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Students To The Rescue

Students from 20 Philly high schools tackle food insecurity, food waste and school violence through the Aspen Challenge.

Students from 20 Philly high schools tackle food insecurity, food waste and school violence through the Aspen Challenge.

Over the last seven weeks, high school students from 20 Philadelphia schools created pop-up diners for the homeless in Kensington; helped children lose an average of 8 pounds each in Bustleton; and even built an app for conflict mediation in Francisville.

These are just a few solutions that came from this year’s Philadelphia Aspen Challenge — an annual competition hosted by the the Aspen Institute and the Bezos Family Foundation that challenges high school students in underserved urban schools to take on varying social problems. In February, teams of 20 students each were presented with problems from five different global experts, ranging from health to finance to violence; working with a pair of teachers, they devised solutions workable in their schools and beyond.

The 160 students presented their work to a panel of judges at the Ballroom at the Ben on Wednesday, and three schools—Sankofa Freedom Academy Charter School, George Washington High School and Northeast High School—were chosen as winners. Those teams will travel to the Aspen Ideas Festival in June to present their ideas to the national and international thinkers at the annual event. But all 20 teams were able to make some change in their school communities through their projects.

At George Washington High School, in the Northeast, students accepted a challenge from Penn’s Ezekiel Emanuel, chief architect of Obamacare, to improve the health of their community. The students created Phit Philly, a nonprofit that collaborates with the Free Library of Philadelphia and local community centers to provide nutritional information for the physical and mental health of families. During their presentation to the judges, the students noted that Northeast Philadelphia has the lowest obesity rates in the city.

“Our city’s lowest obesity rate is almost 20 percent,” one student said. “This is not okay.”

“America. Wake up. There is no tomorrow. Put the phones down. Get up and get out,” another added.

Students from Northeast High School introduced the crowd to “meraki”—a Greek term that means putting your heart into your work—as they talked about their solution to the challenge presented by Komal Ahmad, CEO/Founder of food-recovery app Copia, to design methods of recovering food in a scalable, efficient way. These students worked with Harvard Law School to propose changes to food laws to make it less of a liability for businesses to donate their food. They also used food waste from their peers at school to make smoothies for teen moms in the area and “reveal the beauty of fruit.”

At Sankofa Freedom Academy Charter School, the students have been giving out over 100 meals per week at their pop-up diners with food collected during school lunches.

The team from Sankofa Freedom Academy Charter School in Kensington also addressed Ahmad’s challenge, and created “Sankofa Feeds,” a series of pop-up diners that used uneaten food from their peers at school and from community businesses and organizations. “Our school is in the Kensington area and there’s a lot of homeless people and drug addicts,” said 9th grade winner Destiny Gregg. “We just wanted to help out and feed them. Not everybody goes to sleep with a full stomach and we want to help them go to sleep with a full stomach.” The students have been giving out over 100 meals per week at their pop-up diners with food collected during school lunches.

This is the first year of the Aspen Challenge in Philadelphia; the Institute and the Foundation will put on another here next year, with the hopes that the city will continue to hold similar events on its own in subsequent years. During a daylong event on February 1, the students enjoyed rousing talks from inspiring adults—including Questlove—and learned how experts created their ideas, and addressed problems in their worlds. Other challenges presented were from Participatory Budget Project’s Shari Davis, asking students to create true racial equity for democracy by allowing citizens to participate in deciding how to allocate city funds; NASA scientist J.T. Reager, on bringing the health of the planet to their community’s daily consciousness; and anti-violence activist Rev. Jeffrey Brown, encouraging students to make the “impossible possible” and make non-violence cool.

On Wednesday, amidst another inspiring full day, students heard from director M. Night Shyamalan about his failures—which he told students were as recent as his 2015 film The Visit that other filmmakers swore would fail before it became a top-rated movie—and how he uses them to believe more deeply in himself. And they started the day with Mayor Kenney, who  wished them luck—and a little city encouragement.  “What I see in all of you is potential, and the opportunity to succeed,” Kenney said. “There are people out there, trust me, that continue the narrative that you can’t succeed because they don’t want you to succeed because they want to be able to point to cities and urban youth and they want to prove that the money they’re responsible for investing is wasted, but it’s not wasted.”

Then they each gave five minute presentations to their fellow students and the panel of judges: community engagement activist Jamira Burley; Philly Youth Poetry Movement founder Greg Corbin Jr.; CEO of the the Fund for Philadelphia School District Donna Frisby-Greenwood; venture capitalist Wayne Kimmel; entrepreneur Keith Leaphart; and president and director of the Free Library of Philadelphia Siobhan Reardon.

“Our city’s lowest obesity rate is almost 20 percent,” a George Washington High student said. “This is not okay.” Another added: “America. Wake up. There is no tomorrow. Put the phones down. Get up and get out.”

In addition the three winners, judges also gave an Impact Award to The U School; Best Exhibit Award to John Bartram High School; and Team Spirit Award to First Philadelphia Preparatory Charter High School. Washington also received a People’s Choice Award from their fellow students.

Even schools that didn’t make the top three gave moving presentations, speaking truth-to-power of their own experiences with food insecurity and violence. Students from The U School in North Philadelphia said their team of eight had all participated in violent actions while in school; they took their personal experiences and turned them on their head to become mentors for younger students. These students used film, art, dance and music to challenge the narrative that “hurt people hurt people” at McKinley Elementary School.

At People for People Charter School, students took on non-violence in a virtual way. They created the app WeSeek (which will soon be publicly available) to help children with peaceful and safe decision-making. In WeSeek, users are presented with different situations, and choose what actions they would take, to better prepare them for real-life conflicts.

And students at  First Philadelphia Preparatory Charter High School addressed health, with their

“Philly Fights Lead” initiative. The students created lead test kits that they gave out while sitting outside teachers’ classrooms on parent-teacher conference days to tell parents about the lead epidemic. The kits, which they gave out for free, cost $4.65 per box and provide instructions of how to test different places in their homes for lead, First Philly Prep junior and team member Leeanna Izquierdo said. From these kits, several students and teachers from the school reported finding lead in their homes.

Photo by Daniel Bayer

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