On Sunday, July 21, the second cohort Aspen Young Leaders Fellowship in the Greater Newark Area celebrated their graduation along with their friends, families, and mentors at the Paul Robeson Campus Center at Rutgers University-Newark. The fellows had just completed a 15-month journey exploring leadership, interfacing with community leaders and innovators, and working together as a group to tackle important issues facing the Newark community. The afternoon included remarks from graduating fellows, AYLF staff, and keynote speaker Demma Rosa Rodriguez, Head of Equity Engineering at Google, Inc. in NYC.
The master of ceremonies for the graduation was Newark Cohort 1 alumnus Joshua Owusu-Gyimah. Owusu-Gyimah kicked off the festivities by welcoming the families and community stakeholders and supporters in attendance and sharing some reflections on his personal experiences with the AYLF program and how it shaped his development and growth. The crowd of family members, friends, and AYLF alumni were excited to share in the celebration with the graduating cohort and learn more about the work that they did during their community impact project.
As a cohort, the Newark fellows created a campaign and docuseries (@NewarKulture) that focused on four major issues they identified in their community: homelessness, environment & art, education, and immigration & xenophobia. Fellows Azé Williams and Abdul Ajeigbe proudly presented the group’s work and unveiled the trailer for the docuseries and discussed the impact of their work. The series covers everything from the lack of resources available to the homeless to the detention center for immigrants in Newark; from the educational disparity between schools to the dangers facing the environment.
Fellows Gianna Cook and Aroob Ahmad were selected by their peers to share reflections on their AYLF journey on behalf of the graduates. Ahmad reminisced about seminar sessions she enjoyed most, highlighting a session in which the group discussed burnout and how to avoid it, and then took time out of session to implement those newly learned practices. She also shared that, “through AYLF my understanding of what a leader is completely changed. Every individual has their own story and although to be a great leader, it is important to express your own opinions and ideas, it is also important to just listen to people. Sometimes being a leader even means taking a step back and letting someone more suited take charge.” Cook also reflected on some of her favorite conversations and activities during the program and noted that her peers challenged the way she looked at society and opened her mind to looking at issues through different lenses and considering other perspectives.
During her keynote speech, Demma Rosa Rodriguez reflected on the time she had spent with the cohort during their Sister City Civic Action trip to New York City in March 2019 and how meaningful it was to her. Rodriguez shared her personal journey and background with the Fellows and their guests, outlining particular pivot points in her narrative and encouraging those in the room to consider what those moments are in their own lives. She also reminded the Fellows that their stories are part of their families’ stories and how they respond to challenges and trying times is hugely important. “Use the moments you’ve been doubted to spring board you,” she said. “Don’t let those who doubt you be right.”
AYLF Staff shared some exciting announcements with the fellows and their guests, including a new partnership with online tutoring company Wyzant to make on-demand tutoring available to all fellows and alumni, an opportunity for fellows to apply for financial resources to catalyze and elevate their personal community-focused projects, and a multi-generational alumni seminar for alumni and family members to be scheduled in early 2020.
The ceremony concluded with each Fellow receiving their certificate of graduation as well as a blue enamel Aspen leaf pin representing their entry into the global Aspen Institute family and network. Although the pins were given by AYLF staff, families and friends were asked to place the pins on the lapels of the graduates to represent all that they had done to help the fellows get to and through the AYLF program.
In reflecting on her AYLF journey and the cohort’s work on their Community Impact Project, graduating fellow Marisol Soto said,
My experience with AYLF has been extremely eye opening. With AYLF I was able to discover things about myself, my community and about our society in a way that has inspired me. There is a lot that has to change, that is a given, but we all have a role to play in making that change happen. AYLF is a program that gives young minds and young community members the tools they need to begin the ripple of change. The community impact project is our way of setting in motion the change we want to see. Having this opportunity has allowed me to learn and see the world from different perspectives. I personally gained insight to my own biases and passions. I have begun my journey as a change agent because of AYLF and I hope to continue on this path even when the program has come to its end.
AYLF is currently made possible through generous contributions from individual donors and foundations including The Victoria Foundation, The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, The Community Foundation of New Jersey, The Oak Foundation, The Pershing Foundation, The Saint Louis Community Foundation, The Maritz Corporation, Edward Jones, and The Walton Family Foundation.