Head of Laguna Blanca Rob Hereford along with Mike Eliason, Kevin Jones and Laguna students, Ava Morouse and Hayley Bankhead.
Brad Elliott

It would have been a big-enough feat for Laguna Blanca schoolkids to have developed and produced their first-ever TEDx event ​— ​with 500 attendees and 13 speakers ​— ​without natural disasters getting in the way. But throw in wildfire, mudslides, school cancellations, and large-scale evacuations, and the community event that culminated on January 31 was a testament to the power, resilience, and brilliance of these high schoolers and their supporters.

Themed “Evolve,” the independently organized, daylong event of speakers sharing “Ideas Worth Spreading” was the first in Santa Barbara to be curated entirely by an executive committee of high school students. From swirling spotlights to swag bags, the students’ hard work showed in their professional production value and hospitality before the proceedings had even begun. The breadth and depth of the speakers ranged impressively ​— ​from psychologists to marine biologists to contortionists to a two-time Olympian ​— ​in an engaging, multi-hour stream of information and motivation.

Kevin Jones receives a standing ovation following his appearance.
Brad Elliott

Kevin Jones, an engineer with County Fire, gave the most emotionally powerful speech of the day. He recounted the difficult work of his fellow firefighters and the devastation he’d seen firsthand in the aftermath of the Montecito flooding of January 9 as “the worst imaginable ways people get hurt ​— ​the worst ways to die.” He said he saw “a career’s worth in death and destruction in one day.” Wiping away a tear, he reflected on how the elements of fire and water that can provide comfort in moments of cold and thirst can also “take from us.” He urged his listeners to “live with … eyes open [and with] a new respect for Mother Nature.”

Other speakers reflected our community’s way of adapting to other changes, whether cultural or climate driven. UCSB marine biologist Doug McCauley spoke about how he downloaded and broadcast whale song recordings to save a stranded whale from Santa Barbara Harbor, and urged students to evolve in how they use smart technology. “We need those smart devices to do more than to figure out how to put bunny ears on friends,” he said. “We have whales to save together.” Jordan Killebrew of the Santa Barbara Foundation showed how Isla Vista grew out of tragedy with Project I.V. Love, while beloved fitness coach Jenny Schatzle vulnerably addressed her own grapples with internet negativity.

In many ways, though, it was the student speakers who shared the most compelling and exciting speeches of the day. Athena Boyle, a junior, rhymed with insightful confidence about her own inner struggles during her spoken-word piece called “Cheer Up, Love.” Sophomore Samuel Rae Bernstein earned a standing ovation for his moving speech “‘Transgender’ Is Not a Scary Word.” He reminded the audience that “under all the beautiful layers of what makes us who we are is someone who wants to be loved and accepted as themselves.”

Laguna Blanca’s TEDx seemed by all measurements a success, a reminder that some of our community’s most evolved voices are the ones just emerging. Said Laguna Blanca graduate Spencer Dusebout: “Young people are capable of making a difference if they’re given a chance to.”


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