The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

CGTI 2016 – General Sessions

This is the first in a series of blog posts that will be showing up over the next several days related to my recent experiences at the Cebrin Goodman Teen Institute held at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois on July 17-21. (In the past, I have written about the Teen Institute on my personal blog. This year I have decided to share my reflections on this blog instead.) For those who are not aware, CGTI is a week-long leadership camp for middle and high school students that focuses on developing leadership skills, taking healthy risks, learning about the dangers of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs (ATODs), and working in action teams to bring about positive change in the community. Instead of breaking down the posts day by day, I have decided to reflect topically. Today I want to reflect on the general sessions held each day.

The opening general session of the Institute was led by two rockstar teachers and speakers, Matt Matkovich and Phil Januszewski. There session is a high-powered, high-energy experience that will leave you laughing, cheering, and ready to take on the whole world. While I don’t have any particular notes from the session, there were two things that happened that I wanted to share with a wider audience.

The first part was when they had a high school participant call her mom on speaker, in front of an audience of over 500 teens and adult volunteer staff, to tell her why she is her hero. It was awesome to hear a teenager say, “I’m just calling to say that I love you and you are my hero!”

The other thing that happened involved one of our adult volunteers. A young man who was one of my youth staff last year had been given the task of recording all of the events a year ago using a GoPro Camera that he wore through the presentation. Matt and Phil invited him up with a  great deal of pomp and circumstance, crowned him King Chandler, and asked him if he would be willing to operate the “Chandler Cam” again. Chandler’s response was, “While I appreciate the honor, I am an adult staff member here and this Institute is all about the participants. So I am going to have to say no.” He then selected a participant he knew and passed the camera on to him, instead. I was so proud of Chandler! It is so easy to get caught up in the moment and bask in the praise of others but he knew that that experience belonged to a high school student who was there to learn and grow during the Institute, not a staff member who was there to help the participants.


On Monday morning we got to hear from Harriet Turk, a speaker whose message focused on embracing your own uniqueness and being authentic. I wrote down two pages of notes from her presentation, but there was part at the end that really captured my attention: she told us about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s famous I Have a Dream speech that he delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, on August 28, 1963. The most famous part of the speech is the ending. But what is interesting about it is that the entire portion about his dream was unscripted. It was given toward the end when fellow activist Mahalia Jackson prompted him to tell the people about his dream. Harriet’s point was that scripted words can be powerful, but when we speak from the heart, others will listen.

Another thing that Harriet shared was how important it can be to lead from behind. So often, we think that leaders are always up front and getting everyone’s attention. But many leaders are the ones who start from the crowd and inspire others to act. She shared the experience of attending a concert and watching as people hold out their lights, often starting from the back or the middle, until the light fills the whole room.


Our Tuesday presenter was Shaun Derik, who is a member of REACH Speakers. Just like with Harriet, I have two pages of notes on the things Shaun shared with us, with the youth in the room. One of the most striking things he told us what about keeping focused on your passion, on what drives you to succeed. He asked us to imagine the world’s greatest archer shooting at a target. She lines up her arrow, considers wind, distance, and resistance, let’s the arrow fly, and gets a bullseye. Then she moves further away, fires again, and gets another bullseye. Then Shaun asked what would happen if you blindfolded her, spun her around, and then had her shoot. She’s going to miss. Why? Because you can’t hit a target you can’t see! It is so easy to get off-track, to lose sight of your purpose. Surround yourself with those who will support you and encourage you to succeed and you will be successful. As Shaun said, “Don’t settle for what others expect you to do; seek out what inspires and energises you.”


The final general session speaker was very different from the others. He wasn’t a high-energy motivational speaker. He didn’t have a traumatic life-changing experience that sent him on the speaking circuit. His name was Dr. Kevin Sabet, former drug policy adviser to Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Dr. Sabet is the founder and president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM). As they say on their website, SAM “is an alliance of organizations and individuals dedicated to a health-first approach to marijuana policy. We are professionals working in mental health and public health. We are bipartisan. We are medical doctors, lawmakers, treatment providers, preventionists, teachers, law enforcement officers and others who seek a middle road between incarceration and legalization. Our commonsense, third-way approach to marijuana policy is based on reputable science and sound principles of public health and safety.”

Dr. Sabet shared some fascinating statistical data about marijuana use and marketing. He pointed out that the tactics used by the growing marijuana industry today are nearly identical to those used by the tobacco industry in years past: targeting young people under the age of 25, trying to sell the product as medicinal (did you know that there used to be “asthma cigarettes” on the market?), and modifying the plant to increase the amount of its potent chemicals. (Marijuana in the 1960s contained about 2% THC, the drug that gives the user a feeling of euphoria; there are products on the market now that are 98% THC. Yikes!)

Another statistic he shared really grabbed my attention: after Colorado legalised marijuana for medicinal or recreational use, drug-related arrests for Caucasians have gone down by 8%. However, drug-related arrests for African-Americans and Latinos have gone up by 58% and 29%, respectively. The United States of America has five times as many men and women in prisons than all of Europe combined.  Those are some terrifying statistics that indicate that legalisation will not “solve” the crime problems in our nation. As Dr. Sabet and his organisation make clear, we need smart approaches to drug policy.

I left the Teen Institute feeling the urgency to work with young people to make positive changes in our community and in our world. As I shared with several different groups, I firmly believe that today’s students are today’s leaders. They are the ones who can and will make a difference. I just hope that I can be a part of leading and guiding them as they do it. To Matt and Phil, Harriet, Shaun, and Kevin, thank you for your messages!


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