TEDxNorthwesternU spotlights the ‘visions and voices’ of Northwestern community


Source: TedxNorthwesternU

Neal Sáles-Griffin speaks at TEDxNorthwesternU. TEDxNorthwesternU is one of the few TEDx talks in the country entirely run by student

Wilson Chapman, Reporter

Standing in front of an audience of about 280 at the Welsh-Ryan Arena, Weinberg Prof. Jennifer Lackey shared her experiences teaching philosophy and creative writing to incarcerated prisoners as part of the Northwestern Prison Education Program.

Lackey discussed the prison-education paradox, the idea that prisons are dehumanizing spaces but that prison-education programs act to humanize the students. She talked about how teaching students non-fiction prose pieces, some of which were eventually published in The New Yorker, helped them express and empower themselves.  

“Some of the most empowering tools we could give the students was the power to tell their own stories,” Lackey said.  

Lackey and nine other speakers shared their stories at the TEDxNorthwesternU Conference this Saturday. The TEDxNorthwesternU conference is one of many TEDx events that are unaffiliated with official TED Conferences but share a similar format and are provided a free license by the TED organization.

Executive director Eileen Chen told The Daily that TEDxNorthwesternU is one of the few completely student-run TEDx events in the country.   

This year’s conference theme was Visions and Voices. Chen told the Daily the themes of TEDx conferences are usually very broad so anybody’s story could fit into them. Chen joked that the team picked Visions and Voices as a theme because of the alliteration, but said the theme was chosen because it encapsulated TED’s mission statement.

“TEDx is really just all about people coming up on stage and speaking about their ideas… so we just thought Visions and Voices would be a great way to sort of encapsulate any story,” the Weinberg senior said. “So it would be the umbrella cast over all the topics that we talk about.”

The speaker lineup featured several Northwestern community members, from faculty to alumni. Feinberg Prof. Rola Kaakeh discussed the struggles and importance of making medication accessible and affordable to everyone. Jacob Schmidt (SESP ‘11, ‘14), Northwestern’s director of player development, shared the values he learned as a student athlete at Northwestern and his personal journey from a walk-on to starting running back. President of Koios Medical Chad McClennan (Kellogg ‘96) discussed his company’s use of artificial intelligence algorithms to detect and treat life-threatening diseases like cancer quickly.

Neal Sáles-Griffin (SESP ‘09), the CEO of computer science education nonprofit CodeNow, discussed his campaign for mayor of Chicago earlier this year; he is the youngest person to ever run for the position.

Sáles-Griffin said he faced many hurdles over the course of his mayoral campaign, such as fumbling his announcement speech, barely managing to get enough signatures to get on the ballot and having to go through name tests to prove that all of the signatures that he received were legitimate. Sáles-Griffin connected these to his challenges and failures as a student, such as nearly failing his Macroeconomics class during his first quarter at NU.

Sáles-Griffin said, rather than focusing on academics, he invested his time at Northwestern into working on startups even when he felt “grossly unqualified” to be there. He said whenever he failed, he was always proud to be able to get as far as he could, and always persisted even when it seemed like he was unqualified to be there. He then urged the audience to apply this philosophy to their own lives.

“I know there’s someone out there right now who’s thinking about starting that next thing,” Sáles-Griffin said. “I want you to pick up that microphone… I will find you and I will help you, because you are qualified to try.”

Chen told the Daily this year’s conference was TEDxNorthwesternU’s biggest ever, with the slate of 10 speakers being 2 more than previous years. In addition, the Welsh-Ryan arena was by far the biggest venue the organization has ever had.

Chen said that coming into Northwestern, she was passionate about TED Talks, and would watch them on YouTube all the time. Having the chance to organize a completely student-run TEDx talk was a rewarding experience for Chen over her time at Northwestern, and she has gotten the opportunity to learn about a diverse array of topics and have many meaningful conversations through her time at TEDxNorthwesternU.    

“It’s just been something I’ve been passionate about for a long time, so to actually bring a conference to fruition has been really really meaningful,” Chen said. “One of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had at Northwestern.”   

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