Dancer Lil Buck poses with 2015 Aspen Challenge students (Photo Credit: Dan Davis)
Nearly a quarter of America’s population is under age 18. These are the young people who will be tomorrow’s entrepreneurs, decision-makers, and voters, and the time to encourage their engagement with their communities is now. The Aspen Challenge provides a platform, tools, and a dose of inspiration for young people in urban high schools to design solutions to some of the most critical problems facing their communities — and it is growing across the country. This year, the Aspen Challenge will be holding a much-anticipated launch in Chicago, featuring dynamic speakers ready to inspire change at the local level.
The Aspen Challenge will give participants the opportunity to practice their critical thinking, tap into their creativity, and apply their fresh perspectives to challenges in their community. Instead of being stigmatized as part of the problem, young people in urban areas become part of the solution.
How does it work, exactly? The Aspen Challenge begins with a forum for students and teachers in high schools across the selected city, where 20 teams of 10 (eight students, two mentors) are presented with unique challenges. Equipped with tools and support, the teams work to design an innovative solution. Seven weeks later, they present their ideas in a day-long competition, where teams are selected to advance and showcase their work at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
Becoming agents of change in their communities and beyond
Aspen Challenge Denver participants (Photo Credit: Dan Davis)
When young people have the opportunity to take the lead in addressing the issues that affect their community, they can become effective agents of change. Pursuing their own solutions helps to encourage development into civically engaged citizens, challenging stereotypes of underserved communities and showcasing the talent, determination, and ingenuity of young Americans in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.
The Aspen Challenge works to make sure that this development doesn’t end after the seven-week challenge. Alumni of the program continue to stay active in their home communities and beyond. By engaging tomorrow’s future leaders, the Aspen Challenge helps strengthen community capacity and encourage sustainable change on community issues, bridging gaps across some of America’s areas of highest inequality.
The solutions that these young people envision and implement for their communities make a tangible difference in people’s day-to-day lives. For example, students in Los Angeles began the Westchester Environmental Sustainability Movement, which took ownership of several projects in their high school and the surrounding community on the environmental impacts of water usage, and made a trip to Gov. Jerry Brown’s office to address legislation on water use in California. After the Aspen Ideas Festival, the team began “water-wise” campaigns in their high school, worked in conjunction with the mayor’s office to promote a “Day Without Water” campaign, organized an annual Drought Solutions Summit, and planned a hydroponics and aquaponics system for their own drought-resistant garden. Their vision will affect how water is used in their community for years to come.
Cities across America are taking up the challenge
The program has already taken root in Los Angeles, Denver, and Washington, DC. In 2016, it is launching in Chicago. This March, inspiring speakers will help kick off the program at the launch event and encourage kids across the city to use their creativity for the good of their communities. Speakers include:
- Arne Duncan, US Secretary of Education and previous CEO of Chicago Public Schools
- John Lewis, US Representative for Georgia’s 5th district and civil rights icon
- Chancellor (Chance the Rapper) Bennett, a hip-hop artist and activist for social change in Chicago
- Jessica Matthews, an award-winning entrepreneur and innovator
As students across Chicago team up to collaborate and brainstorm ways to positively impact the communities in which they live, I am sure that they will rise to the challenge with grit and unforgettable spirit.
Natalie Travers is program manager of the Aspen Challenge.