The pandemic hit everyone hard, but there’s one demographic that it hit in a unique and profound way—young adults. Whether living away from home for the first time, studying online as college students, or starting their first jobs, this group of people keenly felt the effects of being separated from the rest of the world.
So, some of them decided to do something about it.
Brigham Young University students Hollis Hunt and Mio Cannon, who live south of campus in what’s called “The Treehouse,” opened their backyard for the first-ever Treehouse Talks (THT) gathering in May 2021. They invited a few people to give PowerPoint talks on a subject of their choice.
The idea was akin to TED Talks, but these talks would be simpler. More vulnerable. Rather than listening to experts, those coming to Treehouse Talks would be listening to other young adults trying to navigate life. They could learn from each other in ways they couldn’t anywhere else.
The first meeting was rudimentary. They put up a simple sheet and a projector and some lights. But really, they didn’t need anything fancy. People attended and listened to the talks. They learned and met others and perhaps for the first time in a long time, felt deep connections with others going through similar life changes.
Hunt and Cannon had hoped people would like the concept of THT, but they didn’t realize just how much of a response they’d garner in a very short amount of time. They all liked THT so much that they decided to do it all again. And again. And again.
“It snowballed,” Cannon explains. “I’ve learned so much from the speakers already.”
Hitting a Nerve
Young adults kept coming to listen and learn from the talks, of course, but also for the connection to the speakers and the other attendees. The subjects ranged from funny—“Why I Like Crocs,” for example—to more serious talks centered on coming out gay as a BYU student or one speaker’s experience making and selling illegal drugs.
In the course of listening, attendees feel that they are learning about a diverse group of people on a deeper level. And after the talks are done, attendees connect with each other easily and naturally.
“These talks are empowering,” explains Hunt, who is an experience design and management student. “You can agree or disagree, and that’s okay. It’s a safe place to come and share.” Hunt’s specialty is networking, and Cannon focuses on social media.
Cannon adds that THT is something that grew out of who they wanted to be—people who helped to foster understanding and make the world a better place.
Within months, a staggering amount of people were attending. And they got multiple requests for people wanting to speak, to the point where they don’t need to go out and find speakers. That’s when they knew they had hit a nerve—when people willingly shared personal experiences with a group of strangers.
By then, THT had standing room only, so they found a bigger venue that could accommodate hundreds, and it is free, to boot. They now meet weekly on Thursdays at 9 p.m. at 407 West 100 South in Provo, Utah.
No doubt, the key to their success is the organic nature of the setup. Speakers come up with their own topics and talk from their hearts. And they bring diverse stories that people want to hear. Organizers also bring in local music artists who perform between talks. All in all, it’s a safe space where people from all backgrounds can show who they really are to an open audience.
Key People, Key Growth
THT saw some incredible growth early on, but as each challenge came, such as finding a venue or figuring out better equipment, key people came along, and what they needed showed up.
“Everything was popping up, like we were supposed to do this,” Hunt says.
Michael Niemann, who graduated from BYU in information systems, attended some of those first meetings and felt something that he had been missing—connection and understanding.
“It was one of the first times that I felt seen,” he says. Niemann quickly met Hunt and Cannon and soon wanted to be part of bringing THT to life each week. He is part of the core organizing group, and his focus is logistics and operations, as well as working with vendors and building up merchandising.
To Niemann, the concept of THT makes sense, especially for the young adult crowd. “Everyone secretly wants to share their story and be understood. They want to be known for more than just their name and major and work.”
Another local resident, Jake Bersie, was working for a company in 2021 that consumed his life. He craved a change in a big way.
“I was longing for connection,” he says. A friend from high school told him about THT, and it sounded intriguing. One of THT’s taglines is that you don’t need to bring a friend because you’ll make plenty while you attend. That was the case for Bersie, who attended and met Niemann, who then introduced him to Cannon and Hunt.
“I loved the vision,” Bersie says. “I love the way we feel during these conversations. As a college student, you’re alone trying to figure things out. We’re not experts, but we’re trying to figure out what makes us tick. This was huge.”
Bersie now fills the role of finances and connections to local vendors and is another key person in THT that helps the organization reach more people.
More Talks in More Locations
It didn’t take long for other young adults in other areas to come knocking on THT’s door. They wanted to replicate what the original THT Provo did, but in their own cities. THT granted them permission, and so far, THT has expanded to Logan, Salt Lake City, and Laie, Hawaii, with plans to expand into southern Utah and Washington, D.C. Other cities across the country probably aren’t far behind.
Hunt says, “We never went outside to recruit. They reached out to us.” That fact is a testament to how much young adults everywhere could benefit from the connection and understanding from THT.
The organization has minimal expenses since they get venues free thanks to the generosity of others, so the bulk of the expenses is sound equipment and a projector. The biggest input is the organizers’ time, plus the time and courage of the presenters. But finding organizers hasn’t been hard; people are attracted to the vision of fostering understanding.
The original THT has proved that their framework works, however they encourage different locations to make it their own, while ensuring safe spaces for young adults to connect with each other and learn from a diverse group of people.
Looking back, Hunt and Cannon, and now Niemann and Bersie, can’t believe how much THT has grown. At the same time, they aren’t surprised. Each of them have been able to bring in their own unique backgrounds to help THT thrive. And while they all currently also have day jobs or college classes, someday they’d love to see THT grow and become their full-time careers—which wouldn’t feel like work at all.
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