Tacoma high school students do a TED talk to tackle global poverty

By Claudia Rowe, special correspondent

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When you are young and privileged, almost nothing in the world appears out of reach.

International travel is no biggie. College is assumed. The world beckons.

Against that backdrop, seven high school students in Tacoma decided to give themselves a true challenge by wrestling with some global problems so intractable their youthful energy and vision may turn out to be the most important means to an answer.

Global citizenship class at Charles Wright Academy

The Global Citizenship class at Charles Wright Academy this week held one of those super cool TED talks (TEDxCWA) featuring seven innovative solutions to tackling poverty in the developing world. Each one was fairly futuristic, though hardly science fiction, the result of all these kids growing up immersed in technology.

“We have internet and answers to basically every question we can think of – except, perhaps, the existential,” said student Decker Nielsen, who proposed using playground equipment to generate electrical power in poor communities.

As per the (now ubiquitous) TED talk format, each student quickly sketched out research and statistics addressing issues on global hunger, infrastructure-and-energy needs, health care and education — all underscored by their unvarnished passion. Music by the Beatles (“Here Comes the Sun”) and Snap! (“I’ve Got the Power”) punctuated several of the speeches. World-weary cynicism, clearly, had been banished.

“This type of conversation usually happens in graduate schools, but teenagers are just as capable of and interested in addressing the world’s problems – many of which will fall to them,” said Althea Cawley-Murphree, a spokeswoman for Charles Wright Academy who was taking a leap herself by teaching the year-long course on poverty in the developing world.

Though students at the independent private school have long focused on international service, this year is the first that Wright Academy has offered the Global Citizenship elective.

“I was interested in getting a sense of how to affect the world outside our small community,” said Koby Deitz, who is headed to Occidental College next year and envisions someday founding an organization that would send teachers into rural homes, instead of making students travel to them.

“No matter who you are or where you live, education is an inherent human right,” Deitz told the audience, with obvious dismay at the 843 million adults and children worldwide who are without a primary education.

The proposed ideas were sparked by students’ travels, via Wright Academy programs, to places such as Zambia (where they presented 50 bikes to young people); El Salvador (where they photographed impassable roads); and the United Arab Emirates, where they traveled in electric cars along underground highways through the experimental project known as Masdar City.

Yet when Cawley-Murphree initially challenged them to address global poverty through the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, she soon discovered how badly her students needed a reality check.

“Their first ideas were along the lines of ‘I’m going to create a really cool website,’” she said.

Fine, the teacher answered, as long as there’s a computer in your rural village on which to run that website. And electricity with which to power the computer. And a road to get that computer to the people.

Her class quickly grasped how much deeper they needed to go.

“This all started when aid groups came to the school to speak. The kids were very passionate, but they weren’t asking a lot of questions,” Cawley-Murphree said. “They weren’t really thinking critically. They weren’t really asking, ‘How can a farmer be hungry – how does that happen?” (One answer: It’s nearly impossible to get your goods to market when there is no road.)

Tim Chang, headed for Rice university, now has a far more nuanced appreciation of poverty’s complexity. Yet, like his classmates, he remains undaunted.

“This might not be the most flashy or sexy solution,” he said of his call to improve roads throughout the developing world, underscoring the essential link between functioning highways economic progress: “There are 4,374,784 kilometers of paved road in the United States,” Chang said, noting that this length could encircle the earth more than 109 times.

Perhaps the most sci-fi style presentation came from Andy Palmer, who plans to study international business at Lake Forest College near Chicago, and described the global implications of Masdar City, a sustainable-energy settlement now under construction in Abu Dhabi.

Translated literally as “Source City,” Masdar – the brainchild of a half-dozen multi-national energy, finance and architecture corporations – is envisioned as a metropolis that will run entirely on clean, renewable energy and house 45,000 people within two square miles. Projected construction cost: $20 billion.

Yet unless its advanced technologies are picked up by other cities, Palmer warned, “It will remain just an expensive experiment.” Then he laid down the gauntlet: “Why not start here in Pacific Northwest?”

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