Philly students respond, react to renowned think tank's challenge

The Aspen Challenge: Philadelphia offered youth a chance to practice their critical thinking, tap into their creativity, and
The Aspen Challenge: Philadelphia offered youth a chance to practice their critical thinking, tap into their creativity, and provide fresh perspectives on issues within our society.

"These past eight weeks have changed my life and have shown me the importance of giving back to the community," stated Mark Sharashidze.

A junior at comedian Kevin Hart's alma mater, Philadelphia's George Washington High School, Sharashidze introspectively summed up the last two months of his life participating in the Aspen Challenge: Philadelphia competition.

"The team and I plan on expanding our PhitPhilly program to a national scale, and continue to teach and instill healthy habits into children, adolescents and anyone who could benefit from our program."

One of 160 students representing 20 schools throughout the nation's birthplace, Philadelphia, Sharashidze and seven of his schoolmates formed a team tasked to solve a societal challenge. Presented by the world renowned research institution and think tank, the Aspen Institute, the 20 teams were offered the opportunity "to encourage and inspire each other, and the adults around them, to solve critical issues facing the world," according to Dr. William R. Hite, Superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia.

Inspired by the Bezos Family Foundation's Bezos Scholar Program, five years ago the Aspen Institute charged the foundation with creating a teen program to reach more youth through an engaging, transformative competition experience. In 2013, Los Angeles hosted the first installment of the Aspen Challenge. This year, Philadelphia became the initiative's fifth city with Denver, Washington, D.C. and Chicago having been added from 2014 to 2016.

“We especially realized how distressing the feeling was in Philadelphia about the schools,” said former City Commerce Director and Kimmel Center President, Stephanie Naidoff.

Telling the Philadelphia Citizen in February, Naidoff said she "thought this [Aspen Challenge] could really help people become devoted to the children."

"If people in the community can see how magical and inspiring this is, hopefully we will develop a cadre of people who want to continue to do it," stated the current Philadelphia School Partnership and The Fund for the School District of Philadelphia board member.

For close to 70 years the Aspen Institute has proven to be a global leader in "fostering enlightened leadership, the appreciation of timeless ideas and values, and open-minded dialogue on contemporary issues."

Five challenges were issued to 160 Philadelphia high school students as part of the Aspen Challenge: Philadelphia competition
Five challenges were issued to 160 Philadelphia high school students as part of the Aspen Challenge: Philadelphia competition.

The real life, issue-oriented challenges posed to the Philadelphia students were presented in February during a launch that featured The Roots, and Philly's own, Questlove; author and artist MK Asante, activist DeRay McKesson; and National Constitution Center CEO and President, Jeffrey Rosen.

"I was thrilled to participate in the Aspen Challenge," Rosen stated. Overseeing one of the nation's most visited historical attractions, Rosen was "so inspired to encourage our great Philadelphia students to download and learn from the National Constitution Center’s wonderful Interactive Constitution app!"

Rosen's presentation may have influenced Sharashidze and his team to consider using technology as a means to solve one of the challenges. Confronted with devising a way to change the culture of violence by making non-violence cool; design a scalable way to recover wasted food; empower young people to redefine democracy through participatory budgeting; empower the community to keep the planet healthy; or encourage healthy habits among young people, the team formed PhitPhilly.

"We were challenged to improve the overall health of people of all ages so we chose to create classes once a week for elementary-aged children that focused on healthy eating and healthy snacks, while also holding events outside or in school gyms."

Providing valuable health and nutrition information, PhitPhilly created an app for Apple and Android called “PhitPhilly," complimented by the web site

So that their message has a greater reach, the team utilizes social media platforms-with the handle @phitphillygw-and forged a partnership with the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Bustleton Branch to host events.

"PhitPhilly was a team effort," Sana Ahmadi shared. Co-Leader with Sharashidze, the junior "contacted a member of Harvard University's Department of Nutrition’s team for lesson plans and tips on working with our community," as part of her contribution to the project.

With the help of their coaches, Antonios Pitsakis and Mikhail Zolotnitsky, the team met every day to discuss lesson plans and ideas on how to engage the community in a proactive way.  

“The Aspen Challenge is an important part of our commitment to developing the young people of today into America’s future leaders,” said Walter Isaacson, who recently announced his plan to step down as President and CEO of the Aspen Institute.

“As the name suggests, this program challenges students across the country to find bold and inspiring solutions to complex problems. We are proud to have the Aspen Challenge in Philadelphia.”

Under Isaacson's leadership, and in partnership with its global network, Aspen Institute promotes the pursuit of common ground and deeper understanding in non-partisan and non-ideological environments through seminars, policy programs, conferences, and leadership development initiatives.

