Actor Lamman Rucker ('Why Did I Get Married Too') addresses ACT-SO students in Los Angeles (Photo: Larry Buford)

*What is considered by some to be a cultural “best kept secret” is abuzz: the annual NAACP Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological, and Scientific Olympics, in short, the acronym ACT-SO program.

The ACT-SO National Competition for 2011 commenced on July 21st in California, at the Los Angeles Convention Center. There were about 800 participants from cities all across the country from Norwich, Connecticut to San Diego, California who competed all day long.

The awards ceremony that took place on July 24th was likened to the “Academy Awards” for black youth honorees, as the winners were presented medals, monetary rewards, and other gifts for their achievements.

California’s Governor Jerry Brown addressed the students and the audience at large, as did many other luminaries including NAACP’s Roslyn Brock, Chairperson of the Board of Directors, and Benjamin Jealous, President and CEO (NAACP is the acronym for National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).

Now in its 33rd year, ACT-SO was conceived and founded by pioneer journalist Vernon Jarrett who once said: “It is urgent that we resort to a strategy based upon our history of winning against the odds,which can keep alive the inspiration and the learning required to solve complex projects, issues and situations. Our history says: We must never write off the potential for greatness among and of our beleaguered youth. Never!”

Greeted by ACT-SO National Director, Anana Kambon, who also executive produced the classy ceremony, the air was filled with excitement and anticipation. Some of the presenters on hand included Hollywood stars like Lamman Rucker (“Meet The Browns”, “Why Did I Get Married Too”). Receiving thunderous applause as he stepped to the podium, Rucker lauded film executive Tyler Perry’s amazing journey as a model for the students and emphasized focus, dedication, and commitment to their crafts.

Throughout the week the students were chaperoned, mentored, and coached as they participated in various workshops and other activities. They were thrown a lavish dance, visited Universal Studios, and spent a wonderful day at the exciting Santa Monica Pier and Beach, where for many it was the first time seeing and experiencing the ocean.

Jasmine Franklin, Bronze medal winner ACT-SO National Competition (Photo by: Toni Woolford-Barnes)

Dr. Laura McIntyre, Doctor of Education at Akron University in Ohio, who taught school for 36 years said, “I just love it…it’s just the most phenomenal thing we can do for our youth.” McIntyre, who also happens to be the mother of singer/actress Macy Gray, went on to say, “You know we say the Jewish have things for their youth … the Bar Mitzvah, the Hispanics have Quinceanera, and we have ACT-SO. We don’t have rights of passage at certain ages, but we have ACT-SO, and I think that says it all. My daughter [Macy] was not able to join the [ACT-SO] competition because it was not in our area [at the time], and I think a lot of areas need to promote this.”

Some distinguished ACT-SO alumni include Hill Harper, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Mae Jameson, Anthony Anderson, Kanye West, and John Singleton, to name a few.

Two people who know first-hand the importance of talent development and community involvement are Bertha Barbee-McNeal, and Caldin Street, who both are members of Motown’s legendary girl group, The Velvelettes (“Needle In A Haystack”). Barbee-McNeal and Street are Chairperson and Co-Chairperson respectively for the ACT-SO program in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Barbee-McNeal, who has served for 11 years said, “Mr. Jarrett always felt that a lot of the kids who excelled in sports were getting more accolades than the students that excelled in academics, especially in the black community.  So, ACT-SO was born from that idea … to celebrate the ‘Olympics of the Mind’. Mr. Jarrett asked the NAACP to help develop and sponsor the program, and they’ve done so for the past 33 years.”  Street added, “Students must meet a certain criteria in each category to earn points that add up to win a Bronze, Silver or Gold medal. There are 27 different categories that students can compete in, including Engineering, Mathematics, Physics, Playwriting, Dance, Architecture, Entrepreneurship, and Culinary. Kalamazoo had four students who made the final cut locally as Gold medal winners,and went on to compete in five categories nationally. One of our students, Jasmine Franklin – who competed in two categories, Oratory and Music Vocal/Contemporary – won a Bronze medal in Oratory, a 1500.00 scholarship, and a laptop computer here at the national competition.”

For the many people who are just learning about ACT-SO and saying it’s been the “best kept secret”, here is some basic information: Recruitment begins in the fall season when school starts. Letters are sent to school principals and superintendents asking them to publicize among students. It is a year-long enrichment program, and high school students of African-American descent (one parent or grandparent must be documented as Black or African-American) in grades 9-12 are eligible forthe program. An NAACP youth membership of ten dollars is also required.Students must attend workshops – designed to add value to their lives –each month from January through March. In between workshops, students must meet with their mentors, who are volunteers with professional backgrounds in the specific categories. When students win a Gold medal in their local competition, they move on to the national competition. Fundraising efforts are conducted all year to help accommodate the cost of getting students to the national competition. The whole venture is a collective voluntary effort by students, parents, mentors, coaches, and others in the community. If local schools are not aware of the ACT-SO program, interested students and parents may inquire at their local NAACP chapter.

Street said, “ACT-SO is a prestigious and friendly competition in that students compete against themselves to earn points per the criteriain each category they choose. ACT-SO also helps to build character, integrity, and self-esteem. We are charged with the task of identifying the best and brightest students who show promise and potential in their chosen areas to compete regardless of economic background. Our logo is ‘Today’s Youth…Tomorrow’s Leaders’.”

Larry Buford is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. Author of “Things Are Gettin’ Outta Hand” (Steuben Pub.) www.amazon.com. Visit the author at www.editorialbylarry.com – (213) 220-8101 Photo available upon request.

Larry Buford