Last Saturday, April 2, We Are Family Foundation held its second annual TEDxTeen, a day of talks by people whose actions and ideas are changing the world in a positive way–for teenagers and as teenagers. Attendees came from all over the world; I spoke with a young man and his mother who traveled from Palestine, and with a few other students who came from California just for TEDxTeen. Saturday happened to be an especially beautiful day here in New York City, which made it all the more inspiring to see the number of young people who chose to spend their time in a darkened auditorium.
There were fourteen talks in total, most in person but a few had been recorded from other TED conferences and were replayed. While all of them were remarkable, the talk which stood out the most came from Natalie Warne, who was just 17 when she learned about the longest-running war in Africa in which millions of children were forcibly drafted as soldiers, in many cases killing their own family members. She then applied to be an intern with Invisible Children to take action and help end the war, and helped to lead Invisible Children‘s awareness project called The Rescue. In over 100 cities worldwide, thousands of people came out to protest the war, dispersing only when a city’s media mogul emerged to use his or her voice to speak about the conflict in Africa, thereby ‘rescuing’ each city.
Working primarily on the rescue event in Chicago, Natalie broke down how many hours she spent on the project (well over 1,000), how much money she spent on the Red Bull and Diet Coke needed to keep her going (over $300), the hospital bill she ran up as her body suffered from the subsequent overcaffeination (nearly $1,000) and how many times she was turned down by publicists and managers for the various moguls she tried to have rescue Chicago (almost 500). Six days into the event and in pouring rain, Chicago was the only city that hadn’t been rescued. So, Natalie, her fellow volunteers and the crowd of activists surrounded Harpo Studios, where Oprah Winfrey broadcasts her television show viewed by over 10 million people every day, and vowed to stay until she gave them time on her show to talk about the war in Africa. And she did.
On May 24th, 2010, President Obama signed into law the bill Invisible Children had been working to pass which included a plan to arrest Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, try him for his crimes and provide assistance to the war recovery effort. Natalie did not fail to name her fellow volunteers and interns who worked tirelessly (and unpaid) to make this happen, but she also discussed her Chicago childhood as she and her five siblings were raised by her single mother on a modest teacher’s salary. Unlike many of the other speakers, Natalie did not grow up in a world of material privilege. The amazing work from others who did have certain advantages is no less valuable, but Natalie’s talk was so notable in part because it was clear she worked incredibly hard and overcame significant obstacles to make her dream come true. She also told us that her hard work continues, noting that if we were to follow back to her Los Angeles, we’d see her working long hours nannying and waiting tables to pay the bills as she pursues a career in film production. As Natalie said, “It is the acts that make us extraordinary, not the Oprah moments.” While watching the video of her being hoisted up by the crowd in front of the Oprah building, I think all the young people in the auditorium realized that this moment was just one among many others of blood, sweat and tears. Every presentation at TEDxTeen reminded us that change is always worth the work, but I especially appreciated Natalie’s for driving home just how much work is involved in the journey to make the world a better place.
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