By Dorothy Atkins | May 22, 2015 | Lifestyle
The Aspen Institute and Bezos FamIly Foundation challenge students to lift up their communities.
John Legend spoke on the importance of leadership at the inaugural Aspen Challenge in Los Angeles in 2013.
The Aspen Institute, long known for engaging political heavyweights, industry titans, and major thought leaders on the most critical issues facing our world, has turned its focus to kids.
Launched in 2013, the annual Aspen Challenge—brainchild of the Bezos Family Foundation and supported by the likes of Aspen Institute CEO Walter Isaacson and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright—is an innovative educational program whereby students from underserved and often impoverished public schools are given the tools and support to identify, prioritize, and find solutions to the largest problems afflicting their communities.
Each year, the Aspen Challenge moves into a new school district—what they dub “the premier city”—with the goal of empowering a new batch of roughly 150 high school students from some 20 schools. (The first premier city was Los Angeles, followed last year by Denver. This year the Challenge will be in Washington, DC, the home of The Aspen Institute’s headquarters—next year: Chicago.)
The ultimate goal is to include communities of all types—from urban to rural, from the coasts to the heartland. Specific districts and cities are chosen based on top-level buy-ins from superintendents as well as the ability and enthusiasm of those communities to continue the program once the Aspen Challenge staff has moved on.
“We hope to bring the Aspen Challenge to a new city every year, but to remain active in the previous cities,” Isaacson says. “This year, top teams from all three cities will have the chance to go to the Aspen Ideas Festival.”
In LA, in 2013, Astronaut Jeff Ashby spoke to students from 20 different schools in the shadow of the Space Shuttle Endeavour, which he piloted.
The program starts with an initial forum during which speakers—from Albright to musician John Legend, with everyone from marine biologists to astronauts to presidential cabinet members in between—offer inspirational speeches and identify specific challenges to guide the eight-person teams. Aspen Challenge staff and participating teachers and administrators then guide the students along the seven-week path, from idea generation to budgeting to execution. The program culminates with a daylong competition where each student group presents its idea to a panel of judges determined by Aspen Challenge staff in collaboration with school administrators. The overall group winner from each city is invited to present its ideas at the appropriately titled Aspen Ideas Festival, this year running June 25 through July 4, on The Aspen Institute’s campus.
“If you look at what they’re doing in Denver, and Los Angeles, and Washington, DC, you see students tackling problems, and finding solutions to those problems that you don’t even see the government solving,” says Isaacson, also the author of best-selling biographies on Steve Jobs, Henry Kissinger, and Albert Einstein.
Isaacson is right. This year students at Los Angeles’s Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnets High School figured out a way to manage the water supply shortage in their schools. At SEED School, in Washington, DC, students created the FRESH (Finding Real and Equitable Solutions for Health) program, which integrates nutritious dishes into the community’s diet. And in Denver, George Washington High School’s top team created a system to combat racism by forming new community groups discussing literature, music, and the arts.
A competition-wide dinner kicked off the Aspen Challenge in DC this year.
Isaacson says these are just a sampling of dozens of successful projects that have been implemented in schools since March, many with the potential to provide long-term solutions.
And while students undoubtedly gain valuable experience simply by participating in the program, the chance to travel to Aspen and present their ideas to influential attendees and decision makers offers its own benefits.
“It’s moving to watch,” says Kitty Boone, vice president of public programs (and Aspen Ideas Festival director) at The Aspen Institute, in reference to the student presentations at Ideas Fest. “I’ve been in tears almost every time I’ve seen them come to Aspen. They win in March, but when they’re here, they turn everything up and they’re just amazing. This is a very transformative experience for them.”
Founded by Jacklyn and Mike Bezos, mother and stepfather to Amazon tycoon Jeff Bezos, the Bezos Family Foundation has dedicated itself to improving education across the country. In 2014, it celebrated the ninth successful year of its Bezos Scholars Program, one of the foundation’s many initiatives that pay for students from underserved communities to come to Aspen and attend Ideas Fest. The Bezos family saw how, while in Aspen, students were exposed to ideas they likely would never experience in their home schools. Just look at the program’s past speakers: President Bill Clinton, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Bill Gates, Sandra Day O’Connor. The success of the Scholars only inspired the foundation to do more.
“We witnessed the profound impact young people can have on their community when given the tools and support,” says Mike Bezos. “[Once] given the opportunity, participants in both the Aspen Challenge and the Bezos Scholars Program have transformed into community leaders.”
On a warm Saturday in March, a palpable excitement rippled through the cool auditorium at Garfield Senior High School, in East Los Angeles, as some 100 students, administrators, and teachers watched teams present their final projects for this year’s Challenge to a panel of judges. Inside, orange LED lights projected the Aspen Challenge logo onto the walls, while triangular, orange mesh displays straddled either side of the stage.
Presentations on this final day ranged from the practical to the ambitious. One solution proposed concrete steps to improve the cleanliness of restrooms in an LA school of 2,000 serviced by only three janitors. Another posited a new program for student victims of alcohol abuse. One of the most popular presentation topics was bullying.
“We want to use this as a foundation for youth engagement,” says Isaacson, “because every kid in America deserves the opportunity to change the problems that impact their own communities.”
Ultimately, the Aspen Challenge is about more than providing student-driven solutions to challenging problems; it’s about empowering those students with the necessary confidence to overcome everyday adversity, while also bridging the opportunity gap that divides them from more privileged counterparts.
For the students, such as Michelle Shayevich, a member of the first LA Taft High School team to win the Aspen Challenge in 2013, the program has been about constant evolution and growth.
“To this day, I think it was one of the most memorable experiences of my life,” Shayevich says of attending the Ideas Festival.
During that first year, she says, much of the inspiration came from the speakers: former American astronaut Jeffrey Ashby, who discussed what it was like to travel in space; actress Anna Deavere Smith, who explained the challenges of growing up as a minority in a segregated school in the ’60s; and Legend, who spoke on the importance of failure and resilience in the achievement of success. Shayevich says they inspired her team to launch an initiative installing community gardens in local elementary schools. The plan was so successful that a new school club, Spreading Sprouts, was subsequently founded. Shayevich is president of the club, which has since installed 10 organic gardens in elementary schools across Los Angeles County.
But even for those students who don’t win the top prize and the chance to present in Aspen, the Challenge still gives them the opportunity to go beyond their communities and share their ideas with other like-minded, hardworking students.
Isaacson says all this is just the beginning of a larger initiative in the works at The Aspen Institute. Eventually, he says, the Challenge will be just one arm of multiple programs, offered in partnership with the Bezos Family Foundation, engaging young people in their communities.
“I think it’s really important to get people working as a team to do projects that make them realize they’re going to be innovative, and they’re going to be a part of something larger than themselves,” he says. The Aspen Ideas Festival, June 25 through July 4, at The Aspen Institute. 1000 N. Third St., 970-544-7955
photography by Jonathan Iocco; Dan DavIs