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Marina Sachs, a 2007 graduate of The Country School and 2011 graduate of Daniel Hand High School, is bringing a TEDx conference, a community offshoot of TED Talks, to The Country School this coming April. (Photo by Josh Stokes )
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Marina Sachs has spent all of her 22-plus years so far as a Madison resident, but she’s passionate about life in other places—and especially the experiences of pre-teens and teens.
That hunger to teach, to learn, and to help has brought the alumna of The Country School, Daniel Hand High School, the Educational Center for the Arts in New Haven, and Connecticut College to places such as La Plant, South Dakota, on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, to volunteer with an organization called Simply Smiles.
The group helps build homes for the area’s impoverished Lakota Sioux tribal members, runs a summer camp for children and teens, and hosts meals and activities like Bingo nights for the adults. Marina spent several weeks there this summer, went back to visit around Christmas, and plans to go again in May or June.
She’s bringing connection and inspiration to children locally, as well, as an employee at The Country School, from which she graduated in 2007. She’s in the thick of planning a program to bring TEDx Talks, a community-based offshoot of TED Talks, to the school, which will be the first time these short but inspirational presentations will be offered in a middle school setting.
According to www.ted.com, “TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks (18 minutes or less). TED began in 1984 as a conference where Technology, Entertainment, and Design converged, and today covers almost all topics—from science to business to global issues—in more than 100 languages. Meanwhile, independently run TEDx events…support independent organizers who want to create a TED-like event in their own community.”
That’s where Marina comes in, and where The Country School will benefit.
She says, “The origins of what I’m doing with The Country School emerged from a project I did on the reservation. Throughout the spring before I graduated from Connecticut College, I was working on a project with one of my close friends. We were both involved with TED Talks and TEDx at Conn, and organizing a yearly conference there with a ton of different speakers.
“It was an awesome space for people to be able to not only come together monthly where we had discussions and video showings and forums, but it was a place where it felt really safe to be able to talk about hard or difficult or contentious things, and that really moved me. So my friend Ellie and I thought, ‘We could use this as a platform for talking about hard things with kids,’ because if anything, that’s the most needed time…to talk about things like prejudice or racism or privilege or stereotypes. We wanted to make it really meaningful so that it was a light switch moment like, ‘Oh my gosh, I get it now.’”
Marina is the daughter of Jim, the principal of Clark Lane Middle School in Waterford, and Pam, an adolescent and youth bereavement therapist with a practice on Wall Street in Madison. She is very close with her younger sister, Milan, who is studying creative non-fiction and photography at Emerson College in Boston.
Marina double-majored in international relations and religious studies at Conn College. Both she and Ellie had been connected to reservations in the past, so they contacted Simply Smiles and pitched a program they’d designed.
“We asked them if they’d be interested in incorporating our project into the summer camp they run in this town, and they said, ‘Absolutely, come on down,’ so we spent the summer out there. It was three days a week [with] 10 girls, age 13 and 14...A lot of it was just spending time with them and getting them to trust us, and just a space where our really different life experiences wouldn’t be as magnified, and then we started to do things like go on trips with them. We went to the Badlands and the Black Hills, which are really sacred sites for the Lakota.
“In a weird way it was very uncomfortable, because I’m not connected with these places historically or even mentally or anything like that, but to be able to say, ‘Hey, I have this money and I can be a resource and you deserve every access and resource that you aren’t provided, and I can be that,’ and to be able to go with them and show them that, yeah, what the United States did when the reservation system was enforced was really wrong, [but it] doesn’t mean there aren’t people who aren’t trying to work to make amends for it.’ It was an awesome success and it’s going to continue next year and expand to boys and girls.”
One of the topics Marina focused on with the group of girls was mental health, because youth suicide rates are high among Lakota youth.
“The week before we got there, one of the girls who was friends with many of the girls we worked with killed herself, and we had couple different suicide attempts and a lot of self-harm that was being done, so for the first time, it was almost like we stumbled upon creating this space where they felt comfortable enough to tell us this.”
It was around this time that The Country School caught wind of what Marina was doing for youth on the South Dakota plains and contacted her.
“They said, ‘We see what you’re doing and we’d love it if you could re-imagine this project in our school,’ she says, noting that it’s an exceptional opportunity for a recent college graduate. “That’s not what a lot of my friends are doing; they’re molding themselves to a company. I am, in many ways, making sure the students, parents, and teachers are all involved, but I get to design and create it, and that’s so cool.”
Marina and her team of around 30 students in grades 6 to 8 are meeting weekly to brainstorm and plan for their TEDx conference to be held on April 23. The group just released their theme on Jan. 11, through a video they filmed over the weekend.
“All TED Talks and conferences have themes, these kind of idiomatic phrases that are catchy and are broad enough to attract a number of different perspectives from speakers that can connect to some sort of positive message,” Marina explains. “After a lot of crowdsourcing and brainstorming and getting a lot of different suggestions, the theme we came up with for April at The Country School is ‘Spindrift’. Spindrift is the water that’s blown off the crest of a wave. It’s also the perfect point in a wave where it has just enough momentum to break, but it hasn’t broken yet. You can look at the theme as an analogy to, wherever we are in our lives, we can use our momentum and experiences, which are all different, to create something new and positive instead of letting it overwhelm us.
“We’re hoping the speakers that we get will really push the idea that we can have 10 different perspectives that all don’t agree in the room, but that will respect each other and can form this larger swell toward something good.”
Marina and her group will release a call for speakers for the daylong April 23 conference shortly, she says. The TEDxTheCountrySchool core team is open to shoreline students in grades 6 to 8 who want to actively take part in planning the conference in April, designing and organizing monthly events, and who are interested in being a leader in the TEDxTCS group next year. All monthly events and the spring conference are open to the entire shoreline community.
For more information or to participate, visit www.facebook.com/TEDxTheCountrySchool.
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