A Conversation with Olivia O’Donnell, TEDx Speaker

Cecilia Ergueta, Columnist

“Ideas worth spreading,” boasts the tagline of TED, a global, nonprofit organization that hosts conferences where individuals hold twenty minute “talks” on topics spanning technology, education, and design, just to name a few. By handing the microphone to individuals and their stories, TED’s global mission is to give a platform to ideas that could change the world.

This year, Olivia O’Donnell ’18 will be giving a TEDx talk called “Changing the Narrative: Why Racism Continues to Plague the USA” on April 28th at Wilmington Friends School. TEDx events, such as the one Olivia will be attending, are independently-run events organized by local volunteers. I sat down with Olivia to ask her about the upcoming event.


Q: Tell me about your TEDx talk. What’s it going to be about? Why does it matter?


A: My talk will be about our country’s history with racism and why it’s part of our narrative. At a basic level, I am a proponent of equality for all. To see such rampant inequalities occur without people batting an eye is extremely disheartening to me. To be judged so harshly and have your life in danger just because of your skin color, which is something you can’t prevent, and is something that makes no difference: that bothers me.


Q: One important aspect of the TEDx talk is that it draws from the experience of an individual, highlighting a single perspective to shed new light on an issue. What can your perspective bring to your topic that’s new?


A: I know I’m not black, so I’m not affected by racism, because I’m part of the race that perpetuates it (even if I don’t personally). However, being white and young, I feel that it’s  a different perspective, because a lot of people who have these race conversations are mostly people of color trying to say, “Listen, this is a problem.” It’s not they’re voiceless, but rather that other people don’t listen. I recently wrote a Whittier article about Parkland and gun reform. At the time, there was a lot of conversation happening about this topic, but people were asking: why is it different at Parkland, when kids are gunned down, but when our children –black children who have been shot for years, and who also led peaceful, nonviolent marches– speak up, why aren’t they having that platform? You have to ask yourselves, why? These kids didn’t do anything different; they’re just like the kids in Parkland. No one should be dying. So I think that when it comes from a white person, it’s easier for white people to spread that message. By no means am I saying, “this is how you end racism.” But I feel that I have a different perspective as a white young person.


Q: So why did you choose TEDx as a platform for your message?


A: I’ve always wanted to give a TEDx Talk. That became a goal of mine as soon as I watched people online talk and gain momentum on stage. It’s such a respected platform; I know when I give my talk, my message will be well-received.


Q: How easy is it to become a TEDx speaker? What challenges or preparation did you go through?


A: I submitted an application which took quite a while, but was relatively easy. I had to submit a bio about myself, and a one-minute video of myself talking about my idea. The process was actually very easy, but 150 people applied and only 24 people got it, so it’s not guaranteed you’ll be able to do it. There are so many different events where you can speak in Wilmington alone, so if you don’t get one, you can always find a way. I think the process is relatively easy for what you’re getting out of it.


Q: Did you know immediately what you wanted to speak about?


A: I originally was unsure, because you see all these talks with cool leitmotifs and everything and it’s a bit intimidating. So I said, okay, these are the things I’m passionate about, so how do I incorporate that into a meaningful talk? To start out, I jotted down a couple of ideas on paper, but I ultimately settled on racism, because that’s what I wanted to do.


Q: In what ways did your Friends education help you arrive at this point?


A: I can remember vividly in 10th grade history, when we were talking about slavery, our teacher Mr. Morton showed us a video of a Harvard graduate who gave a short, eloquent speech, and his main point was: slavery is different in America. And I’ve always kept that in the back of my mind. Like, why is slavery –an awful thing for an individual to have to go through, let alone a whole group of people trafficked, dehumanized, tortured, and beaten– but why is it so weird talking about slavery in our country? That speech was really enlightening to me, and remained in the back of my mind. So when I was thinking about the TEDx Talk, I thought that might be a really cool idea to draw from.


Q: What do you hope people walk away with after hearing you speak?


A: I think it’s easy to be disheartened, and I just want to emphasize that if we work diligently and genuinely, there can be a difference. It makes a difference if people say, “You know what, that joke you said was racist. Please don’t do that, even if it was in a joking manner, because that perpetuates racism, whether or not you think so.” Just being able to say, “I can do something, even if it’s small, and maybe that person will change their mind and not tell racist jokes anymore,” makes a difference. Any small thing can really make a difference.


Q: Any final worries?


A: I just finalized my words, so I hope they’re approved, but I’m just worried I’ll forget something– that’s terrifying! It’s being videotaped and put online, so you don’t want to make a mistake, especially after you’ve worked so hard. So I’m really practicing, practicing, practicing, so that it’s ingrained in my brain forever.


Q: And how long will practicing your TEDx talk take?


A: I estimate that memorizing all ten minutes will take over ten hours!


Q: Any advice for any future Friends students who might be interested in doing something similar?


A: Be genuine. Make sure your voice comes through. Meet those deadlines, and stay proactive!


Be sure to check out Olivia O’Donnell’s TEDx talk, “Changing the Narrative: Why Racism Continues to Plague the USA” on April 28th at Wilmington Friends School!