An interview with TED speaker Adora Svitak

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Activist, published author, public speaker and, best of all, UC Berkeley student, Adora Svitak arguably has achieved more in 17 years than most people can in a lifetime. But it isn’t her honors, her accolades or even her proven genius that sets her apart; it is her undying passion for and dedication to changing lives. She has devoted herself to spreading her optimistic dream for a more “youthful” world by speaking, writing and empowering since she was 6 years old.

In fact, by the tender age of 12, Adora had already planned and organized her very own TEDx event: TEDxRedmond, which took place in her home state of Washington. This event, which she continued for the next four years, showcased her already-growing message that the voices of youth are as influential and wise as those of adults. Svitak argues that children have as much insight to share and teach as they do to learn. Coincidentally, grown-ups can learn a lot about creativity and open-mindedness — even wisdom — from kids.

While even she describes her perception of wisdom as “a wizened old sage with a beard flowing down to his feet,” Adora has spoken, at numerous events, of the inherent and underrepresented wisdom of youth. More recently, she was a featured speaker for the wisdom segment at the TEDxBerkeley event Feb. 28. Instead of speaking of the wisdom of kids, as she has at past TED talks, her TEDxBerkeley talk shifted to be centered on openness in sexuality and the wisdom that can be found in “simplicity, openness and honesty.”

Never having spoken about the importance of openness in sexuality until TEDxBerkeley, Svitak attributes her new talk to her feminist identity. Her “sex-positive” outlook, or positive attitude and openness toward sexuality, has allowed her to find other like-minded, open-minded individuals, she says. She describes the feminist ideals she highlighted at TEDxBerkeley as having helped her assimilate to life at UC Berkeley: “I can imagine that it would be so much worse here without feminist ideals making me comfortable in my own skin, prioritizing self-care and an inclusive community.” We sat down to ask her a few questions.


Daily Clog: How did you start doing TED talks?

Adora Svetak: It all started in 2010, when I delivered a talk called “What Adults Can Learn from Kids” at TED. I realized that there was no one my age in the audience at TED, but that people of all ages need access to forums for “ideas worth spreading.” So I began organizing my own TEDx event (TEDxRedmond) for four years. At the same time, I was also invited to speak at TEDx (an independently organized TED event) conferences around the nation. When TEDxBerkeley asked me to speak at the conference, I was thrilled by the opportunity to address an audience near and dear to my heart as a Berkeley student.

DC: What is your proudest accomplishment regarding how you have impacted people?

AS: After my TEDxBerkeley speech on why society needs to be more open about sexuality, a rather stern-looking father approached me with his two daughters in tow, saying, “Adora, when I first heard some of the words in your speech, I cringed, because my daughters are only 11 and 12. But you’ve made me rethink some things.” This was a really important moment to me, because it reinforced my idealistic belief that everyone can be open-minded if given the chance, which is a very necessary belief for someone who gives a lot of speeches about sometimes controversial issues. It also made me feel like I’d made a real difference in someone’s life. I’m also always touched by students who come up to me and tell me that they now feel that it’s possible to challenge the societal forces telling them that they’re too young to do anything worthwhile.

DC: Can you tell me more about specific activism work you’ve done and how that has translated from home to here at UC Berkeley?

AS: In high school, I organized the TEDxRedmond conference — which had all-youth speakers and organizers — for four years. It was a powerful statement on student empowerment and ability, and younger team members continued my work when I went to Berkeley, while I provided mentorship from afar. Here at Berkeley, I’ve become involved in slam poetry through CalSlam, which is a continuation of my passion for poetry and writing, but definitely different from what I’ve done previously. I also write for the opinion section of Berkeley Political Review. Opinion writing is something I’ve done since a young age as well.

DC: What advice can you give young people hoping to make a difference?

AS: Find organizations with goals that align with yours, and figure out how you can get involved. If they don’t have volunteer, internship or start-a-chapter pages on their website, try sending them an email, and ask them what you can do! If you’re on a university campus, there are ample opportunities to find groups that care about the same things you do. Find causes you care about, mentors who can guide you and friends who will support you, and you’re set.

 Image Source: TEDxBerkeley Team under Creative Commons