Red Cloud Student and Graduate Speak at Rapid City’s first TEDxYouth Event

posted July 29, 2016 

Recently, on a late spring afternoon, over 100 young people gathered inside the auditorium at Rapid City’s Journey Museum. They were there to participate in the region’s first ever TEDxYouth event—a half-day filled with presentations and performances all designed to engage and inspire youth. Seven dynamic speakers took to the stage to share lessons from their own lives, two of whom have deep roots at Red Cloud Indian School: graduate Elyssa (Sierra) Concha ’13, a student in elementary education at Black Hills State University, and rising senior and poet Marcus Ruff ’17 delivered presentations on the powerful role that Lakota culture and spirituality has played in their lives.   

Millions of people around the world have been inspired by TED talks since they launched in 1984. The affiliated TEDx Program gives local communities, organizations, and individuals the opportunity to organize their own independent TED-like gatherings. As part of that initiative, TEDxYouth events bring students and other young people together to discuss some of the most critical issues facing youth today. They are designed to empower youth to create change in their own lives, in their communities, and in the world.

Both Sierra and Marcus learned about the TEDxYouth event when friends encouraged them to apply and share their perspectives. Both had powerful stories to tell. Elyssa, who is studying the Lakota language and hopes to teach in the Lakota language program at Red Cloud after graduating, wanted to challenge the negative stereotypes that surround Native American communities, drawing on her own experience of overcoming adversity. And Marcus, a spoken word artist who has performed his poetry for audiences across the reservation and around the country, felt driven to speak about the ways that Lakota culture and spirituality have fueled his creative process and helped him find his own voice. Excited at the prospect of telling their stories in a more public forum, they both decided to apply.

As a poet and performer, Marcus hoped that sharing some of his personal journey might inspire others to write.

“When a friend first told me about the TED talk, I felt I had something to offer. As a spoken word artist, I have a lot of experience with public speaking. I travel all over the Pine Ridge Reservation and perform my poetry. And each summer, I travel to different locations across the country to compete in Brave New Voices, the international poetry festival where we’ve focused on issues facing Native youth, like poverty, education, and gender equity,” he explained. “I try to educate through my poetry—and giving this TED talk was another opportunity to do that. The point of my presentation was to introduce more young people to poetry and hopefully inspire some of them to write their own.”

Marcus and Sierra each developed concepts for their presentations and submitted them for consideration. Once they were selected as finalists, they were interviewed by event representatives. Finally, in January, they learned that they had been selected as speakers. They were each paired with a mentor who helped them to sharpen the content and delivery of their presentation.

“My mentor had me send her a rough draft of what I wanted to talk about and then she offered some great suggestions for how to structure the presentation. We sent drafts back and forth, writing and rewriting until it was clear and concise,” said Sierra. “Then we started practicing the presentation itself and she coached me and encouraged me to practice in front of as many people as I could. We even practiced in front of people at Starbucks so that I knew what it was like to deliver the talk to a group of strangers. It was a great help and really made me feel ready.”

After months of preparation, Sierra walked into the stage at the Journey Museum in Rapid City and delivered her talk entitled “Native Youth Are More Than Statistics.” In it, she addressed four negative statistics that continue to plague Native American youth: school dropout rates, alcoholism and substance abuse, sexual violence against women, and suicide rates. Telling a deeply personal story, she recounted how each of these statistics have touched her own life—and how she has refused to let them define her.

“I spoke about relying on my culture, my family, and my people to build me back up and overcome those struggles,” she said. “As Native youth, we do struggle with these statistics—it’s a reality in our communities. But we’re so much more than that and we overcome these challenges every day. We’re breaking through those negative stereotypes.”  

Sierra’s talk touched a nerve. After she finished her presentation, the audience gave her a standing ovation—and people from the audience approached her to share their own stories.

“People said that because I was vulnerable with them, they felt they could be vulnerable with me. People of all ages and backgrounds came up to me to share details about their lives and their struggles. It was really incredible,” she said.

Marcus’s talk “The Creative Mind: Thoughts of a poet” also addressed the ways in which Lakota culture and spirituality have influenced his life and work—and elicited a similar reaction.

“Over the past few years, I’ve been doing a lot of research into Lakota culture, spirituality, and history, and attending a lot of ceremonies. And there’s a common theme I’ve noticed in these ceremonies: in them, you are pushed to the edge of your suffering and you feel all this pain, up until the point that you almost give in. It is at that point that you receive your vision or your answer,” he said. 

“That concept has really inspired my creative process. I use Lakota spirituality as my entry point to going into writing a poem and I wanted to share that concept with other artists. And after the talk, I had people come up to me to tell me how much they’d learned. In the future I know I want to go on to be an activist of some sort. I think the TED talk was very helpful in giving me the experience of putting myself out there and getting my voice heard.”

The TEDxYouth event was sponsored by: The Journey Museum & Learning Center, Lakota Children’s Enrichment, Film Rockers, Willi White Photography, the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, Office Depot, Todd Curtis, and the Rapid City Performing Arts Center.


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Photos © Willi White