A 15-year-old high-school sophomore sits in her mother’s parked car in 70-degree Louisville, Kentucky, heat with the windows slightly cracked. This is her classroom today. On the other side of the city, a veteran English teacher is juggling a virtual pep talk with seven anxious high-schoolers, triaging tech issues on his laptop and tracking down a missing team member via cell phone. He does it all with an expression that varies between jovial exasperation and pure joy. Peppered across the state, six adults are hunkering down for a 16-hour, two-day Zoom marathon. The backdrops of their makeshift offices offer subtle glimpses into their personal lives. It’s Aspen Challenge competition day, and it’s happening during a once-in-a-century crisis.
Starting with its 2013 launch, the Aspen Challenge culminates each year with a 250-person community celebration of young leaders’ talents. The showcase brings together 20 teams from across the selected city, each team made up of eight students and two teachers, to pitch sustainable solutions to critical issues facing their communities. Impressively, these pitches aren’t just abstract concepts. They reflect eight intensive weeks of collective effort to translate ideas into action. This work results in 20 mini-revolutions across each city—catalyzing action and demonstrating the power of youth voice, agency, Aspen Challenge and leadership.
The competition-day countdown began in January 2020 at the opening forum in Louisville. Civic leaders challenged youth to create and implement innovative solutions for community issues ranging from gun violence and food deserts to mental health and immigration. The energy was palpable as youth, educators, and community leaders shared personal connections to each topic and strategized about how best to address them. There was no talk of social distancing, most people didn’t know what “PPE” stood for, and news cycles were just starting to report on a potentially dangerous virus overseas. It was Challenge business as usual as teams began working through their eightweek playbook for community change.
The beauty of the Aspen Challenge lies in its use of evidence-based practices—robust curricula, professional development for teachers, and community engagement—to create a powerful learning experience. Impact assessments of the Challenge demonstrate that after eight weeks, youth participants yield equivalent or higher learning gains across critical leadership and socio-emotional outcomes than their peers did after a full year of college.
At week seven, the Louisville teams were applying finishing touches to their work and hungry to share their stories. And then the world shut down. What happened next is a lesson in adaptive leadership and community perseverance. The input from youth participants, teachers, school district leaders, and community constituents was unanimous: “The Challenge must go on!” To be clear, there was no contingency plan for a pandemic, but every part of the Louisville community rose to the occasion to reimagine what competition day would look like.
In three short weeks, a virtual competition was conceived, designed, and implemented. Challenge staff worked to pivot content for online delivery. Local educators coached teams on how to present in a digital context. Civic leaders volunteering as judges identified the work as more important than ever, and moved personal and professional commitments to accommodate participation in the two-day virtual showcase. Leaders from around the city, state, and country logged on to witness Louisville’s youth reimagine not just solutions to their challenge issue but to the very process of how teams come together to overcome significant barriers to community progress. As the reimagined competition day neared its virtual end, one young participant sat on her bed with siblings playing nearby. She didn’t have to watch all of the presentations, but she wanted to “check out the competition.” She caught herself mid-sentence. “Actually, it’s not about winning anymore,” she said. “I just want us all to get across the finish line together. We’ve already won with what we’ve accomplished.”
And win they did. From a children’s book that brings to life superhero children from diverse backgrounds to a school club that gathers youth addicted to vaping in support rather than shame, the 19 solutions of Aspen Challenge: Louisville will have a lasting impact on both individuals and communities.
“The Aspen Challenge fits into the mosaic of youth engagement in an incredibly important way,” said Theo Edmonds, a professor of public health and information science at the University of Louisville, who will steward the Challenge as it shifts to a statewide initiative called the Kentucky Wellbeing Challenge. “It doesn’t set the agenda for the young people. It allows them to set the agenda. Then it surrounds them with the research and the support they tell us that they need to accomplish the things they want to. I think that’s incredibly important.”
The Aspen Challenge is a partnership program of the Institute and Bezos Family Foundation.