Teen dating violence, zero tolerance school bullying policies, suicide, appearance discrimination, sex abuse in the church: these are just a few of the issues on the minds of high-schoolers in Akron Public Schools’ Early College Program.
While some students may feel left out of community discussion around some of these topics, their voices were definitely heard at the Second Annual Project Soapbox finals competition, held at the Akron-Summit County Public Library’s Main Library.
Students covered subjects ranging from local Akron issues to global concerns. And one of the most critical parts of the program was that these young people offered solutions to the problems. (Watch the full video at the end of the article.)
Jason Do, who’s in 10th grade, talked about the flaws in the schools’ zero tolerance bullying policy, which he says offers a mini vacation bullies who are suspended but don’t address the heart of the issue, like why does a person bully? It could range from depression and misplaced anger to a dysfunctional home life. Do said a possible solution could be counseling or mandatory anger management for bullies, along with fines and other penalties for those who bully others.
He added that “30 percent of young people admit to bullying others,” and as he looked around the room, said to the audience, “one-third of you in this room would bully another person.”
The judge’s choice award went to Krista Nisly, who spoke against the “All Lives Matter” movement, which she said is just a means to counter and tear down the Black Lives Matter movement.
“All Lives Matter movement is not a real movement because its intention is to take away from the Black Lives Matter movement,” said Nisly. “While people were being deported, All Lives Matter was silent. The only time All Lives Matter speaks up is to tear down what Black Lives Matter accomplishes.”
Her suggested remedy? For residents to stand behind the Black Lives Matter movement, which she points out isn’t just for black lives; it’s to bring awareness to injustices that African-Americans experience. “All Lives Matter does not stand for all lives,” she added.
Project Soapbox is the brainchild of U.S. History teacher Brad Scott. “On the surface, this appears to be nothing more than a speech competition, but to Akron Early College High School, it’s become much more than that,” he said. “We implemented Project Soapbox as a way to elevate student voice.”
The magical part, he added, is the peer support the students offer one another. “If you could see students practicing speeches for the first time, giving each other feedback or helping each other with research, you would know in your bones that this is what learning looks like,” he said.
Tenth-grader Maria Finney won the audience choice award for her speech, which was about sexual abuse in the church. She asked how someone in a position of power, a “man of God,” could take advantage of people like this, and she spoke from first-hand experience as she was the victim of this type of abuse in church.
“But do not look at me as a victim, because I am a survivor, and although I was broken, confused and hurt, this situation has made me stronger than ever,” said Finney, who added that people put into authority like deacons and ministers should receive background checks, and those with a history of abuse should not be allowed to serve in these types of positions.
Kofi Boakye, an 11th-grader who won the audience choice award last year, delivered an impassioned speech about appearance discrimination.
Boakye wants to challenge people to look at the content of someone’s character, not the “crisp look of their clothing,” changing the focus from clothes to souls. “The only wall that needs to be built is a wall of love, hope and acceptance,” he said, pointing out that not every Muslim with a hijab is a terrorist, and not every police officer is a racist.
Chika Nkwocha, whose parents are Nigerian immigrants, discussed the problem of Americans’ perception of Africa, which she says is off-base. “America lacks knowledge of one of the world’s greatest wonders,” she said. “It’s an issue that today’s students are not taught about Africa, and when they are, they’re taught slavery. It’s also an issue that many African-Americans have no knowledge of their African ancestry.”
And when the media portrays Africa, she added, it’s usually in a negative light. Africa’s importance has been undermined. The solution, she says, is better academic programming when it comes to teaching students about this continent.
Heather Jandecka, a 10th-grader, talked about the cut in performing arts programs in schools and how it negatively affects students.
“Over 54,000 students in Ohio don’t have access to performing arts programs,” she said. “Performing arts programs are important and helpful to the overall learning environment and yet they’re the first thing to be cut from school district budgets. Downtown Akron is extremely good at showcasing talent and creativity by having murals, gardens, theaters and even our own art museum, and yet our youth that we’re relying on to continue to enhance Akron and share their creativity are being deprived of the schooling and environment they need to further their talents.”
She suggested that students have a say in the types of programs they’re taught and that performing arts could help save students by keeping them interested in school.
Judges for the competition included Akron City Councilman Jeff Fusco; David James, Akron Public Schools superintendent; Lisa Mansfield, from the Akron Public Schools Board of Education; Dameona Meriweather, Akron Early College Senior Class President; Carla Sibley, director of community relations for Akron Public Schools; City Councilwoman Veronica Sims; and Billy Soule, assistant to the mayor for community relations.
(Click here for coverage of last year’s Project Soapbox.)