Recently at the University of Akron’s Polsky Hall, the 10th-graders approached the podium and commanded the room, putting forth thoughtful, powerful and impassioned ideas, and challenging the audience in an effort to make the community a better place.
The program, called Project Soapbox, was organized by Brad Scott, a U.S. History teacher for Akron Early College, and featured students who were articulate and poised, showing maturity well beyond their years.
For a demographic that often thinks their voices aren’t heard, these students were heard loud and clear.
“Do you hear that?” asked Kofi Boakye, who won an Audience Choice award at the competition. “For the past seven years, my father has made the exact same sound. Silence. Silence was the hand claps he made in 2009, the day of my first piano recital.
“Fatherlessness is a growing epidemic in our society,” said Boakye, who’s also an accomplished musician. “And the sad fact that our society is forced to come to terms with is that fatherlessness is no longer an abnormality, it is a child’s reality.”
More than 20 million children live without a father in their homes, he said, adding, “I stand here today as a determined and goal-driven young man to encourage you to beat the odds that media tends to put in our faces. There’s nothing that you can’t do.”
Azia Anderson spoke out about the unfairness of dress codes for girls, which she believes are founded on a notion of sexism.
“Maybe instead of teaching girls to cover up so boys are distracted, we should teach boys to have self control,” said Anderson, who herself was sent home a few different times because what she wore was deemed too distracting to the boys in school. She calls for a dress code “that doesn’t limit the ability of girls and doesn’t dehumanize girls.”
The student presenters were not afraid to be confrontational. “Let’s talk about sex,” said Nia Clark, who won the competition. “Some of you may feel a little awkward right now, with a 16-year-old mentioning this topic.”
She presented data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, stating that 47 percent of high schoolers have had sex, 41 percent of whom did not use a condom. And only 22 percent had ever been tested for HIV.
“These risky behaviors set the basis for our youth being at a high risk of catching a sexually transmitted disease or obtaining an unintended pregnancy,” said Clark. “Our youth are becoming more exposed through sexual activity through the Internet. How will our future be stable if our young people are catching these diseases?
“I’m calling for all high schools nationally to have more comprehensive sex education.”
Maeve Cox addressed the epidemic of texting and driving. “More than 3,000 teenagers die every year in crashes caused by texting and driving,” she said. “That leaves more than 3,000 parents to mourn the death of their child that had their entire lifetime ahead of them cut short by one small fatal mistake.”
Her presented solution was simple: “Put the phone down. Text before you leave.”
Scott credits the idea of Project Soapbox to the Mikva Challenge, which encourages young people to challenge the status quo in order to become informed, empowered and active citizens and community leaders.
The student presentations were judged by a juried panel, including: Former Akron Public Schools Board of Education President Lisa Mansfield (who’s now managing director of Weathervane Playhouse); Ward 5 Akron City Councilwoman Tara Mosley-Samples; At-large Akron City Councilman Jeff Fusco; Summit County Executive Russ Pry; and 34th Ohio House District Representative Emilia Sykes.
Below is a photo gallery with the other students and their topics: