Cal welcomes TEDxCHS for the first time

Cal juniors organize the famous educational conference in a virtual format


Photo courtesy of TEDxCHS Instagram account

Senior Maddie Harris, seen here in her promotional TedxCHS poster, is one of the scheduled participants in the new club’s speaker series later this month. Harris’s talk will focus on how Americans can mend the country’s political divide.

After more than half a year of mapping out the big night, perfecting speeches, and reaching out to guest speakers, TEDxCHS will hold its very first event through Zoom on Feb. 13. 

The event, which will give several Cal High students and guest speakers a platform to perform speeches and communicate “ideas worth spreading”, will focus on taking a critical look at 2020’s multitude of obstacles and how society can avoid tripping over them in the future.

“We all know that 2020 was the year with the pandemic, protests, political corruption, natural disasters, a recession,” junior Annika Seo, co-president of TEDxCHS, said. “Our speakers are going to discuss the issues of 2020 that have the threat to reoccur in the future.”

Each talk, performed by a student or guest speaker, will analyze a different problem that existed in 2020. They will look at how and why each issue might return and examine how they can be prevented from happening again.

Seo originally started the club with her co-president, junior Sai Erram, and her vice president, junior Jenny Lin. 

“Jenny Lin originally came up with the idea to bring TED to our school,” Seo said. “Because we were all fans of the organization we decided it would be a good idea to bring TEDxYouth to Cal.”

The three recruited their student speakers through Instagram. After receiving 15 applications, they narrowed them down to the six most promising candidates. 

This month, those six will be speaking alongside four guest speakers. These will include San Ramon’s vice mayor Sabina Zafar and former assemblyman Ted Lempert.

Even as the global coronavirus pandemic forces people to stay inside, Seo, Erram and Lin are still determined to make their speakers’ voices heard without a physical crowd. 

“I’m excited to see what it will look like in a virtual format,” Seo said. “Originally we were planning to host the event at Cal, in the auditorium.”

TEDxCHS’s adviser, English teacher Abraham Kim, shares Seo’s anticipation. In the past few years, Kim has implemented TED talks into his own teaching. Although he plays a minor role in the club, he is eager to see the culmination of his students’ efforts.

“This was probably the most professionally organized club I’ve been a part of,” Kim said. “They definitely went all the way here, and it’s amazing to see them at work.”

Kim says his role in TEDxCHS has been relatively hands off because of how efficient and effective Seo and Erram have been in coordinating the event.

“I know there is going to be a sense of professionalism in the presentations,” Kim said. “I have high expectations for these guys.”

Freshman Keertana Sreekumar, a student speaker at the event, is thrilled that she was chosen to be a speaker for TEDxCHS. She’s also somewhat relieved that she won’t be speaking under the spotlight.

“Because it’s online, I feel like there’s a certain safety net there,” Sreekumar said. “There’s not the whole big stage pressure that you need to worry about.”

Sreekumar was first introduced to TED talks by her middle school art teacher, and she eagerly devoured them. After she learned that Cal students were organizing a TED event, Sreekumar immediately knew she wanted to sign up and talk about her passions.

“Art is completely who I am,” Sreekumar said. “Ever since I was little, it’s the one thing that defines me.” 

Her TED talk will focus on how art has been overlooked, how it has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and how people need to take action to keep art relevant. She will also talk about what she’s done to bring art to younger people.

In eighth grade, Sreekumar started the San Ramon Youth Art Committee, a city affiliated group of 20 teens that teaches art classes and creates art for the community.

“My TED talk is called The Importance of the Arts, and I talk about how art, especially post-Renaissance, has been deeply disregarded,” Sreekumar said. 

Speakers at the event will explore diverse topics ranging from oral history to politics, all tying back into 2020.

“You would think with the topic being about 2020 everyone’s going to choose coronavirus,” sophomore speaker Aleeza Zakai said. “It’s surprising how people took many not-talked about aspects of 2020 and made extremely interesting speeches about them.”

Zakai’s talk will be discussing social media and how it affected the outcomes of last year. She feels that social media is particularly important for teenagers to talk about because of its immense presence in their lives.

“Social media has always been a thing I’m so conflicted with. Is it good? Is it bad?” Zakai said. “Some days I just want to delete it all, and some days I spend my whole day on it.”

For the past several months, Zakai has made draft after draft of her talk. With the help of the three mentors in the program, she has spent hours figuring out the best way to phrase her ideas.

The mentors in the program provide the students with invaluable feedback, critiquing the structure of their speeches, and giving them fresh perspectives.

“If I didn’t meet with mentors while I was writing this, I wouldn’t have the direction to do it on my own,” senior speaker Maddie Harris said.

Harris’s talk will cover how Americans can mend the political divide in the United States. She’ll also present solutions that we can implement as individuals.

“Having privilege is an excuse to exempt yourself from learning about politics,” Harris said. “No matter what, policies are going to affect all of us, and a lot of people have a tendency to brush that off.”

She found that she had plenty to say about the political climate of 2020 and even had to cut back some of her speech to keep it concise. 

Harris has gotten involved as a video-editing intern in Making Us Matter, an educational nonprofit working towards increasing Black education in high schools and refocusing white-centered curriculums, according to She feels that breaking past bias and prejudice is important for the media.

She is also grateful for TEDxCHS’s board and for being able to speak at a TED event as a high schooler.

“I haven’t met a student organization that is as supportive and encouraging as the board of TEDx at Cal High,” Harris said.

Seo, Erram, and Lin are hoping to reach their max capacity of 100 attendees at the event and have been trying to spread the word.

“We’re just really hoping for a large audience so that our speakers get the attention they deserve,” Seo said. “Even if we don’t get a huge turnout, just the event taking place in itself is going to be rewarding for us and hopefully for our speakers as well.”

In preparation for next year, the three are considering the possibility of expanding TEDxCHS to a city-wide organization.

“Even if we do stay within Cal, we are really hoping that we get more engagement with the school, with students at the school, with students in general in the Bay Area,” Seo said.