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This Olympics Lets Black Youths Test Their Mettle

Competition: The NAACP event offers teens recognition for achievements in science, art and performance. It's a reward that often goes only to athletes.

July 04, 2002|CHRISTINA L. ESPARZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Twenty-five years ago, the NAACP launched an academic decathlon of sorts for young African Americans. It's called the ACT-SO, short for Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics,

ACT-SO "was designed to let Afro-American youth gain the same kind of recognition for academic achievement as an athlete would," said Naomi Rainey, president of the NAACP chapter in Long Beach. "There were a lot of stereotypes about Afro-American youths" when the program was created.

The youngsters on a team from Long Beach aim to shoot down those stereotypes by just being themselves and doing what they love.

Jack Fuzell from St. John Bosco High School can build a Popsicle-stick bridge that holds more than 55 pounds without breaking, and singer Melody Joyner from Wilson High School takes on the challenges of "Ave Maria."

Dawuan Osbourne from Long Beach Polytechnic High School wants to win a cash prize so he can start a computer graphics component to his already thriving art business. And Autum Brown from Middle College High School, who will compete in the entrepreneurship category, sold more candy than her school's student store--by herself.

A Talent Showcase

ACT-SO was created within the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People by newspaper columnist Vernon Jarrett, and was designed to be a forum to showcase the artistic, academic and scientific expertise of black youths.

Competitors in grades nine through 12 come from cities all over the country and parts of Spain, Germany and Japan, Rainey said. California alone has 10 ACT-SO branches, which include the cities of Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, Compton and Inglewood.

Winners at the competition win gold, silver and bronze medals that all come with cash awards. Successful ACT-SO alumni include movie director John Singleton and actress Jada Pinkett-Smith. This year's competition, which is scheduled to be held at the NAACP annual convention in Houston, starts today and runs through Sunday.

For some students, competing in ACT-SO means overcoming difficulties, whether at school or home.

Lakewood High School student Mercedes Walker was diagnosed with sickle cell anemia at the age of 2. When crescent-shaped red blood cells clogged her bloodstream and didn't allow other cells to deliver oxygen to the rest of her body, she cried in agony because the pain in her arms and legs crippled her.

Some of her earliest memories are of pain.

Ability to Dance, Write

"It scared me a lot," she said. "How could a little person my age go through all this pain? I thought I was dying." Now Walker is conquering--symbolically, at least--her disease by dancing in a routine that is a mix of ballet and jazz, and is educating others by writing about sickle cell, in the dance and original essay categories.

Joining Walker on the Long Beach team are Casey Duncan, Donnell Davis, Jonathan Powell, Jeremy Nelson, Malika Williams, Tiffany Shillers and Candice Arnwine.

Shillers, a student at Jordan High School, is competing in the oratory category, acting out a scene from the psychological thriller "Naomi's Web."

"I identified with the piece because there's this part when [Naomi] says, 'Have you ever seen your mom get beat?' and I saw my mom get beat for three years," Shillers said. "I just want to make my mom proud. I want her to see that I got a lot going for me. She's never really had anything to be proud of."

Arnwine, a Poly High student competing in the music composition category, wrote her first piece about her parents' divorce, and hopes to come back as a successful ACT-SO alumna.

"It's an opportunity of a lifetime," she said. "It's important because you get to see a great number of black kids doing something positive with their lives."

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