One student with a big voice is proving to make an impact.

Ellie Kurlander, Class of 2020, was simply given an opportunity to share her voice with her classmates and ended up standing on stage at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

When Ellie’s Humanities 10 teachers, Dr. Audrey Schewe and Dr. Michael Griffin brought the Mikva Challenge/Soapbox Project competition to Mount Vernon, she had already been working on a case for change, personally. A fan of TED talks on education, she had recently begun jotting down her thoughts on the gap in student engagement and how individual students’ needs can be better met in smaller groups, building on her personal experiences in public elementary school.

Project Soapbox is a public speaking competition facilitated by Mikva Challenge that calls young people to speak out on issues that affect them and their communities. Students were challenged to write a two-minute speech on a current pressing teen issue.

  • A soapbox speech is about an issue that the student identifies, not an assigned topic.
  • It includes relevant research and evidence on the issue.
  • It addresses a specific audience.
  • It includes a call to action.

Ellie shares, “We presented our speeches to our peers on the last day of class for the year. Each student voted on top three speeches. Then, teachers narrowed the field down, and shared those few with other faculty and administrators to vote on them. I was notified that my speech, along with those of four other students, was selected to be sent to Mikva. I felt it was achievement enough to be selected as a finalist. But then, a week after school ended, I got an email that said, ‘Congratulations, you have been selected to share your story in Washington, D.C.’”

15 out of 5000 national participants were invited to attend the Mikva Challenge/Soapbox Project at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on July 17. 

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“I look at it like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – I got one of the golden tickets! I couldn’t wait to learn from the other winners, and giving the speech was out of this world, it was surreal – a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I am so excited for other students to participate and have that experience in this year’s Project Soapbox. Youth voices are so important. Because of my experience, I would like to start a Youth Activism and Empowerment Club, so students can have civil conversations to share their opinions about issues that affect them. We should have conversations to get multiple perspectives. I think Dr. Jacobsen calls these Courageous Conversations,” she continues.

Dr. Griffin shares, “What I love most about Project Soapbox is that it enables students to develop their own sense of ethics and morality around an important local or global issue. Ellie’s choice to focus on accessibility to a quality education illustrates her own commitment to self-improvement and to an issue of social justice near and dear to the community we developed in Humanities 10 and AP Lang.”

Dr. Schewe shares, “It was clear from the start that Ellie was passionate about her topic. She was so engaged in her topic that her first draft of her speech was over five minutes long (for a two-minute speech)!  She put in hours of revisions and hours of practice – and the result speaks for itself. Through her passion and presentation, Ellie was able to engage and persuade her audience, both at the Kennedy Center and online, to think differently about the purposes and promises of school. I cannot wait to see what she does next!”

Now a junior, Ellie is working part-time at the High Museum of Art. As one of 15 students selected from the Atlanta area to be a teen ambassador in the education department at the museum, she currently manages teen programming and outreach.

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