Inspired by the work at the Aspen Institute, and their event on the theme of thriving democracy, Aspen Ideas: Show Up, the Bezos Scholars Program interviewed some of our many Scholars doing good through civic engagement.
Today, we’re profiling four Bezos Scholars doing work on the ground to engage in the civic process, from New York to Hawaii. In the words of 2012 Bezos Scholar, Samantha Laney, “civic engagement is not equivalent to campaigning and being directly involved in a partisan endeavor.” In the midst of a global pandemic, Bezos Scholars show us that being civically engaged is an ongoing event, not limited to the month of November every four years when we have an American election.
Changing Bronx Narratives
Yabundu Conteh is a 2016 Bezos Scholar living in New York and the founder of New World Narrative, an interdisciplinary social project merging the education, media, fashion, and philanthropic sectors. “Currently, we are addressing food insecurity within NYC’s homeless population and developing a curriculum for youth that centers digital storytelling and hip-hop pedagogy.” As she highlights “Now, more than ever, we are in need of thinkers who can dream outside of the new reality we find ourselves in. Thus, I find confidence and comfort in knowing that my imagination is invaluable not in spite of its deviance from normality but because of it.”
In November of 2020, New World Narrative held a Thanksgiving drive where the team served 55 families bags of PPE, winter gloves, and fresh groceries to prepare healthy meals. “Our recent collaboration with West Side Campaign Against Hunger this month has allowed us to double the amount of free packaged groceries initially served thanks to their generous monthly commitment of 100 boxes,” Yabundu says.
Free Music Ed for All
Matthew Garcia is a 2018 Bezos Scholar living in Texas and founder of Through The Staff (TTS), an initiative to address the underrepresentation of musicians of color in the music industry. “At Through the Staff, we connect students from second to twelfth grade to weekly virtual private lessons taught by talented conservatory and university musicians across the world — all for free," said Matthew. “I am mostly in charge of creating partnerships with other musical non-profits, designing new initiatives for our students, and managing the logistics of the organization.”
Since TTS was founded in March, Matthew has grown his initiative to a 300-person organization that has taught over $100,000 of free lessons to more than 250 students. “Music education is prohibitively expensive for millions of families around the world. Many "diversity" initiatives in the music education field often fail to account for the ways in which systemic racism, and its associated creation of the racial wealth gap, impacts their efficacy,” explained Matthew. “We believe that every child should have the right to access free music education. By breaking down the systemic barriers in the music education field that block young musicians from accessing musical resources, we are working to make that vision a reality.”
Rural Justice for All
Samantha Laney is a 2012 Bezos Scholar living in Massachusetts working at the Rural Justice Network, an organization focused on promoting civic engagement in rural America. “Our organization has specifically focused on education and mobilization. This education piece is especially important in the current political climate that is so riddled with misinformation and false narratives,” explained Samantha. “I am the point person for all logistics and public relations. I spend most of my time organizing and overseeing events and education campaigns headed by other members. I am also responsible for the educational content that we present at each of our Justice Seminars, which are one-hour crash courses on various historical and social topics.”
Over the course of the pandemic Sam speaks to how her approach to her work has adapted. “We have largely shifted our organization's civic engagement projects online,” said Samantha. “For example, instead of in-person canvasing and voter registration drives, we put together an extensive online and social media campaign that focused on registering and educating voters. There has also been an increase of focus on education because it can still be easily accessible in a safe socially distanced way.”
The Aloha Vote
Perry Arrasmith is a 2015 Bezos Scholar living in Hawai`i and serving as a member of the Hawai`i State Commission for National and Community Service. “I am presently the youngest member of the HCNCS. I am expected to ensure that grant applications cater to the needs of youth in the State of Hawai`i,” explained Perry. In 2020, young people from all over the island of O`ahu were able to organize before November through consistent online calls for a county-wide ballot initiative to create a Youth Commission. This is a refreshing development from one aspect, as it widens the net of people actively engaged in any event.”
As Bezos Scholars, high school students take on community issues and community needs – and transform those problems with youth-led solutions and youth-led action. As they enter college, early careers and beyond, we know that Bezos Scholar alumni – like Perry, Yabundu, Matthew, and Sam – will continue to use what they’ve learned to develop and deepen their impact and accept new invitations to create needed change. A global pandemic, a generations-long fight for racial equity, and perhaps the most contentious election in U.S. history certainly gave so many people a reason to get up, get engaged and work make a difference this year. Across the country, Bezos Scholars use their experiences to be brought to bear in their communities. “The Bezos Scholars program marked a turning point in my life,” says Perry. “The opportunity to meet so many amazing people in one place led to me to return home with a radically altered awareness of my state's position within the larger country…I'm not done running with what I've learned as a Bezos Scholar.” And we wouldn’t have it any other way.