Just Doing It

June 1, 2020  • Sara Billups

For the past 15 years in the early summer, 17 extraordinary young people from across the United States and Africa have undertaken a yearlong journey with the Bezos Scholars, a program of the Bezos Family Foundation in partnership with the Institute. After a competitive application process, high school juniors and an educator from their school first spend the week at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Scholars leave brimming with ideas and a newly sparked curiosity. Next, they spend the rest of the year developing leadership skills and planning their own Local Ideas Festival, a sustainable community-change project covering topics like environmental action and mental health awareness.

Since the program began in 2005, a global network of almost 400 Bezos Scholars and educators have launched 164 Local Ideas Festivals. Many create long-term change and continue after the scholars graduate. The program was canceled for the first time in 2020 as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic; the Bezos Scholars team is currently strengthening its alumni network and looking forward to returning stronger than ever in 2021.

Here, three Bezos Scholars talk about being inspired by global leaders at the Aspen Ideas Festival and the Institute’s far-reaching impact in their leadership journeys back home.

Sara Billups is the communications manager at the Bezos Family Foundation. To learn more about the Bezos Scholars Progr
am, please visit bezosscholars.org.

“You Belong Here”
Yannick Trapman-O’Brien | 2009 Scholar
Festival Focus: Arts and Arts Education

Yannick Trapman-O’Brien carried a building sense of excitement heading into Aspen Ideas Festival, but he had no idea what to expect. The 2009 Bezos Scholar remembers the transformative experience of walking around the festival grounds and being invited into conversations by peers and thought leaders.

He learned that in a place of ideas, all people have a contribution to make. “I think it’s really hard for any young person to be swept from their context into this grander stage and to not have a sense of the world really opening in a broad way,” he says. “And eventually, one settles with the idea that perhaps the world really is open.”

Inspired by his time in Aspen, Trapman-O’Brien launched a Student Artists Festival at St. Augustine High School. The Local Ideas Festival connected students pursuing creative careers with mentors.

Trapman-O’Brien says his formative year as a Bezos Scholar in 2009 continues to influence how he approaches experiences and opportunities. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in Theater from New York University–Abu Dhabi and studied at the Experimental Theater Wing in New York. Today, he is an arts professional based in Philadelphia. Trapman-O’Brien is the assistant director of Cirque du Nuit and the studio assistant and engagement strategist at Monument Lab.

“I can draw a line through moments of exceptional academic work I’ve done where I’ve thought: You wouldn’t make those connections or have these thoughts had you not been exposed to this world and grabbed by the shoulders and told, ‘You belong here.’ ”

“A Different Space”
Gift Kiti | 2013 Scholar
Festival Focus: Youth Leadership and Fostering Big Ideas

“It was huge,” says Gift Kiti, recalling how it felt when she was selected as a 2013 Bezos Scholar. Then a student at the African Leadership Academy in South Africa, Kiti was one of five students selected out of several hundred after a series of challenging interviews. She traveled to the United States for the first time to attend the Aspen Ideas Festival and experienced a new natural landscape. “I hadn’t seen snow before,” she says, remembering the mountaintops in Aspen. “It’s really inspiring and feels like a different space.”

Kiti’s year in the program culminated in a South African Ideas Festival, where she and other student team members hosted a successful event in Johannesburg focused on education, technology, health, and the arts. The event caught on: in 2020, the South African Ideas Festival celebrated its eighth year.

The Bezos Scholars Program “is a unique opportunity to be exposed to people who are passionate about their ideas,” Kiti says. Fellow scholars “have this vision to change the world in one way or another,” and the program and Aspen experience show them “how to take an idea one step farther, or how to move from the ideas phase to taking action.”

Kiti received a master’s degree in public health at UC Berkeley this year. Her research focuses on how personcentered maternity care links to continuous labor support in her home country of Kenya. “The program opened my eyes in many ways,” she says. Kiti has launched two new projects in recent years: Zawadi Healthcare Services, a health care clinic in Mombasa, Kenya, and a sustainable spice company with her sister.

“Shoot Your Shot”
Ana Acevedo | 2016 Scholar | Festival Focus: Conversations Around Gender Identity and Expression

Ana Acevedo’s daylong Local Ideas Festival, “Unraveling Gender,” explored gender issues and raised LGBTQ+ awareness in her home community of New Rochelle, New York. Bezos Scholars “was one of the most memorable things that I did in my teenage years,” Acevedo says. “The trust and support the foundation gives to 16-year-old students to create makes you feel really valued and listened to, so you push yourself to do things you never thought you could do before.”

Acevedo remembers what it felt like to be on the ground in Aspen. “It was obvious how much the program cared that we had a good, good experience that week,” she says. “It was really wild to be in that space with all these ideas getting thrown out and incredible people are speaking.” Acevedo says the program modeled how to engage with people “in a way that allows them to be their free creative selves and understand how to be compassionate.”

Now a pre-med and neuroscience major at the University of Pennsylvania, Acevedo identified a need for arts-related groups and outlets for the LGBTQ+ community on campus. This spring, she used the organizing and budgeting skills she learned as a scholar to digitally launch a LGBTQ+ student magazine while completing the semester online. She is planning a print version of the magazine once students are back on campus.

Acevedo encourages all young changemakers to pursue their passions. “Shoot your shot,” she says. “You’re worthy, you’re worthy of it all. You already have good ideas and you already have this impulse and determination. Try and see what happens.”