As a result of the global pandemic, for the first time in our 15-year history we made the difficult decision to not host a new U.S. Bezos Scholars Program cohort in 2020. No new U.S. Scholars launched projects in the 2020-21 academic year. But amazingly, projects founded by Scholars still carried forward. Even though the pandemic continues to impact how we safely meet, organize, and take action—and many schools continue to operate remotely or in a hybrid model—several student-led teams were still committed to their mission, and understood they were needed now more than ever.
We are extremely proud of what these teams have planned this year; how they have adapted, and what they are actively working on to promote positive change. The following 12 projects, sometimes referred to as “festivals” this year, are listed in order of length of existence, starting with the longest running.
Noteworthy Music Club and Festival: Multiple virtual fundraising opportunities and potential virtual music event
Project Theme: Elementary music education
Years in Existence: 10
Target Audience & Location: Patrick Henry High School Community and Roanoke County Public School students in Roanoke, Virginia
Founding History: Founded in 2011 by Scholars Locher Grove and educator Nicole Doherty, the Noteworthy Music Festival continues to provide support and funding for music education and instruments for elementary school music programs. The Festival celebrates the community’s love of music, featuring local artists who perform in support of music education. All proceeds from the festival are donated each year to a selected area elementary school in need.
Noteworthy Music Club is now made up of over 45 students and teachers that are passionate about music and music education. Each year, the club selects one elementary school within Roanoke City Public Schools as the beneficiary of the Festival’s ticket sales proceeds. The selected school uses the funds to purchase instruments for their music education program. From 2011 to 2019, the Festival has raised almost $32,000 and helped seven elementary schools bolster their music programs.
This year, the club decided to sponsor Fallon Park Elementary School, a Title 1 school with a diverse student body. The club is considering hosting a virtual music festival. Needing to fundraise differently and with a greater sense of urgency, they started a Go Fund Me.
South African Ideas Festival: Virtual Events February 20-28
Project Theme: Social Entrepreneurship
Years in Existence: 9
Target Audience & Location: African youth, age 14-19, interested in social entrepreneurship. The team is based in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Founding History: Since 2011, the Bezos Scholars Program has cultivated a special and committed partnership with the African Leadership Academy (ALA). Every year, ALA collaborates with our program to select five students and one educator who are tasked with presenting the annual South African Ideas Festival (SAIF). SAIF is an entrepreneurial development festival where youth (aged 14-19) typically convene for two to three days to discuss and design innovative ways to spark change in their community.
Before the pandemic shut down schools across the globe, our partners at the ALA had already selected the 2020 ALA Bezos Scholars team. With support from ALA leadership and our program, Akinfolami Akin-Alamu, Macdonald Chirara, Chizoma Duru, Maged Hassan, Patra Mwaniki, and their educator coach, Ssanyu Sematimba, hosted the first-ever virtual—and 9th annual—South African Ideas Festival.
This year, their theme was “Unlocking Entrepreneurial Development through Profitable Passions.” The team helped participants develop tangible entrepreneurial skills within the sectors of technology, arts and culture, environment and health, education and activism. They hosted virtual programming over two weeks, bringing together 115 incredible youth (representing 32 teams from 10 countries) to develop and showcase their ideas for impact.
During the two week virtual festival, teams underwent intensive training from expert facilitators which culminated in them pitching their business plans to judges representing the various sectors. From there, four finalists were selected who pitched their plans again at the live-streamed closing ceremony. The winning team, Africans for Africa, comprised of three young women, won the first place prize working with strategic partners and mentors from ALA and the Anzisha Program to launch an app that aims to help African youth learn native African languages to preserve cultural pride and identity, turning their passion into a profitable and socially responsible business.
South Texas Ideas Festival (STXi): Virtual Festival on April 24
Project Theme: Education and Civic Engagement
Years in Existence: 5
Target Audience & Location: Students and their families in the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) in South Texas. Hosted by students from the Idea Quest College Preparatory School in Edinburg, TX.
Founding History: Scholars Michael Mireles and educator Marcos Silva founded the South Texas Ideas Festival in 2016 to cultivate active young citizens. They aimed to engage young people from their community to dream big, do the unthinkable, and go beyond the negative stigmas that can emanate from racial and socioeconomic factors. Serving as an exposé about the life and resources of the RGV, STXi was created as a platform for young adults to engage in dialogue centered around identity, culture and community with the message that you do not always have to leave the place you are from to be successful.
