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When You’re Drowning in Darkness, That’s the Time to Turn on Your Light

Valerie Weisler, delivering her TEDxYouth talk at the Hewitt School in Manhattan. (Valerie Weisler)

Valerie Weisler, delivering her TEDxYouth talk at the Hewitt School in Manhattan. (Valerie Weisler)

This is the text of Valerie Weisler's TEDxYouth talk. The video is below.

Three years ago, almost to this day, a girl woke up, put on sweatpants and an old T-shirt and went to school. She cringed as she walked in, scared of what would happen. She turned her head down as a group of girls slithered slurs into her ear. She picked up hateful notes as they fell out of her locker. She winced as girls cackled, watching her shake as she ran to class.

My name is Valerie, I’m 17 years old, and three years ago, I was that girl.

Kids would make up rumors that I didn’t have the physical ability to speak because I was so shy. Every single day, I would get torn apart at school. I felt like I was in a deep, dark hole and I couldn’t get out.

And then, something changed.

In a time where I felt like I was drowning in darkness, my light turned on. I got an idea. What if there was a global space any kid could go to share their struggle and work with others to solve that issue?

That idea turned into a little website called The Validation Project. It’s now a global organization that works with 6000 teenagers in 100 countries. Through community service and mentoring, we turn struggles into teenage superpowers.

Akwimwe lives in Uganda, a country where being gay is illegal. He came to The Validation Project when he was a closeted gay teen. We partnered him with the leader of a Ugandan LGBT group. Akwimwe is now the first person to come out as gay in his village, but not the last. He's started an HIV clinic and continues fighting for equality.

Valeria in Peru struggled because her teachers told her that she would never succeed because she’s just a girl. We worked with Valeria to design an online campaign about feminism. Because of her advocacy, Valeria's school now teaches a course about women's rights and next year, Valeria will be a freshman in college.

The Validation Project changed their lives, and it changed mine too. All of the sudden, I had this power inside of me. My dreams became real, and real change was happening.

But with this new-found identity came new bullies. As the girls at my locker slowly disappeared, adults started asking me, “Why are you doing this?” “Don’t you think you’re a little young to run a company?” “Don’t you have homework to do?”

Why is it that every time we think outside the box, we’re told to wait until we’re older? Wait until we’ve got life figured out?

A lot of people spit out this sugar-coated story that they turned their light on when everything in their life was perfect. That’s not true. You don’t find your passion when you’re at your highest point. You don’t realize what gets your blood going when you’re having a great day. You turn your light on when you are surrounded by complete and utter darkness and you have no other way to see.

I have a Google alert set up for the word ‘teens.’ Every day, I’m notified of the news my generation is headlining. And every day, virtually every story is overwhelmingly negative. About what teens have done wrong, about tragedies involving teens.

Teens firing BB guns cause lockdown at school
Teens charged with murder
Teen dies after being shot 16 times by Chicago cop

It shouldn’t be normal when a teenager kills or gets killed. It should be normal when a kid does something kick-ass.

That’s what needs to be in the news. That’s why you need to turn on your light.

I remember in my 4th grade classroom, we were about to watch President Obama’s inauguration. My teacher asked, “Who wants to be President one day?” Every single hand shot up.

Fast forward a few years, I’m a senior in high school. I walk into the library and my friend next to me is freaking out because her teacher told her to write about herself. She was actually struggling with how to describe herself. To often, we are so stripped of our individuality that we don’t even know who we are.

But this time we have between being born and turning 18 is time we’ll never get back. We don’t have anything to lose—no mortgage, no college tuition, no 9 to 5 job. But we have everything to gain.

As you get older, everybody is gonna keep telling you, you’re the future. Well, the future doesn’t just happen. We’re not gonna wake up one day to the year 2040, where the wars are over and Netflix is free.

To get to the future, we’ve gotta give it our all in the present. And every day, the world will try to turn off your light. It’ll drag you by the hand and scream, “This is important! And you need to do this! Worry about this! And this!” And each day, it’s up to you to yank your hand back, put it on your heart and say, “No. This is important.” Your dreams are important.

As life goes on, you’ll find yourself surrounded by darkness again and again. But each time that happens, it is a new opportunity to turn on your light and make the world a little brighter.

At 14, I was bullied so brutally, I started pretending I was sick so I wouldn’t have to go to school. So, I turned on my light.

At 16, I kissed a boy on a Ferris wheel and realized that if I was going to spend my life telling kids to be proud of who they are, I had to be proud of who I was and come out as gay. I turned on my light.

At 17, I took all my passion, packed it into a tattered duffel bag and traveled the world for 60 days, from Poland to Vietnam, working with teenagers in rural villages and famous cities to solve the issues we face. I turned on my light.

And now, here I am, almost 18. I’ve turned on my light so many times, it’s not dark anymore. But it wasn’t easy to get here.

There are going to be days when drowning in the darkness seems so much easier than taking that risk. But you have to listen to that little voice in your head. The bigger and crazier your idea the better. The world needs you to go against the grain. Because teenagers may only be 13.5% of the population, but we are 100% of the solution. All you gotta do is turn on your light.

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When You’re Drowning in Darkness, That’s the Time to Turn on Your Light

Valerie Weisler

Valerie is the founder and CEO of The Validation Project, a global movement that unites teens and turns their passions into positive action through community service, mentoring, and global campaigns. She is also a United Nations A World at School ambassador.

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