By Jenna O’Donnell |
ASBURY PARK – For a teenager, the daily onslaught of violence and injustice on the news can be a lot to deal with. Last year, when Philando Castile was pulled over and fatally shot by a police officer, his death was captured on a Facebook live stream.
Like many, 14-year-old Alexandra Lewis watched the footage with fury and sorrow. Then she picked up a pen and started to write. She wrote about racial injustice, about hate and fear, and about what it’s like to be the only black girl in her class at a mostly- white school.
On Saturday, Lewis – a Tinton Falls native and eighth-grader at Rumson Country Day School – took to the stage at TEDxAsbury Park to share the poem she wrote in response to Castile’s death, which she called “Peace, Love and Equality.”
“The poem had been building up inside of me for months,” said Lewis, who has been writing poetry since she was 11. “I was filled with sadness and anger at the same time because I thought, ‘This isn’t right. All the injustices around the world aren’t right.’ So I kind of found an outlet for that, which is poetry.”
Lewis performed her poem at an open mic contest organized by TEDxNavesink in January, where she impressed organizers and earned a spot at the May conference at Paramount Theater in Asbury Park.
TEDxAsbury Park – formerly known as TEDx Navesink – explored an “identity” theme as it celebrated an identity change of its own.
The independently organized TED event, currently in its fifth year, made some notable changes for its debut at the Paramount Theater on May 20. Part of that was the rebranding, a move founder Brian Smiga said was a natural one for a day all about ideas, innovation and identity.
“The energy in Asbury Park was phenomenal,” said Smiga, a Rumson native and current Atlantic Highlands resident. “Even though it’s the same show produced the same way, it really felt like more of a community event this year.”
More members of the local community also took part in this year’s conference than in prior years, a result of the January open mic night, where Lewis and several other voices were discovered. Smiga plans to expand that outreach for next year with three TEDxAsbury Park open mic events during different seasons, which he hopes will keep the event filled with diverse and youthful voices.
“I think that’s part of the magic,” Smiga said. “I think we’re going to try to get younger and younger both in terms of the talks and the audiences. That’s a proactive goal of ours.”
That energy was a big part of this year’s conference, both on stage and behind the scenes where volunteers from Monmouth University and Rumson-Fair Haven High School helped out. On stage Lewis, and 17-year old songwriter Avery Rose Puryear of Fair Haven, showcased talents that surpassed their years.
Puryear brought both keyboard and vocals to perform an original song called “Inhaling Can Go Wrong,” which tackles substance abuse in high school and college.
“The lyrics talk about being true to yourself,” said Puryear, a senior at Rumson-Fair Haven High School. She said she was inspired to write it after losing friends to substance abuse. “People need to lead themselves when it comes to making healthy choices.”
Faced with adversity and turmoil, both Puryear and Lewis shared messages of bravery and self-reliance. Asked what message she would share with other young people upset by tumultuous current events, Lewis encouraged peers to look inward.
“One of my favorite scriptures is ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’,” Lewis said. “And I really believe in that. Anyone can do anything if you just believe in yourself.”
This article was first published in the May 25-June 1, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.
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