They are now an official non-profit, planning their first ever virtual festival and launching the STXi Ambassador Program to engage high school students in pairing up with educators across the RGV. Ambassadors will help them extend impact to schools and communities across the Valley and well as engage participants in the virtual festival. During the festival they generally host keynote speakers, curate ways for community members to dialogue, brainstorm, and share ideas, and engage over 50 community leaders and 300 students. As their tag line says, they’re excited to “Celebrate the power and potential of RGV youth, one teen at a time.”
Buford STEM Equity Initiative: Five week after school club, launching in April
Project Theme: Increasing diversity, equity and inclusion in STEM access and opportunities
Years in Existence: 3
Target Audience & Location: Underrepresented students in STEM, specifically African American, Hispanic, and female middle school students from Buford Middle School in Charlottesville, Virginia. Team is from Charlottesville High School.
Founding History: Scholars Cole Fairchild and educator Mathew Shields founded Buford STEM Night in 2018 to engage and excite middle school students about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Their long-term goal is for leaders in STEM fields to reflect the diversity of our communities. In 2019, student leaders Dani Szabo and Jude Fairchild (Cole’s brother) and educator Brenden Martin planned to continue to host the hands-on STEM night with the aim of increasing the diversity of middle school students accessing high-level STEM courses. Due to the pandemic, the team had postponed their in-person event.
This year, returning student leader Jude Fairchild and returning educator Brenden Martin worked hard to build a larger team and re-envision how they were going to approach engaging middle schoolers in STEM due to the pandemic. They moved away from a large, one-time, in-person event and instead chose to launch a five week after school club, recruiting and engaging students from Buford, their partner middle school. They created a website, built out their own program offerings with support from the high school’s engineering department and formed a new partnership with a nonprofit called Tinkering Labs. High school students, some of whom reflect the students they want to engage, will use STEM kits, workshops, live demonstrations and independent activities participants can do at home to encourage underrepresented students to join STEM opportunities in high school and beyond.
Noble High School Wellness Club: January-May weekly virtual school club
Project Theme: Mental Health and Wellness
Years in Existence: 2
Target Audience & Location: Noble High School Community in North Berwick, Maine
Founding History: Bezos Scholars Maddie Momenee and educator Jess Cutliffe brought the topic of mental wellness to the forefront with their school community. Together, in 2019, they founded the Noble High School Wellness Club to promote wellbeing as a core part of fostering a successful and healthy school environment.
This year two new student leaders, Brooke Dubois and Grace Hartford, joined forces with Jess and a team of eight others from their school to continue the wellness club, knowing the pandemic increased the need. Their goal is to help students develop healthy coping strategies while opening and norming conversations about mental health. As they share, “for students to be able to effectively learn, and for teachers to be able to effectively teach, mental wellness needs to be a priority”.
Through weekly virtual sessions that serve as an outlet for students they facilitate activities that foster general well-being, like guided meditation and healthy cooking classes. They provided participants coping kits and also plan to use the NHS Wellness Club Instagram account to share mental health resources and coping strategies to all NHS students.
Colton High School Wellness Fair: Virtual evening sessions March 10-12
Project Theme: Mental Health and Wellness
Years in Existence: 2
Target Audience & Location: Colton High School and Colton Joint Unified School District Communities in Colton, California
Founding History: Before becoming Scholars, Ernest Mateo Cisneros and educator Jorge Alverez were already engaging the Colton Joint Unified School District to identify mental health and wellness as a priority for schools. In 2019, they founded the Colton High School Wellness Club and Fair and were key in helping to open the first wellness center in the district at their school to provide a space for students to find peace, quiet and support, especially during stressful times.
This year, the project is carried forward by student leaders, Mariela Castaneda and Kimberly Castellanos, and educator leaders, Jorge Alvarez and Elizabeth Fregoso. Students—even more isolated in the pandemic and facing intense challenges—need support, education, and access to resources to identify healthy ways them to manage stress and negative emotions.
The team this year launched the Wellness Fair website to easily invite and engage staff, students, and their families from their district in the virtual fair. People could elect to sign up for one or multiple evenings, participate in interactive and fun sessions designed to help relieve stress, and provide respite and ideas for tangible, realistic ways they could continue to do so moving forward. Sessions such as relaxation exercises, cooking, wellness gameshows, and parenting classes offered in English and Spanish were offered. In addition, the Wellness Club will curate resources from the fair and will use them to continue to support year-round activities to reinforce the goals and activities presented at the fair.
