10 JCPS students speak out as part of Project Soapbox
March 29, 2021 – Luke Digenis may just be a fourth grader at Norton Elementary School, but he got on his soap box about littering.
“We need animals to keep our environment alive,” he said. “And by littering, we’re killing some of the animals we need to survive.”
Luke said that plastic trash is filling up the oceans and choking marine animals, has been found in drinking water all around the world, and is making its way into our food.
Fortunately, he added, there are solutions to tackle the problem – if we are bold enough to take them.
“We need to take action, and when I say we need to take action, I don’t mean for you to say you will and then never do it,” he said. “I mean for you to stop littering, start recycling, and save the environment, the earth, and our lives.”
Luke was one of 10 Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) students to speak their peace on topics important to them through Project Soapbox, a public speaking event facilitated by Mikva Challenge that encourages young people to address issues that affect them and their communities.
Speakers represented all grade levels, from elementary to high school, and expounded on issues ranging from climate change and global warming to COVID-19 and social justice. JCPS is one of five districts nationally that participated in this year’s virtual event. The program usually functions as a competition, with top scorers advancing to deliver their pitch on a national stage. This year, the first for JCPS, students didn’t compete to move on to the next level. But the project still provided an important opportunity to highlight their individual voices.
“Soapbox is special because it allows students’ voices to be showcased,” said Nikki Williams, director of professional learning and partnerships for Mikva. “It takes student's voice and what students care about and places it at the center of educational spaces. It is all about the students, which also builds a sense of agency and care for their communities.”
Ellington Walker, a 10th grader at Fern Creek High School, asked listeners to “imagine living in the world where your thoughts, movements, ideas, desires, and hopes are all misunderstood and at times, even worse – ignored.”
“Welcome to living on the spectrum,” he said.
Diagnosed at four years old with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Ellington advocated for greater awareness and understanding for people with ASD.
“I am a human being, just like you – with feelings, thoughts and emotions,” he said. “I may not be able to express myself at times like I wish I could, or may not pick up on certain body languages, but I do have feelings – feelings of love for my family, joy when I am able to build my Legos, and travel to places I have never been.”
Autism looks different for each person who is diagnosed with it, he added, and he is proud to help change the perception of people on the spectrum.
“I know I am special, and I don’t mind helping the world see how cool autism can be if you just look through someone else’s eyes.”
Programs like Project Soapbox give students license to talk passionately about topics they care about, according to Ryan New, JCPS instructional lead for social studies.
“So often it is very difficult to have student voice in a classroom that’s authentic,” New said. “Part of what we want to do is provide an opportunity for our students to have their voice heard.”
“This is what social studies is about: providing an opportunity for students to engage in their community through their lived experiences,” he added. “These 10 students are taking a stand on issues that are important to them and they want us to listen, then stand with them. And so, we will.”