Targeting youth ages 14-24, the Institute's Youth & Engagement Programs division is a new strategic focus for the Aspen Institute to incubate and grow programs that work directly with this demographic. AspenX, Aspen Young Leaders Fellowship, the Bezos Scholars Program @ The Aspen Institute, Hurst Great Ideas Student Seminars, Teen Socrates, the Youth Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development and the Aspen Challenge are programmatic means to the division's end.  

“Each year, we bring the Aspen Challenge to a new city with the intention to ignite public high school students to lead the changes they want to see in their communities,” said Raj Vinnakota, Executive Vice President of the Youth & Engagement division at the Aspen Institute.

“Since the program’s inception 5 years ago, we’ve found that true youth agency happens when young people take the tools we give them, draw inspiration from the guest speakers who share their passions behind critical issues, and take matters into their own hands to innovate. This leads to further engagement in youth leadership work through multiple offerings from Youth & Engagement Programs at the Aspen Institute. Philadelphia students have risen to the challenge this year, and we’re thrilled to see what they accomplished.”

"The Aspen Challenge drives youth to think critically about the world and translate big ideas into tangible solutions within their communities," said Vinnakota. "With only eight weeks to design and pilot their work, it's astounding what they are capable of accomplishing. It demonstrates the true power of student agency in conjunction with teacher passion."

40 teachers, two per team, supported the teams by assisting the students from concept to completion. Sankofa Freedom Academy Charter School's Co-Coaches, Nakia Brown and Curtis Davis, served one of the three winning teams well while "truly making a difference."

"What I enjoyed most about being one of the coaches for the Aspen Challenge was to watch our students being exposed to a new world of innovative thinking, agency and the promise that they have what it takes to change the world," said Brown.

Head of Servant Leadership and Rites Teacher, Brown said she is "honored to be a part of Sankofa Feeds," a project designed to decrease hunger by 20% among marginalized families in Philly's Kensington section.  

“I am so grateful to the Aspen Challenge. It was a pleasure to have students who did not know each other at first build bonds and relationships that would take them to higher heights,” said Davis. “The children of Sankofa attacked the challenge of recovering food waste and got out the gates early.”  

"At the end of it all, it was such a blessing to see the change within the students, but [also] the change within the community," Davis explained. The history teacher, and Brown's Co-Coach, Davis was almost brought to "tears of joy."

"Even though there are many challenges with recovering food, the team did not let that stop them and they fought hard to improve the devastation of hunger within Kensington," he said.

The Sankofa students intend to develop a nonprofit organization to formalize their mission of decreasing hunger and creating a network of food recovery chapters. Entrepreneurial approaches, like Sankofa's and George Washington's, are how the Aspen Institute engages youth in addressing key challenges of the day.

Through programming that is effective, scalable and capable of broadening the reach of the Institute beyond the constituencies it currently serves, the Aspen Challenge is in "alignment with the School District's mission to provide excellent educational opportunities for all our students," said Hite. "The Aspen Challenge will strengthen students' passion for learning and ignite a lifelong commitment to dynamic leadership and advocacy for change."

"Whether teams have chosen to eliminate youth violence or encourage healthy living habits, this generation is wonderfully positioned to adapt as they encounter both progress and barriers," exclaimed Hite.

Funded by the Bezos Foundation for two years, a goal of the Aspen Challenge: Philadelphia is to encourage ownership and sustainability.

“What’s important is the ripple effect,” says Natalie Travers, program manager for the Aspen Challenge. “Even if they don’t win, those eight students [from each school] hopefully will have a huge impact on their schools, and neighborhoods, and sometimes even cities. At the end of the day, we want them to continue that work into eternity.”

Before departing Finley Catering's exquisite Ballroom in the Ben, competition host Micae Brown announced award winners before naming George Washington, Sankofa and Northeast High School (Team Meraki) as winners of the inaugural Aspen Challenge: Philadelphia. The Peoples Choice Award went to George Washington; the U School received the Impact Award; Best Exhibit went to Bartram High School; and the Team Spirit Award was won by First Philadelphia Preparatory Charter High School.

"What are we going to do with the power that we've gotten over the past seven weeks?," asked Brown of The Micae Brown Report. "We're going to grow it, we're going to foster it, we're going to rock this out."

All 160 students received a letter of recommendation from the Aspen Institute as consolation.

“It’s really an exciting time for Philadelphia," said entrepreneur, venture capitalist, philanthropist and tireless networker, Wayne Kimmel. Serving as an Aspen Challenge: Philadelphia judge, Kimmel believes strongly in Philadelphia's future.  

"There are innovative ideas and entrepreneurs emerging every day with ideas that truly transcend what we think is currently possible. We’re excited to be driving these initiatives, because we do believe Philly is the next big frontier for innovation. Whether it’s through launching the Microsoft Reactor that’s open and accessible to everyone, or hosting national events like the Aspen Challenge, we’re excited for what Philadelphia can do next.”

