on some of the most urgent themes that affect their generation, aiming to cultivate empathy and widen their circles of compassion.

CCA junior Annika Patton served as emcee, introducing presenters who tackled tough issues including violence, race and rape. “We can’t wait until we are in college to learn about these issues,” said Annika in her opening address.

Marjorie Nielsen, filmmaker, spoke about campus assault, student rape and hazing. Using audience interaction, a number of students were given colored dots on their ID badges. The 80 green dots represented female victims of on-campus sexual assault, 1 of every 5 women; the 25 blue dots represented males who had been violently assaulted, 1 of every 16 men. Those with the colored dots were asked to stand to visually display the impact of these chilling statistics.

Nielsen urged would-be “bystanders to be upstanders,” to do anything to intervene to make the violence stop. Her message of “creating a culture of respect and consent” was clearly shared.

Ari Mostov told her own moving story of how she was a victim of rape by a friend. Acquaintance rape is the most common form of sexual assault, she said. “We can and must deserve a higher standard so that all our sexual encounters are positive,” she stressed. “It starts with communication.”

Presenter Matthew Emerzian drove home more shocking statistics: “One in 5 high school students have been sexually assaulted, 1 in 5 high school students have seriously thought about suicide, 1 in 5 high school students have been bullied,” he said. “But we can tackle this tough stuff,” he affirmed. “We can’t wait to make it better ... we can change from the inside out; together we can change the world and it starts today.”

CCA student Jared Gaurano performed his poetic interpretation of the injustice of racial stereotypes. Presenter Sam Killerman — focusing on empathy — urged students to use the Platinum Rule, “to treat people the way that they want to be treated.”

The event was interactive, with speakers pausing to allow students to briefly discuss the issues with each other. A relaxing interlude with a brief meditation exercise was led by Jeffrey Zlotnik.

Ashanti Branch, an urban educator, described how his confidential conversations with teen males in a “safe circle” allowed an opening up of truth. Through weekly meetings over lunch, these teens were able “let go of their emotional baggage” by expressing their vulnerabilities and by being themselves.

“We all wear a mask,” stated Branch, but he urged everyone to be honest and accepting and to make their own safe circles.

Between speaker segments, Sam Tullie sang, with members of CCA’s conservatory band providing music; CCA students Maya Ziv and Kevin Sabellico spoke about the concept of acknowledging others by being present and empathetic.

The event was brought to a close as students were led by procession to the outside amphitheater, where glowing luminarias marked the pathway. Singer/songwriter Lee Coulter rounded out the evening, performing several original songs.

Maya Ziv said that she was looking forward to seeing how students will internalize the shared ideas of respect, consent, honesty, and community, and how they apply them to their own lives. She hopes they face the troubling themes in their own schools and communities head-on, and create more welcoming spaces for people “of all beautiful varieties.”

“We’ve heard stories of clubs, events, movements starting in other schools and other places, and that’s what I hope this event will spark — the idea and commitment that we can’t wait for these issues to resolve themselves,” she added.