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NAACP youth olympics awards medals in Boston

Peter Roby
NAACP youth olympics awards medals in Boston

When the NAACP opened its 114th convention in Boston last week, many visitors’ first taste of the festivities came from one of six aspiring culinarians. The Hub served samples of their meals on Friday. A day earlier, they waged a multi-hour cook-off for an NAACP national youth honor.

The six high schoolers were finishing a year-long program through their local NAACP branches. Mentor chefs back home had helped hone their kitchen skills in preparation for a qualifying round. The winners placed in the 46th Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO).

The ACT-SO program saw 512 qualified entrants from 89 NAACP branches competing at the convention. Medalists in 33 categories were recognized on July  29.

Boston-branch contestants Leah Pires, Mal Eason, Nasya Baine and Sadie Carroll won medals in ballet, photography, traditional dance, and music composition, respectively. Pires won a silver medal, while the others received bronze medals.

“We are extremely proud of our ACT-SO winners,” said Boston NAACP President Tanisha Sullivan. “Our students represent every neighborhood of Boston and reflect the depth of talent that exists in our young people.”

The Boston branch fielded 14 ACT-SO competitors this year.

Six participants from Brockton, the “City of Champions,” snagged four medals. Nevaeh De Jesus wrote “The Ghost of White Privilege,” winning the gold in poetry. In chemistry, Kyle Denny won silver, as did Yvangi Jacques in earth and space sciences and Brooklynn Massó in contemporary dance.

“To be young, gifted and Black,” mused Brockton NAACP President Phyllis Ellis. “The students proved this is a fact.”

Journalist Vernon Jarrett launched ACT-SO as a science-focused “Olympics of the Mind” at Chicago’s DuSable Museum in 1976. The first NAACP-sponsored national ACT-SO competition was held in 1978 in Portland, Oregon. Jarrett focused on the core ACT-SO competitions, like classical music and oratory. The newspaper columnist with an intellectual bent died in 2004.

Today, competitions are categorized into STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), humanities, performing and visual arts, business and culinary.

ACT-SO Executive Director Larry Brown Jr. said Jarrett “believed that African American students should have the opportunity to stand on platforms that their non-African American counterparts stood on … outside of the athletics.” Brown credited the NAACP community of adult volunteers with passion for supporting youth.

Through their high school years, teens can join up without specializing in any one discipline. NAACP chapters with ACT-SO programs introduce participants to a breadth of experiences.

“We foster a space where our students have an opportunity to create and to thrive,” Brown said.

Throughout the national gathering, visual artworks were displayed next to science projects in the main hall of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. Luxury cosmetics maker Lancôme awarded 40 girls from ACT-SO with $10,000 college scholarships.

Kaleb Johnson of New Orleans, Louisiana won the gold medal in culinary arts this year. Johnson just graduated from the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. Mentored by a teacher from the school, he recalled late nights breaking down cases of chicken and practicing knife skills on bags full of carrots.

This fall, he is enrolling in the Culinary Institute of America. His cuisine is modern American, creatively fusing together the best of many ethnic traditions. After college, he plans to work his way up through the kitchen of a master chef.

“In order to be successful in this industry, you have to gain a lot of experience,” Johnson said.

Over time, ACT-SO has adapted. New categories have pushed the total medal count to the triple digits.

“It’s important, if you are going to maintain relevancy, that you change some things up,” said Barbara Bolling-Williams, a NAACP national board member involved with ACT-SO since 1996, “This year, we had a lot more performances by the students” at the annual awards ceremony, she said.

ACT-SO alumni worked the awards ceremony. Bolling-Williams hopes to register more ACT-SO alumni online. Famous former contenders include Alicia Keys, Ms. Lauryn Hill, Jada Pinkett Smith and Kanye West.

“They talk about a whole list of people who have come through the program,” Bolling-Williams said. “We haven’t had an opportunity to fully engage them.”

NAACP ACT-SO, NAACP convention