The Wilson Tiger Alliance is hosting a “Unity Week” this week as the team of eight students and two staff members prepare to compete in the Aspen Challenge, a competition and ideas forum run by the Aspen Institute. The purpose of the week’s activities are to “[bring] unlikely allies together to promote peace and unity,” according to event flyers, and the star of the show is a “unity ball pit” activity that the Alliance is hoping can help do just that.
The Tiger Alliance, comprised of the students of mass media teacher Kadesha Bonds and led by Bonds and College and Career Center Coordinator Patrice Arrington, is one of 16 teams from across the city participating in the Aspen Challenge: Washington DC. The District is one of four cities where the 2016 Aspen Challenges are being held. The Challenge, launched in 2013 by the Aspen Institute in partnership with the Bezos Family Foundation, aims to inform students around the country on a variety of pressing social issues, host a platform for discussion, and provide tools and support to students as they work to bring together their communities and address the issues facing them in innovative ways.
The Challenge begins with a forum in each participating city, where the teams hear from a number of leaders in a variety of fields. Each speaker issues a “challenge” relating to different societal problems, and after the forum the teams have a week to select and set goals for the challenge they feel applies most to their community. The teams then have around seven weeks to design and execute their plans before everyone reconvenes and the teams present their solutions to a panel of judges, who evaluate them based on creativity, feasibility, sustainability, and the level of teamwork involved. The top teams from each city are then invited to showcase their work at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Aspen, Colorado.
The DC forum was held at Ballou High School on March 5, where the Wilson team, along with groups from fifteen other public and charter schools from around the city, heard ten speakers discuss different subjects and propose corresponding challenges. After hearing from everyone, the Tiger Alliance decided to take up Eric Dawson, co-founder and president of Peace First, an organization that works to prevent youth violence and disengagement, on his challenge “to unleash peace to counter the culture of violence present” in their community, by “bringing together unlikely allies.”
Sophomore Anna Stewart, a member of the Tiger Alliance, said the Alliance selected Dawson’s challenge over others such as educating communities on the importance of nutrition and designing play-spaces for kids in low-income neighborhoods because of the relevancy of the subject to Wilson, especially after recent attacks and stabbings in the Tenleytown area, and the December episode of a loaded gun being brought into the school.
“We saw that there was unrest in the community over the gun incident and the stabbing[s], so we thought our message of bringing together unlikely allies and connecting community members would resonate,” Stewart said in a text message.
The goal of bringing new people together is achieved literally in the Tiger Alliance’s unity ball pit. Advertised on flyers, P.A. announcements, and social media, the Alliance’s inflatable pool filled with plastic balls, which strangers are encouraged to enter together, has been a big success and a popular STEP attraction. But the unity pit is more than just lunch-time fun; there is a purpose to the activity, and a serious discussion that the Tiger Alliance wants the community to have.
Along with colorful plastic balls, there are also balloons floating around the unity pit, which have questions relating to violence and divisions within the Wilson community. When a group of strangers are in the pit, they take turns reading different balloons and discussing what’s on them. Questions range from simple ice-breakers, like what students want to do after high school, to serious and sometimes delicate issues, such as gun violence and racism. The discussions are filmed and the participants photographed as part of the Tiger Alliance’s plans to document and develop a multimedia presentation for their Aspen Challenge proposal.
The day-to-day process is being tracked on the Alliance’s Twitter (@tiger_alliance) and Instagram (@tigeralliance), while the team prepares for the competition day, which will be held at Ballou on April 23. When the time comes, the members of the Tiger Alliance will present their finished product, a video and oral presentation, to judges who will assess their work. But whether or not the Wilson team makes it to Aspen, the Wilson Alliance – and especially the unity pit – will be viewed a success, and a lot of fun, by participants.
As junior Alliance member Melody Riddick put it, “It’s a ball pit. Who doesn’t want to sit in a ball pit!”
PHOTO BY CARL STEWART