ILLIMI.” A PAUSE. “Illimi,” she said with more force. “My great grandmother explained it to me as a harmonious combination of knowledge, humility, and purpose.” So began just one of six moving TEDxChange talks this spring on the theme of “Positive Disruption.”

At the Gates Foundation Center

At the Gates Foundation Visitor Center. All photos: Author

Speakers included Cathleen Kaveny, discussing the new face of religion and believers as positive disrupters; Halimatou Hima, on investing in girls as a key to the future; Roger Thurow, on issues in agriculture and the future of farming; Julie Dixon, on social media as a voice for social change; David Fasanya, a Nigerian-American performance artist and youth poet; Salim Shekh and Sikha Patra, two 15-year-olds from India who started a vaccine program in the slums of Calcutta; and of course, Melinda Gates, of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Center, where the talks were held.

When the Visitor Center invited media to tour the facility and attend the TEDxChange talks, I jumped at the chance. I was not disappointed on either count. The highlight of my day, though, was getting to view the talks alongside 60 or so youth from in and around Seattle, all of whom are involved in various social change groups — mini-activists in the making. As a former youth worker, my little heart quivers in my chest when I see young people setting aside the more common sense of entitlement and picking up a sense of purpose, humility, and awareness. Or, should I say, to see them begin their journeys towards illimi.

When I say these kids were incredible, I’m not being facetious. They were spouting facts, stats, and demographics like it was their ABCs. I’m talking about teenagers asking questions like, “Mrs. Gates, as a Catholic, in what ways have you seen the Church rise up to become a source of positive disruption?” and, “What factors are contributing to the lack of access to education and healthcare for girls in Africa?”

When I was in high school, I was more concerned about what factors were contributing to my lack of access to beer.

Back then, there was Amnesty International, end of story. Now I see full-fledged college degrees in areas like International Development, Global Awareness, and Cross-Cultural Studies. Degrees are offered when there’s a demand, so this tells me the future is changing right in front of us, and it begins with positioning young people to launch into the world educated, empowered, and impassioned.

All the youth who came were somehow involved with the Visitor Center, and to me therein lies the key: Engagement is fuel for change. Initiatives like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Center need to be funded in every developed city, to empower those “with” to reach out to those “without.” Said speaker Roger Thurlow, “There is a way. We just don’t have the will.” The answer to creating a society willing to do something is to educate that society on the issues at hand — but how do we get people to listen? Places like the Foundation Visitor Center offer a space to learn that is accessible, interactive, and inspiring — as evidenced by the crowds of tourists and locals alike coming through its doors — and that is where new advocates for social justice and change will be born.

As youth poet David Fasanya said during his performance: “One may not have a solution / but that should never be a leeway to ignore the fact / that there is a problem / Awareness is a dirt-glossed gem that you must discover / before you can do anything with its value.”

Press play to hear David recite this quote, live from the TEDxChange:


Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Center

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Center opened its doors in downtown Seattle in 2011, and since has seen people from all walks of life arriving to learn about issues people face, both at home and abroad. The aim is to “educate, inspire, and motivate.”


Foundation family

The Gates Foundation was founded in 1997 when Bill and Melinda read an article about lack of clean water killing millions of children every year. It grew steadily, until an incredible $30 billion donation from Warren Buffett in 2006 allowed the foundation to double its initiatives, both overseas and locally.


A tradition of giving

Everyone is welcome at the foundation. From wealthy travelers, to businesspeople, to teenagers, to families of all ages. We all have something to learn, and something to give. The Visitor Center's displays move from covering its own history, to broad international initiatives, to local projects, to the final room that is a call-to-action: What can you do?


Less private

No space was spared to make people think, question, and grow. Not even the bathroom, seen here depicting various less-sanitary, less-private options that a majority of the world must use.



The language used all over the Visitor Center is specifically written at an 8th-grade level to be as accessible as possible to everyone who comes through its the doors. They are working to add multiple languages and increased accessibility options in the coming years.


What you have to offer

I ventured to the final room, where there were multiple stations to help me figure out what I had to offer. Turns out, I’m on the right path.


My graffiti wall

Another station let me put my strengths to the test. Here’s my graffiti wall. It’s more fun when the cops aren’t chasing you down.



The foundation believes strongly in forging a community that seeks change. All visitors are encouraged to take their photo and add it to the archives, as well as tweet and post their findings from the day. That’s me in the bottom middle.



A seed is planted in the future generation of travelers.



A final station asks visitors to make a pledge. What is one thing you can do? Such a simple, loaded question.



And then I was ushered into a viewing room to watch the live stream of TEDxChange, being held in the building next door. The theme of this series of talks was “Positive Disruption.” It had my name all over it. The room was packed with teenagers, all of whom are involved with local and international advocacy groups through their schools, and through the foundation.


Social media

For once, tweeting and facebooking was encouraged. In fact, speaker Julie Dixon gave an impassioned talk on social media: “There’s a new currency today that’s not found in your wallet. It’s your influence.”

Press play to to hear this quote in context:


Melinda Gates

After the talk, none other than Melinda Gates, who believes that empowering youth is key to changing the future, came over to talk to us in person and field questions.



Melinda Gates has been an philanthropist and advocate for social change and global health initivites her whole life. She married Bill Gates in 1994, and in 1997 they read an article about the staggering number of children who die every day from lack of clean water. This led them to start the foundation. Since 2006, it's been Melinda’s full-time job. She and Bill were named “Persons of the Year” by Time in 2005, and in 2006 she was 12th on Forbes' “100 most powerful women in the world.” Together, she and Bill have donated $26 billion to the foundation.


Absorbing Melinda's words

One proud teacher and a row of teenagers hang on Melinda’s every word.


Questions from the audience

Melinda fielded several questions from the audience, and I was blown away by the quality of questions these kids had come armed with. The one in the left picture reads: “What factors contribute to such a lack of communication and action between rural / suburban areas?” The caliber of the youth in that room was absolutely inspiring.


Seven speakers

After Melinda, we were honored further with a visit from the seven speakers who had just rocked our worlds with their TEDxChange presentations, including Halimatou Hima, who spoke on investing in girls, and Salim Shekh and Sikha Patra, two children from India who started an inter-slum vaccine program, as seen in the documentary The Revolutionary Optimists.



The floodgates opened, and questions on every possible topic and angle, each aimed at a different speaker, came pouring out from across the crowd. I had a chance to speak with Dejeanne, here pictured on the right – all I know is that we need more women and youth like Dejeanne searching for, as speaker Halimatou Hami called it, illimi.

Press play to hear what she had to say about her plans for her future in the world of social change:


Gender gap

A lone boy poses a question. Actually, there were seven boys, but it was obvious that this particular high-school niche is being dominated by girls. I found myself wondering why that is. I’m still wondering.



This was no field trip, no extra assignment for marks. These kids were fierce, educated, and inspired, with questions that were leaving me both impressed and speechless.


Girls like you

Lina, a local high-school student, and speaker Halimatou Hima share an emotional moment, both of them overwhelmed. Hima, a young woman from Niger, where two-thirds of girls are married off at 15, gave an exceptional talk on the worldwide impacts that occur when we empower girls and women. “Girls like you inspire me,” Hima said, wiping tears from her face.