Northwest Louisiana Teen Summit: Virtual event on May 3
Project Theme: Mental Health and civic engagement
Years in Existence: 2
Target Audience & Location: School board members, school administration and staff, and students in the Caddo Parish school district in Northwest Louisiana
Founding History: Last year, Teen Advisory Committee (TAC) scholar Robert Lawrence, educator April Carberry, and Step Forward, an initiative of the Community Foundation of North Louisiana (CFNLA), addressed the growing mental health and wellness needs in their community of Shreveport, Louisiana, while fostering their desire to engage young people civically. They first assessed student needs by working with their school districts to survey more than 5,000 high school students. The results of the survey were shared at a virtual summit attended by over 50 high school students from Bossier and Caddo Parishes.
Originally intended to be hosted in-person, the event was presented virtually due to pandemic safety concerns and restrictions. Participating students collaboratively created policy recommendations which included prevention strategies, staff training, and more accessible ways for students to request and schedule counseling appointments. The TAC members presented the proposed solutions to local officials, including the superintendents of Caddo and Bossier parish schools.
This year, the TAC, will continue to evaluate the needs of students and focus on building resilience and mental health awareness among teens, including assessing the effects of COVID-19 on Northwest Louisiana students. TAC student leader David Shaw, along with Caddo Parish educator April Carberry and CFNLA Step Forward Initiative staff members Carla Burgos and Sara Patronella, are working together with a larger team to sponsor this year’s teen-led summit. Caddo Parish school principals will work with them to implement and pilot one of the suggested policy recommendations from last year. They plan to create and distribute a new parish wide survey annually to identify and monitor the continuous mental health needs of students.
Civics Delivered: Virtual Summit on March 13
Project Theme: Civic engagement focused on five themes impacting Los Angles youth: mental health, climate change, homelessness, immigration, and free speech.
Years in Existence: 2
Target Audience & Location: School Community from Granada Hills Charter High School, youth leaders from surrounding schools and organizations, and local civic leaders from Los Angeles, California
Founding History: Scholars Sarah Tran and educator Cindy Quintana worked to equip passionate youth with the civic skills and opportunities needed to inform and ideally change policies for the better. To select event topics, they surveyed their large school on which topics youth felt were most pertinent, choosing five topics. Though the retreat had to get postponed due to the pandemic, their plan was to host panel discussions, workshops, and breakouts to foster to connect youth with local civic engagement opportunities.
This year, student leaders Rachel Lee and Katie Ryu, along with returning educator Cindy Quintana and a team they built, are carrying the project forward. They converted the plans for an in-person summit to be virtual, built a website, and formed partnerships with new student clubs at various schools as well as local youth leadership organizations. They also created a handbook that outlines how students can become involved in their respective local governments, specifically the Neighborhood Council and Youth Committees. The summit aims to provide student leaders tools, connections and guidance on how to become civically engaged in actions making a positive difference on the five core ‘themes’ of their summit. Virtual workshops included guest speakers covering each of the five themes, so their 25 young participants were immersed in sessions full of thoughtful conversations, education, and action. Participants were also invited to join Neighborhood Council Youth Committee’s to provide platforms for youth to voice and rally for change.
Green Ideas - Connecting New Orleans’ Youth with Environmental Politics: Various student-led virtual interviews with local government officials and glass recycling project to support coastal restoration efforts.
Project Theme: Environmental Justice and Activism
Years in Existence: 2
Target Audience & Location: Students and their families disproportionately affected by environmental issues in the New Orleans East neighborhood, specifically Vietnamese and African American communities, as well as local elected officials in New Orleans, Louisiana. Team based at Benjamin Franklin High School.
Founding History: Scholars Rangasri “Sri” Narayanamoorthy and educator Kady Clincy are passionate about the environment. With their team, they hosted the Earth Day Forum in 2020 to bring together local leaders, their community, and young people to discuss climate change impacting their community. Their festival was planned to be in partnership with Loyola University and to feature a series of panel discussions with local legislators. Due to the pandemic, they shifted their event to facilitate and record three interviews with local representatives. The interviews were shared on Earth Day on their school's social media and with local TV media outlets.
New student leader and Green Society Club President, Ben Verlander, and returning educator Kady Clincy are carrying forward this project into 2021. Their goal is to engage student leaders throughout their school and New Orleans to talk with and influence local government help push environmental accountability into their local political system. They will do this through conducting and posting recorded student-led virtual interviews with politicians running for a seat in Louisiana's 2nd Congressional District, as well as with other already elected officials. Ben already secured an interview with State Senator Karen Carter Peterson and his school posted his interview on Facebook. The team hopes that the conversation with a strong candidate for a US Congressional seat will inspire the two other major candidates in the race to also join the discussion, putting environmental concerns and accountability at the forefront.
