One part of growing up poor in an urban environment, from my experience in New York City, is that you get stuck in a bubble, a sphere that is reinforced by socio-economic forces. For me that meant tenement houses in the Lower East Side, and later, the projects across from the notorious Ave D Housing projects. In that microcosm, my mom tried to keep me safe from violence by immersing us in the church, isolating us from the “world”. That probably didn’t work as she intended, but it prevented the opportunity to get involved with the community, gangs and the scene on the street. I never had the opportunity to go to summer or science camp or mix with people from different walks of life. It also meant moving around in a network of other working poor, isolated families. In that situation, it’s difficult to imagine another scenario or way of life. For sure books can reveal other worlds, opening the readers’ imagination and introducing possibilities, but nothing is more powerful than a high-context, lived experience. In my opinion, it is personal encounter that shapes aspirations and expands horizons. Perhaps my experiences are unique, but if the general happiness of the participants at this year’s Big Idea Fest is any indication, it’s an amazing place to be, no matter how old you are.
Big Ideas Fest might be the first time a teenager from an urban school gets to stay in fancy, four- and five-star hotel—with a pool, hot tub and all the other perks. This adds up in assets of navigational capitol that can be transferred into other areas of their lives. These young people will have the advantage of knowing how to navigate their discomfort in new spaces with new people, and also feel a sense of belonging in professional and recreational settings with mixed age groups, genders and vocations, which can have lasting impact on a student’s wellbeing and outcomes, not the least of which might be interview and social skills. At Big Ideas Fest, teen participants get treated like the thoughtful human beings they are, and if they don’t, they learn how to speak up and assert themselves by tapping into their personal power with tools taught to them at the conference.
My observation is that the student participants don’t always start out being confident and outgoing, but with the investment in them by staff and teachers, and quality interactions with other participants, many will flourish and find their places in the broader circle of the community. For these students, their Venn diagrams are suddenly overlapping with directors from international companies like Airbnb or with non-profit and grassroots founders, organizers and reformers from all over the country, people who seem more like themselves than distant success stories on the Internet. Big Ideas Fest does all of this youth from urban schools by providing them with scholarships to attend and take leadership roles.
Plus, these teens gain other forms of currency that may fall under the radar: They get to enjoy posh places in California, like the Ritz Carlton and Hayes Mansion, fairly exclusive places by most standards. Not only are these young people learning how to be another world, they’re also experiencing that world as an expert, contributing high value to the outcomes of their Action Collab groups. They speak up, step up and handle a microphone to share their insights about the things they really care about. There’s no doubt that we have no idea what these teenagers are bringing to the conference until we step back and let them have their say. These may seem like trivial things, but the truth is, Big Ideas Fest helps young people to see outside of the scope of class confines, and expands and inspires possibilities, opportunities and aspirations. That’s just one of the great ideas that comes out of the annual conference.