Fellow judge, native Philadelphian and community engagement strategist, Jamira Burley, concurred with Kimmel. "I have never met a more impressive group of young people who are ready to lead, young people who are creating solutions that have real world implications. Adults everywhere could learn something from them."

The three winning teams will showcase their work at the Aspen Ideas Festival [in Aspen, Colorado] from June 26th to July 1st. Presented by the Aspen Institute in partnership with The Atlantic magazine, the Aspen Ideas Festival is the nation's premier, public gathering place for leaders from around the globe.

"Don't stop your work,” Brown implored. “It doesn't end here.”


8 Students / Team | 40 Coaches (Teachers) | 160 High School Students

20 Teams (Schools) | Abraham Lincoln High School | First Philadelphia Preparatory Charter High School | Frankford High School, Freire Charter School | Gateway to College | George Washington High School | Horace H. Furness High School, John Bartram High School | Kensington Health Sciences Academy | Northeast High School | One Bright Ray Community High School | Parkway Northwest High School for Peace and Social Justice | Paul Robeson High School for Human Services | People for People Charter School | Philadelphia Academy Charter High School | The Philadelphia High School For Girls | Philadelphia Performing Arts: A String Theory Charter School | Sankofa Freedom Academy Charter School | The U School | YESPhilly Accelerated High School

15+ Speakers

Jim Kenney, 99th Mayor City of Philadelphia | Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, Drummer, DJ, Producer, Culinary Entrepreneur, Designer, Author & Member of The Roots | Komal Ahmad, Founder & CEO, Copia | Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, Oncologist, Bioethicist | Chair at Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy, University of Pennsylvania | M. Night Shyamalan, Screenwriter, Director & Producer | JT Reager, Earth Scientist, Jet Propulsion Lab, NASA | Angela Duckworth, Founder & Scientific Director, Character Lab/Professor, University of Pennsylvania | Shari Davis, Director of Strategic Initiatives, Participatory Budgeting Project — Oakland | Rev. Jeffrey Brown, President, RECAP (Rebuilding Every Community Around Peace) | Jamiel L. Alexander, Senior Fellow, Aspen Forum for Community Solutions, The Aspen Institute | Rajiv Vinnakota, Executive Vice President, The Aspen Institute | Faith Jones-Jackson, Poet | Bob Roth, Meditation Teacher & CEO, David Lynch Foundation | Marjorie Winther, Master Storyteller, First Person Arts

5 Judges

Jamira Burley, Community Engagement Strategist | Greg Corbin, Jr., International Award-Winning Poet & Founder, Philly Youth Poetry Movement | Program Director | Donna Frisby-Greenwood, President & CEO, The Fund for the School District of Philadelphia | Wayne Kimmel, Author of Six Degrees of Wayne Kimmel, Managing Partner of SeventySix Capital | Keith Leaphart, Brand Manager, Replica | Siobhan Reardon, President & Director, Free Library of Philadelphia


“The Aspen Challenge experience has been amazing so far. I learned many things like how to work with others, networking skills and how help out more with my community. It taught me skills that I will use in the future and I am thankful for this experience.” - Amyah Cotton, 10th Grade, George Washington High School

“Service learning can really be such a great way for students to utilize their own talents and strengths in a really natural and organic way to come up with outstanding solutions to problems that sometimes even adults can’t solve.” - Diane Finesmith, a Teacher from Kensington Health Sciences Academy.

“My experience with The Aspen Challenge has changed me a lot. Aspen has helped me better control my temper and emotions, because despite all the negativity [around us], we tried to make things better for the world. It made me a young man instead of a little kid.” - Emmanuel Laboy, a Student of One Bright Ray Community High School reflected.

“This experience was a learning experience in so many different ways. In terms of teamwork, relationships, community outreach, and just beyond basic learning, we [students and teachers] grew as a group throughout this process.” - Kathleen Martin, a Teacher at First Philadelphia Preparatory Charter High School.

Something I admire so much about the institute is their dedication to supplying space for that exchange. It was an absolute honor to share some of my own perspective at the opening forum and I would gladly do it again!” - Faith Jones-Jackson, Poet

“The work that the Aspen Institute is doing is very important to the world, and I’m thrilled to be participating in an event that directly impacts my hometown. It is our responsibility to help others and that is what the Aspen Challenge is all about. It is helping to inspire young people to do amazing things and I was honored to be a speaker and judge for such an impactful initiative.” - Wayne Kimmel, Entrepreneur, Venture Capitalist, Philanthropist and Tireless Networker

“The Aspen Challenge was an eye opening experience for me because it was our project and we actually had to work everyday consistently for it to be good.” - Jaymes Savage, 10th Grade, Sankofa Freedom Academy Charter School


First up, Freire Charter School! Freire Protects Philly took on Rev. Jeffrey Brown's challenge to change the culture of viole
First up, Freire Charter School! Freire Protects Philly took on Rev. Jeffrey Brown's challenge to change the culture of violence in their community.
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