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Working Synergistically at The Country School

by Teresa Sullivan

The Country School's first TEDx conference, Spindrift, also the first-ever youth-led TEDx event at a PreSchool-8th Grade school in New England, was held in April 2016. Inspiring talks were delivered by an array of speakers, and participants engaged in a host of fun, thought-provoking activities. Marina Sachs '07 brought TEDx to The Country School and sparked what has proven to be a lasting, mission-supporting school tradition. The talks presented at this year’s TEDxTheCountrySchool conference, Synergy, were centralized around the idea of cooperation. The nine speakers engaged the audience with their diverse takes on the idea that we accomplish more as part of a group than we can as individuals.

The morning began when Matt Siracusa, CEO of WEWOOL, a local business that works to provide socks to homeless individuals in Connecticut, presented his “Steps of a Serial Dreamer.” Siracusa admits that for him, synergy means putting dreams into action and that, sometimes, dream fulfillment is only possible through synergy. Siracusa explained that WEWOOL developed because he is a serial dreamer who fine tuned his plan, and experienced life. He encouraged the audience, “You might have a dream, but don’t give up because your dream might benefit someone other than yourself.”

Anders Waldo, a sophomore studying Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences at UConn followed. Waldo’s application of synergy came about when he listened to the advice of a mentor who told him to get outside of his comfort zone. This, Waldo said, was the best advice because it has shaped who he is. Although physically disabled, he put himself out of his comfort zone by navigating the huge campus of UConn. He also, although nervous, overcame his fear and joined an a cappella group, where he was immediately fully welcomed. Waldo’s message to the audience: “Instead of putting people on a pedestal, put them on a high set of stairs.” People work best when they work together.

Aristotle Mannan ’03, the founder of bosWell, a digital health startup aimed at improving coordination of care for our country’s most vulnerable citizens, was the next speaker. Mannan, the reading buddy of Ben Ballard ’08,  one of the organizers of the TEDx synergy conference, began his talk by showing his Country School graduation photo. “TCS still feels like home,” he said, explaining that the picture of the Class of 2003 is a perfect depiction of synergy because he received help not only from his classmates but from the entire Country School community. “I always had a village to guide me,” Mannan said. Describing how an encounter with a homeless man in Boston led him to work with a friend to develop an app to improve health care for individuals in need, he urged the audience to be prepared to join forces with others. He posed this question to the audience: How can we all work together to fill the gaps and innovate when we see a need?

Understanding the need for innovation, Bob Ballard, the renowned explorer and scientist who has taken part in more than 140 deep-sea explorations, continued the talks. Ballard, the parent of two Country School graduates, explained how 95% of the world’s population lives on less than 5% of the earth. Founder and President of the Ocean Exploration Trust, this storyteller stressed the need for synergy within the Office of Ocean Exploration, whose mission is to boldly go where no one has gone before. This is something Ballard has been doing his entire career. In 1985, he and his team discovered the wreck of the Titanic.

Fahima Ali, an outspoken advocate for the rights of women and girls, was the next speaker. Born and raised in Somaliland, she has led efforts to help girls gain access to education in her homeland. Ali began her talk with this quote from Albert Einstein: “The world will not be destroyed by people doing evil but by those who watch them without doing anything.” She went on to describe how her mother sacrificed everything for her five children so they wouldn’t be in her position of having to marry at age 15. Ali helps others because she believes in everyone’s untapped potential. In a nod to working cooperatively, she said she believes that we determine the direction in which the world is heading and that with synergy, we can change that direction.

Proving this was Mohamed, a 6th Grader at a local public school who was born in Syria and lived with his parents and two older siblings in Aleppo until they had to flee their home because of the war. Ebullient, Mohamed beamed at the audience as he told how his family had been resettled in the United States, arriving first in New Haven and then Lyme, where he was thrilled to have a room with a bed. He spoke about the best friend he made who also served as his translator. Without synergy, Mohamed said he and his family would still be in Syria. Mohamed ended his talk with well wishes for his friends and family in Aleppo: “I hope they live in peace, are safe, and that all of their dreams come true like mine did.” 

In all she does, Marina Sachs ’07 underscores the importance of synergy. “Working together, things are so much better than working as an individual,” said Sachs, an artist and educator committed to empowering diverse young folks through art-making. Sachs, who organized The Country School’s first-ever TEDx conference working alongside a team of students, focused her talks on the Lakota Youth Speak project, a summer program she and a friend initiated on the Cheyenne River Reservation. At first it was difficult finding participants, but Marina said she refused to give up and eventually the initiative gained traction. Marina described her motivation, saying, “I wanted to amplify these teens’ voices to give them access to the resources I had. I wanted to stack the deck higher for them.” She concluded her talk by stressing the importance of ownership, partnership, education, and showing up.

Theresa Govert, a community activist and founder of Together We Rise, a group that believes that “no one is free while others are oppressed,” described her work as a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana and how, as Sachs urged, she did, indeed, show up. Upon arriving in Botswana, a young girl greeted her with a “Little Drummer Boy” songbook and asked that Govert read it to her. Although not the Christmas season, the song was completely appropriate for the situation. Just as the Little Drummer Boy had nothing to give, this neighborhood girl had nothing tangible to offer. But Govert said she found that what the little girl brought was far more valuable than something she could hold in her hands; she brought gifts of music, laughter, and connection. In return,  Govert gave gifts of English and friendship, bringing to life the motto for the Peace Corps “What can I bring?”  Govert concluded here talk by leaving the audience with two questions: What do I do in the world that lights me up? And how can I take this gift to address problems?

John Fixx, Head of School at The Country School, used his gifts as an educator to explain the synergistic relationship between parents and children. Explaining how the relationship between parents and children is not one-way, he showed how age and wisdom are not the only teachers. Parents provide lessons about responsibility and independence, empathy and compassion, an attitude of gratitude, forgiveness, perseverance, humility, and love. Children, on the other hand, remind parents to be courageous and active, nurture friendships, try new things, and notice the little things. They emphasize that every day is a fresh start, creative pursuits are good for you, scars are badges of honor, and most importantly that it’s okay to have pancakes for dinner. And that there is always time for ice cream.

The final speaker was Alexander, a Country School 6th Grader, who recited the poem that had won him first place in the school’s annual MacLane Poetry Recitation a week earlier. Entitled “The Bridge” by C. Dale Young, the poem focuses on some of the things the author loves, one of which—in a nod to Mr. Fixx’s talk—happens to be ice cream. The poem ends with these lines:

Yes, I love a lot. And right here,
walking down this street, 
I love the way we make
a bridge, a suspension bridge
—almost as beautiful as the
Golden Gate Bridge—swaying
as we walk hand in hand. 

What could be a better expression of synergy than two people walking hand in hand, creating a suspension bridge?

TEDxTheCountrySchool concluded with a word of thanks from the event’s coordinators, Laura Morrison and Ben Ballard. They thanked the team of students who worked with them for weeks, helping plan and carry out the event; the myriad volunteers, including the faculty, staff, alumni, and parents who joined them; and all the speakers, whose inspiring talks provided a broader understanding of synergy. 


Likewise, a huge thank you to Laura and Ben. Together with the speakers and volunteers, you created something wonderful, exceptional, far better than anything one person working in isolation could have accomplished.

Video 1: Matt Siracusa, Anders Waldo, Ari Mannan https://www.facebook.com/TEDxTheCountrySchool/videos/1992522881074769/

Video 2: Bob Ballard, Fahima Ali, Mohamed


Video 3: Marina Sachs, Theresa Govert, John Fixx, Alexander