DC students say ‘their truths’ about their biggest concerns in the community

At the auditorium of a library in downtown D.C., students stepped onto a stage to deliver heartfelt speeches about the biggest concerns facing their community.

It was part of the Mikva Challenge’s Project Soapbox. The topics students chose ranged from childhood poverty, to transportation inequities for students, to youth mental health.

“Holding it in, [self harm] or suicide should absolutely never be the answer,” said Benjamin Banneker High School student Joseph Dela Torre during his speech, encouraging his peers to ask for help and reach out to friends if they are experiencing a mental crisis. “Instead of holding a rope in the shape of a noose, hold one in the shape of a life buoy,” Dela Torre said.

Mikva Challenge DC hosted the event to give students an opportunity to share their calls-to-action to an audience of their peers, and to community leaders.

“It’s not a competition; it’s a listening activity. It’s an opportunity for us to deeply hear each other, for people to be able to tell their stories and their truths, and be affirmed by a community of their peers and adults who are saying, ‘I want to know, I want to understand,'” said Robyn Lingo, chief of strategy and impact for Mikva Challenge DC.

Among the speakers this year was Nia Reese from Capital City Public Charter School, who spoke also about teen mental health and the effects of the COVID-19 lockdowns on a young person. She said she was empowered by many people in the room.

“It really warms my heart to see so many young people my age who look like me from the same background,” Reese said.

Ashton Stewart, a student at Banneker High School, spoke about toxic masculinity and some of the misconceptions some men have about what makes them a “real man.”

“There are people on Instagram and TikTok, who are saying, ‘To be a man, you got to hit women,’ and you know … be aggressive, but I don’t think that’s true,” Stewart said.

Speaking on the auditorium stage, Stewart said he wasn’t nervous, since he likes public speaking and he enjoyed the cheers his speech received from the crowd.

“It was just a really nice experience,” Stewart said.

The audience was made up mostly of students from schools who participate in the Mikva Challenge program, but there were also some former students who came back to cheer on this year’s speakers.

“Project Soapbox is very special for young people like myself because it allows us to have the opportunity to really speak on something that’s important to us,” said Jordyn Middleton, an alumnus of the program, who came back to see this year’s speeches.

One student speaker will be chosen to represent the District in a national Soapbox event, which will be held in spring 2023.

Mike Murillo

Mike Murillo is a reporter and anchor at WTOP. Before joining WTOP in 2013, he worked in radio in Orlando, New York City and Philadelphia.

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