While lawmakers held town halls on the issues facing their constituents, high schoolers in Philadelphia and Chicago rolled up their sleeves and got to work. Twenty schools from each district participated in this year’s Aspen Challenge competition. In February, they gathered in their respective cities to learn from leading thinkers who issued them five real world challenges. Teams then had eight weeks to design solutions around the challenge of their choosing. Earlier this month, they presented those solutions to a panel of judges. Their projects were scored based on creativity, feasibility, sustainability, and teamwork. The four winners will present their work at the Aspen Ideas Festival this summer.
At the Philadelphia competition, three teams walked away with the top prize. George Washington High School took on the challenge of improving the health of their community through good nutrition and regular exercise. Through their outreach program, Phit Philly, they tackled the growing obesity rate in the city. They held weekly classes for elementary students at a nearby recreation center, teaching both children and their parents the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. The Phit Philly team tracked the progress of participants and saw reports of weight loss and increased happiness. They are currently working with their administration to start a community garden that will provide the neighborhood with greater access to fresh produce.
George Washington High School
Both Sankofa Freedom Academy and Northeast High School took on the challenge of reducing food waste in their communities. The Sankofa team created an organization that used pop-up diners to distribute recovered food from commercial businesses, schools, and mini marts. Every week they fed hundreds of people. In a community where 45 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, these students sought out a solution that would create a better future for their neighbors. They are in the process of registering as a nonprofit with the goal of opening chapters across the city.
Sankofa Freedom Academy Charter School
The team at Northeast High School started out as “fruit activists” who collected unwanted fruit from their school and redistributed it to those in need. They named their group Meraki, a Greek word that means doing things with passion. By partnering with organizations around the city, including the Veterans Multi-Service Center, they also created innovative programs to build health literacy. One such event was a competition based on the Food Network show “Chopped.” Using only recovered foods, students had to create a tasty but nutritious meal. The team is now working toward changing local laws to prevent food waste through a partnership with Harvard Law School.
Northeast High School
In a city facing a violent crime uptick, students at Wendell Phillips Academy High School decided to take on the challenge of building trust between young people of color and law enforcement. They created the organization Teens and Cops Together in Chicago Successfully (or T.A.C.T.I.C.S.) to build trust and mutual respect between students and police officers. They held numerous workshops for the two populations, encouraging teens and police officers to get to know one another through team building exercises. They also included a discussion on rights and appropriate conduct to use in encounters with law enforcement. The curriculum for these workshops is currently being expanded so that it can be used in any school in Chicago.
Wendell Phillips Academy High School
“Aspen Challenge is truly an opportunity for our youth to encourage and inspire each other, and the adults around them, to solve critical issues facing the world,” said Dr. William R. Hite, superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia. “Whether teams have chosen to eliminate youth violence or encourage healthy living habits, this generation is wonderfully positioned to adapt as it encounters both progress and barriers.”
Students in both cities said that their participation in the Aspen Challenge has not only has shown them the importance of giving back but allowed them to see themselves differently. “You don’t need to be an adult to make a difference in your community. All your team needs is a problem, motivation to fix it, and perseverance,” said Abigail Diaon, a member of Lindblom Math and Science Academy’s SUPERFood team. Participants are encouraged to stay connected as they continue to find innovative solutions for these pressing issues.