By Shivika Gupta
Photos by Iain Salvador
“I’m not adding anything new to the conversation” is an existential fear entertained by Tilly Lawless, but also most self-aware and driven people. How can we possibly expect to be #original and #agile and #innovative when we have such a bulk of knowledge already in existence before us? As cross-cultural information sharing grows, so does the capacity to expose overlapping ideas. It reminds us of how small the world really is and how alike our thoughts and experiences can be.
However, the need to educate people of these ideas will never fade into irrelevance – although you may not have anything new to say, as Lawless says, “it could be at a time when somebody is ready to hear it”. Although fads spark interest in particular ideas, products or lifestyles over a specific period, there will always be people who first come to these ideas in their own time, making it important to keep the conversation(s) going.
Providing a platform for so many unique perspectives and endeavours, TEDxYouth, which occurred earlier this month, plays a vital role in the educative journey all young people go through. However, its accessibility is problematic, judging by the audience on the day, limited to privately or selectively-educated students who already privilege from exposure to environments supportive of critical thinking. Although the talks were uploaded to YouTube as an eight-hour long video, it is questionable how revisited this would be.
Yes, you’ll suffer a bout of tall poppy syndrome listening to these young adults, but it is no doubt inspiring and reassuring to know these people exist and such feats are achievable. The most striking similarity between this group of “youths” (ranging from a 16-year-old inventor working to reduce the impact of radiotherapy, to a martial arts actor finally fulfilling her goal to work alongside Jackie Chan) was their defiance of expectations and their success in breaking down cultural barriers; success at a young age will always be a subversive act.
This importance of education is central to the role of individuals like Lawless. Refraining from identifying as an activist, Lawless is a queer sex-worker who discussed the necessity of including sex-worker rights in the feminist movement. Very eloquently, she was able to humanise a group that not many people, let alone young people, understand. No doubt those in the audience walked away deeply more empathetic.
Emily Wurramura, an artist from Groote Eylandt located in the Northern Territory, sings in English and in Language (Anindilyakwa). Interviewing her after a stunning performance, she described her community as having a strong “male hierarchy where not many women pursue their interest”. It is remarkable that despite a “cultural restriction on women performing”, she pushed these boundaries to become the only female singer on the Island, and performed for the elders who initially disapproved of her pursuits.
“The first time I performed was when I was 14, for the One People, One Voice Festival. I was the only female performing,” she starts.
“The only reason it happened was because all the women petitioned for the men to have me come out … I respectfully introduced myself to the elders and talked to them so they could know me not just as a singer, but as a person who loves coming and seeing her people. I remember coming out and seeing the 17 different tribal chiefs [from all the surrounding Islands] and they were very serious. I freaked out thinking, ‘I don’t know if they’ll like it’.
“The first song I sung was ‘Ngayuwa Ngelyeyiminama Nungua’ which means ‘I love you’ and they were very happy – maybe because it was such a feminine take on the language, they thought wow, this actually sounds really good. It was positive. And slowly, slowly it’s starting to change. They’re allowing women to go be educated in different states.”
When she goes back home, she tries to hold workshops to connect with the community, especially the younger women.
“I try to motivate them to take opportunities to do what they want to do … if I’d stayed, I’d probably have ended up with six kids,” she said.
“I want to show them that they can do it; you don’t have to let these cultural restrictions hold you back.”
She also noted that, “it’s very important, especially as a young Indigenous woman, to preserve our languages, especially for future generations”.
This sense of responsibility and pioneering action reflects none of the apathy young people are often dismissed as possessing. In a segment called “Fast Ideas”, five attendees came up on stage to deliver their ideas for change. The creativity and problem solving was reflective of the emerging start-up scene – we really do have so many new things to say.
TEDxYouth provides an excellent platform to make these ideas heard. Particularly when appealing to a young audience, the forum plays a transformative role in representing the diverse career paths young people can pursue. That doesn’t sound too bad.