In 2021, the team is also including a tangible way to help the environment by implementing glass recycling at their school. Recycling glass is not provided by the New Orleans government and the glass recycled into sand there helps restore Louisiana’s coast impacted by hurricanes and climate change. To do this, they built an impressive partnership with Glass Half Full Nola.
UDS Food Justice Initiative: Educational virtual events, weekly club meetings, food pantry, and monthly food box delivery program.
Project Theme: Food justice and insecurity
Years in Existence: 2
Target Audience & Location: School Communities at Urban Discovery Charter Schools (UDS) in San Diego, California
Founding History: Scholars Nicolette Peji and educator Dana Dale planned to focus on identifying healthy ways to process and manage stress with their school community. When the pandemic hit in 2020, they re-evaluated needs and shifted their project to help met the new immediate need of food insecurity, organizing food boxes to donate and deliver to student families in need.
This year, new student leader Amiahlina Figueroa and new educator Charlene Holkenbrink-Monk took on continuing the project and cementing the theme of food justice in partnership with the Urban Discovery Schools Foundation. They built a large team and crated a club that will create two school-wide community workshops towards destigmatizing hunger, centered on how food scarcity affects their community. Many families cannot easily access food banks or feel shame in doing so the initiative also plans to solicit donations and raise funds to start a food pantry on-site at the school as well as a monthly food delivery program for student families in need.
Bulldog Blueprint Program: Monthly video creation on key themes played in freshmen advisory classes followed by relationship building and facilitated discussions.
Project Theme: Supported transition from middle to high school to increase academic success and graduation rates.
Years in Existence: 2
Target Audience & Location: Rising freshmen from two feeder middle schools in Chambers county, Alabama. Team from and project hosted at LaFayette High School in LaFayette, Alabama.
Founding History: Scholars Jalan Drummond and educator Precious White-Jordan worked throughout the 2019-2020 academic year, planning to create small learning communities for incoming freshmen at LaFayette High School in LaFayette, AL. Their overall goal was to increase high school attendance and graduation rates in their small, rural town as well as to shift their school culture so it values academics as much as sports. The duo planned to position upperclassmen mentors and teachers as advisors to each small group of incoming freshmen to build a strong sense of belonging and support academic growth and achievement and college and career readiness. In 2020, the pandemic forced them to pause all plans and events.
This year, new student leaders Vakiya Story and Dionella Kyles, along with educators Precious White-Jordan and Michael Floyd and Travis Smith from school partner organization U.N.I.T.E. Inc. have worked tirelessly with a small team of students to adapt their project plans. They plan to create a series of videos, made by and featuring upperclassmen, focused on a key theme each month that teachers can play to freshmen in their advisory classes. The upperclassmen will serve as virtual and when possible, in person mentors, and the videos will address topics such as refusal skills, critical thinking, conflict resolution, communication, time-management, career exploration, and peer pressure. After viewing, teachers and peer mentors will facilitate discussions with freshmen on the content as well as build relationships.
The first video will launch in May when 8th graders plan to tour the school. They will introduce the video segments then and starting next fall, during students' freshmen year, there will be one theme/video per month. Their vision is to help foster a student body that feels connected to teachers and community stakeholders, students that feel supported and prepared to deal with the academic and social demands of high school and that are confident in their post-secondary education plans.
Kats Together: Bi-monthly club sessions in March-April
Project Theme: Disability awareness and inclusion
Years in Existence: 2
Target Audience & Location: Kokomo High School Community in Kokomo, Indiana
Founding History: Scholars Brayden York and educator Leslie Lewis founded Kats Together in 2019. The monthly lunch club promotes inclusion and addresses disability awareness that breaks down barriers between students. Their goal was to build community over a meal, while students with and without disabilities engaged in fun community-building activities and learned about important topics such as self-advocacy and inclusion. The club envisioned fostering a school environment that celebrates peers for their differences, encourages collaboration, and instigates new friendships. The club’s activities were abruptly cut short due to the pandemic.
This year, after a lot of persistence, new student leader Rilyn Wonnell and returning educator Leslie Lewis were able to get approval from their administration to host some KATS Together sessions in-person with small groups of students. Because of pandemic safety concerns and virtual learning, they took the time needed to get their admistrations approval and buy in before taking action on their adapted plans. Starting in March, KATS Together will continue facilitating opportunities for collaboration among students with disabilities and the greater student body so that students are valued and recognized for their unique abilities.