“We followed Estrella blindly here,” she said, with a smirk. When Estrella protested, her friend stopped her mid-sentence and shot back jokingly, “You explained very vaguely what this TEDx thing was.”

She had convinced a few of her friends to come to Sunday’s youth event. Her tone shifted when I ask, teen-to-teen, which issue she believed deserves a TED Talk.

“My mom is a teacher,” she said. “She has to buy toys for her students and it’s hard now, because the kids feel like they’re stuck with the gender-specific toys – boys can only play with boy toys, girls can only play with girl toys.”

My question incited something within Estrella Hernandez, an underclassman at Alamo Heights. Just about finished, I began to pack my camera and walk away, but she jumped into an insightful commentary I was lucky to catch.

“I think that TED already covers a lot of discrimination, just like she was saying, but I really want to see something about how the idea of success is overrated. There are a bunch of kids my age who are doing a ton of super cool stuff with their lives, and they’re totally stellar at a bunch of things, but they feel like they aren’t doing anything,” Hernandez said. “Now, because of how competitive things have gotten for careers and college, people my age always feel like there’s someone better than them. Like, there’s always someone out there who can outdo you at anything. Quite honestly, we need to take the time to reflect on what we’ve done and realize that we are, in fact, people who have done a lot and can do a lot.”

She then went back to joking with her friends, but her words were significant.

Student leaders collaborate after the second breakout session during TEDxYouth. Photo by India Nikotich.
Student leaders collaborate after the second breakout session during the inaugural TEDxYouth in San Antonio. Photo by India Nikotich.

At an event like TedxYouth, coordinated by the local TEDx chapter and San Antonio Youth Commissionheld on the SAY Sí campus, it is so easy to feel like you are surrounded by young people who are, in her words, better than you. The revolving group of high schoolers present on the rainy evening of Nov. 15 are secret superstars – SAY Sí actors and artists, community leaders, and digi-mavens. Hernandez herself developed an app as a middle schooler to encourage active lifestyles.

On the “Worlds Imagined” roster for TEDxYouth, simulcast from the Brooklyn Museum in New York, speakers like Tahir Hemphill and Jennifer Mascia presented startling appeals for youth involvement in unexplored fields.

“We have a lot of students with intellectual and social capacity, but the desire to go against the grain is not how commissions and vehicles for change normally run,” said San Antonio Youth Commission (SAYC) Liason Adam Tutor. “It is so important for students to understand the value of putting in that extra bit of color when it could just as easily be black and white.

Courage for change is the driving force of innovation, and student attendees wrestled with their own voice in breakout sessions that filled SAY Sí’s collaborative rooms.

The first breakout, led by Andrew Salazar, senior at John Jay High School and chair of SAYC, challenged the pressures ambitious teens face in the school system.

Dedicated to getting the best spot, a student sits on the floor front row to watch a TED talk about how marine organisms can inspire new technologies. Photo by India Nikotich.
Dedicated to getting the best spot, a student sits on the floor front row to watch a TED talk about how marine organisms can inspire new technologies. Photo by India Nikotich.

“We get caught up with the GPA ideal – the top 10, top 5% – but it’s what you have inside that matters, and that was the focus of the discussion,” Salazar said. “Some of us are outstanding overachievers, and we want to do big things. We’re here, spending a Saturday to listen to TED talks and … to network. You don’t have to be the smartest to achieve your goals. Those kids who understand this are the kinds of people who are coming to this event.”

With 23 years under their belt, SAYC has spawned formative delegations. Most recently, district commissioners have headlined a Teenage Driving Awareness campaign with District 8 Councilmember Ron Nirenberg and planned of the annual Destination College Week summit.

“It’s a disadvantage sometimes, being 16-18, because your idea might not be perceived the same way as it would if you were an adult,” Tutor said. “ (At SAYC) we try to say, ‘Okay, you have this idea and you want to reach out to the mayor, or you know of someone who has the tools to change what you want to change? You can go out there and do that. You have that ability.’”

SAY Sí’s role in the TEDx live stream was much more buoyant. In addition to offering up their computer lab for students to connect to the 100 TEDx events happening in 33 different countries, SAY Sí students and leaders created a literal brainstorm that attendees could clip their ideas to as droplets. Among the present adolescents, there was a push for conversation about mental health, arts development, and the rapidly increasing obsolescence of current technology.

Sabina Vasquez, a senior at the STEM program at Lee High School and student liaison for the visual arts program at SAY Sí, said the collaboration was like “holding a mirror to your face.”

“After every big event we always have a reflection period, where we think about what we do and how it is actually important to the community,” Vasquez said. “Having another youth organization come here shows how much of an impact we have. We bring art to the community, and they bring teenage, urban issues from the community.”

TEDxSanAntonio was instrumental in the setup of TEDxYouth, lending volunteers and donating T-shirts. At Rackspace this year, TEDxSan Antonio highlighted "Ideas in Action." Photo by India Nikotich.
TEDxSanAntonio was instrumental in the setup of TEDxYouth, lending volunteers and donating T-shirts. TEDxSan Antonio highlighted “Ideas in Action” at Rackspace this year. Photo by India Nikotich.

*Featured/top image: Using the new.livestream.com link, students connect to similar events in places including Toronto, Madrid, and Sri Lanka. Photo by India Nikotich.

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India Nikotich

India Nikotich is a senior at Douglas MacArthur High School, considering a career in publishing after college and grad school. When not editing yearbook pages or producing the Literary Magazine, India...