Photo by Danny Fulgencio

The 18-year-old stands confidently at the podium in front of Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and the Dallas City Council. The microphone is eye-level and members of the media are recording every word.

“I’m Mary Orsak from District 13,” she says. “I have left school today to come to City Hall in order to speak to you about the removal of Confederate monuments.”

It was March 21 and the 5-foot-tall Hockaday senior had replaced her school’s trademark off-white jacket for a black blazer. She spoke as the youngest member of the mayor’s task force on Confederate monuments. Her recommendation was to relocate the monuments to an educational facility.

This was not Mary’s first moment as a public speaker or in the media spotlight. In addition to serving on the mayor’s task force, she’s chaired the Dallas Youth Commission, created and operated a nonprofit organization, conducted summer programs in the Dallas Independent School District and presented a TED Kids talk at Southern Methodist University.

“People underestimate what’s going to be in that little package,” says Steve Kramer, Hockaday’s Upper School History Department Chair. “Mary is an outstanding history student, probably one of the best, if not the best, that I’ve had in a long career of teaching. She’s curious, she’s articulate and she knows how to bring things together.”

But Mary’s success hasn’t been without pain and setbacks. In elementary and middle school, Mary played volleyball, soccer, softball, tennis and basketball. During the seventh grade, she got a concussion when a girl accidently threw a softball at her head. Since that day, Mary had eight concussions in the span of four years. Her pediatrician and neurologist agreed that she should stop playing sports.

“I had spent all this energy trying to play club sports,” she says. “I needed to find something to do with my free afternoons.”

Mary discovered journalism, government and politics. She currently writes for the school newspaper and magazine.

After attending a leadership program at Yale University during the summer before eighth grade, she was inspired to come home and improve women’s education in Dallas. “I wanted to encourage young girls to become leaders in their fields,” she says. “My teachers always told me that I could be whatever I wanted to be as long as I worked hard enough. I knew that wasn’t the experience for every girl in Dallas. I had an awakening that I was very privileged to hear these messages and have all this support. I needed to ensure that other women have these same opportunities.”

Mary raised $10,000 to buy books by and about inspiring women and donate them to middle school libraries. She worked with the Community Foundations of Texas to get guidance about creating a nonprofit. It’s called Story Power, Inc. Next, she approached the head of libraries at DISD about the idea of using the books in a summer school program.

“I wanted to make sure that these books really got into the hands of young girls,” she says.

A few weeks later, she started working at Thomas A. Edison Middle School’s summer program. Mary continued raising money for books and conducted the session for the next four summers at Edison, George Bannerman Dealey Montessori School and T.R. Hoover Community Corp. She recruited friends to work with her. As the program expanded, she recruited volunteers from the St. Mark’s School, students from the neighborhood and anyone who was interested in helping.

During her senior year, Mary was asked to do the TEDxKids@SMU. Speakers are not allowed to bring notes on stage for the 10-minute talk. She practiced her speech, “Take Your Seat at the Table,” in front of anyone who would listen. When told she looked composed and confident, she confesses that inside she was shaking and worrying that she would mess up.

Next year, Mary plans to go to Yale, where she will major in ethics, politics and economics.

When asked what her advice is for other students, she says, “Find your passion and don’t ever hold back in accomplishing that. Get involved and continue to speak up. Never give up even if you are 13 or 15 or 18.”