A while ago, Loy Norrix High School student Sariah Metcalfe was desperately trying to do her AP European History homework. But all of these thoughts kept getting in the way.
“At that time of the year I was talking a lot about Wendy Davis’s filibuster in Texas about women’s health rights. And I was thinking about the dress code at my school and how it kind of…it over-sexualizes a student’s body just because it’s hot and they want to wear a certain kind of clothing. And I talked about ‘stand your ground’ laws related to George Zimmerman and also Marisa Alexander. She was actually being attacked by her abusive husband, or she was afraid of him at the time, and she shot off warning shots. And she didn’t hurt anyone but she was still sentenced to do time while George Zimmerman actually murdered someone and didn’t do any. And it was just…it was making me so upset and I couldn’t focus and I had to. So I just started writing until I could calm myself down a little bit.”
And those thoughts became a poem called “Land of the Free.”
In July, Metcalfe read her poem at the national ACT-SO competition. ACT-SO stands for the Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics. It’s a program that encourages African American high school students to develop their academic and cultural talents.
At the end of the program, there’s a local competition and then those winners go on to compete at the national level.
Metcalfe and four other area teens went to nationals in Las Vegas this year: including Imara Bowers of Loy Norrix, Jamila McKenzie of Portage Northern, Ray Reason of Phoenix High, and Jasmine Small from Comstock.
Janelle Farrakhan is the chairperson for ACT-SO in Kalamazoo. She says there are a whopping 26 categories in the competition. “They fall under the umbrellas of humanities, performing arts, business and entrepreneurship, visual arts,” says Farrakhan. “There’s also a culinary category, however we don’t do that in Kalamazoo.”
Farrakhan says the program gives talented teens the confidence they need to develop their skills.
“If I’m a student that likes to write, I may not know that I have potential to take it to that next level if I’m not able to have someone just kind of draw that out of me,” she says. “Some students come to us, we have orientation usually in September/October. They may just come to us with an idea. So what our job to do is to take them from the idea to a piece that’s ready for competition.”
Farrakhan says national ACT-SO medalists get everything from a tablet to a large college stipend of about $1,200 or more.
Last year, Terrell Gaston from Kalamazoo Central High School took home a gold medal for architecture. He made a new design for a bridge in Arcadia Park. Now Gaston is studying engineering at Western Michigan University.
None of the local winners placed in nationals this year. But Metcalfe says it was an amazing to be around so many teens that are passionate about what they do.
“All of these artists coming together just to get better at their craft and to share their art and express themselves and learn from each other,” Metcalfe says.
The Metropolitan Kalamazoo Branch of the NAACP will hold orientation for the ACT-SO program this fall.