Recent graduates win Davis Projects for Peace grant to empower Native American youth
Two winners of a Davis Projects for Peace grant are empowering Native American children in South Dakota by helping them develop an independent TEDx youth group on the Cheyenne River Reservation.
Ellie Nan Storck ’15 and Marina Sachs ’15 were awarded $10,000 to fund their project, “Lakota Youth Speak: Tipi Talks,” which will bring youth and adult mentors together to create a sustainable educational platform for empowerment, fostering new outlets for expression and creating positive pathways for Native American children.
“At present, there are no Native American-affiliated TEDx groups and this is highly problematic,” said Storck and Sachs in their proposal. “Without the inclusion of Native American communities, critical voices, ideas, perspectives and stories are absent from the TEDx global community.”
Storck and Sachs are partnering with Simply Smiles, a not-for-profit organization that has worked with children on the reservation. At the completion of the project, Simply Smiles will incorporate parts of the project into its own volunteer programs in an effort to expand mentorship, dialogue and creative expression.
The reservation, home to 10,000 Native Americans, is located in Ziebach County, South Dakota, the fourth poorest county in the United States. Storck and Sachs will be based in La Plant, a town of fewer than 300 residents. La Plant faces disproportionately high rates of child poverty, suicide, and alcoholism, with only 30 percent of teenagers earning a high school degree. Simply Smiles has created a community center in the heart of La Plant, which has provided a safe and positive common space for the residents.
The project aims to create a framework similar to that of a TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference, which brings together expert voices in a variety of fields. Connecticut College has hosted its own TEDx event since 2012, and held its second Youth Day event in 2015, bringing local middle- and high-school students to campus to speak and participate in hands-on activities.
Lakota Youth Speak will create a platform that encourages growth and development of skills such as public speaking, organizational outreach and professional communication, all while fostering creativity and strengthening relationships for adolescents in the local community.
The project, which began July 18, extends over six weeks. During the first two weeks, Storck and Sachs are volunteering with Simply Smiles to get to know the local children. Throughout the following four weeks, Storck and Sachs will lead team-building exercises, crafts, field trips and workshops for the children, culminating in a TED-style presentation of work during which the children will show what they’ve learned.
Storck and Sachs are natural leaders for this kind of project. As students, they were members of ConnSider, the on-campus student group that organizes TEDxConnecticutCollege. They also helped plan the Youth Day event on campus last spring, and were inspired to continue to work with children to make sure their voices are heard.
“We experienced how honest and moving the voices and ideas of youths were for an adult audience,” said Sachs. “It was moving to see how talks that were so personal to the speaker could spark an idea or connection in so many others.”
While researching TED talks in the run-up to the College’s youth conference, Storck and Sachs came across a talk by photographer Aaron Huey at Denver University, which focused on the marginalization of Native Americans. Through additional research, they found Native Americans were not participating actively in the global TED community. They decided to change this, partnering with Simply Smiles to build on the work already taking place on the Cheyenne River Reservation.
The project is designed to continue long after the Connecticut College graduates leave the reservation. They hope to continue a partnership with the Lakota reservation, bringing Simply Smiles staff to campus to meet with College students and, conversely, bringing College students trained as TEDx coordinators to the Cheyenne River Reservation for service trips.
"Now that we are in La Plant and actively working with community members, it’s hard to completely explain this experience to those who haven't seen it first-hand,” said Storck. “It’s made us realize how much our friends in La Plant need and deserve support from the rest of the world.”