Culture TEDx

I used to think I couldn’t get out of hell: Chicago public school students react to TEDxYouth@Midwest

Posted by: Hailey Reissman
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Jullien Gordon, a founding partner of New Higher, says on the TEDxYouth@Midwest stage , “Our generation has two choices, we can hope or we can hustle.”

Earlier this month, 450 Chicago public school sophomores and juniors, plus 120 of their teachers, crowded into the city’s Harris Theater for TEDxYouth@Midwest, an event all about inspiring, motivating and empowering the young people of a city known for youth gun violence, but full of so much more — culture, history, educators and students dedicated to helping their city thrive.

Chicago’s public schools have been a fixture in the news lately. 54 schools in the city are slated to close in 2013, and according to reports in The Chicago Tribune, the 2011-12 school year brought the highest number of public school students affected by gunfire since 2008. Twenty-four students were killed; 319 students shot.

At TEDxYouth@Midwest, organizers strove to turn the focus from problems, and keep it focused on the potential. 17 speakers addressed the audience, including people like guerrilla gardener Ron Finley, who is planting gardens in South Central LA; Dr. Benjamin Harrison, a researcher working on growing replacement tissue for patients who have lost their own; and Chicago native Zoe Damacela, who started her own apparel line as a high school student in the city.

This year, TEDxYouth@Midwest launched their TEDxMidwest Youth Connections Program, a project pairing TEDxYouth@Midwest students with career experiences designed to open the doors to potential careers — from job shadowing to summer internships to discussions with local entrepreneurs. Through the program, 35 TEDxYouth@Midwest student attendees found summer internships and, next year, the team at TEDxYouth@Midwest hopes to raise that number to 100.

“The event was levels better because of the students’ infectious energy, and its potential to really have a life-changing effect on hundreds of kids and teachers,” said Mike Hettwer, who co-organized the event with

Linda Stone.

“The speakers were so motivated to speak there.”

The immediate effects of the event shone in students’ responses to comment cards asking how their thinking changed throughout the event. Some of their responses are truly incredible. A sampling:

I used to think… “That once you made a bad decision, that was it for you. People say you write your life’s story in ink — if you make a mistake there is no way to erase it. You are done!”
Now I think… “That I should no longer aim for perfection, but rather strive for success. Success is not measured by how many times you fall, but actually choosing to get up once more then you fall.” 

I used to think…”That you have to use violence in order to make peace.”
Now I think… “But I realize that I can use peace to make peace.”

I used to think… “That because I am considered a minority, I would not be able to do amazing things I really want to do.”
Now I think… “That I can do anything I set my mind to if I do not let anything hold me back. Only I can prevent myself from achieving my goals and my passion.”

I used to think… “I couldn’t get out of Hell.”
Now I think… “I can with Mellody Hobson’s speech.”

I used to think… “I was one of the few teenagers passionate about science.”
Now I think… “TED is all about diversity of ideas and other people are as passionate about science as I am.”

I used to think… “If you come from a broken home, would live in a broken future.”
Now I think… “You can shape your own future and get away from the brokeness.”

I used to think… “This was going to be a long boring program with weird snacks.”
Now I think… “This experience has been the best experience in my whole entire life.”

The audience at TEDxYouth@Midwest was made up of sophomores and juniors.

The audience at TEDxYouth@Midwest was made up of sophomores and juniors.

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Dave Gallo, Director of Special Projects at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) talks about the deep sea and its deep secrets.

One of the amazing comment carders from TEDxYouth@Midwest.

One of the amazing comment carders from TEDxYouth@Midwest.

Read much more about TEDx and its extraordinary constellation of events on the TEDx Blog »