PATERSON, NJ – As a difficult year draws to a close, the Paterson NAACP wants local teens to feel inspired, uplifted and motivated during these challenging times.

The local chapter plans to resume hosting the Afro Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO), a national contest that encourages African American high school students to aspire to excellence in more than two dozen non-athletic areas of competition.

On Saturday, the Paterson NAACP plans to host a virtual kick-off for the contest, introducing teens to the program and recruiting students to compete in the year-long program. The event will begin at 10 a.m. and be live-streamed on the Paterson NAACP Facebook page

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Founded more than four decades ago, the nationwide initiative focuses on achievement, mentorship and enrichment and almost 300,000 teens have participated in it so far, including over 3,000 from New Jersey.

Students can compete in up to three out of 33 categories that range from humanities to performing arts to business to culinary arts to STEM. Besides showcasing academic and artistic achievements, students receive mentorship from community volunteers to help them develop skills that’ll help them succeed in college and beyond. 

Dubbed the “Olympics of the Mind” by its founder Vernon Jarrett, a renowned author and journalist, students spend an academic year working with their mentors on a project and then compete locally. There, students showcase their projects in hopes of securing a Gold, Silver or Bronze medal.

Gold medal winners go on to a national competition held each summer during NAACP’s annual convention, where they have a chance to earn scholarships and other prizes totaling over $300,000.

Rahsona Smith Elder, who is serving as ACT-SO’s chairperson in Paterson, said the program is about so much more than just academics – it’s about inspiring young black students to believe in their talents and expand their horizons.

Elder, a well-known Paterson artist, advocate for families, and founder of the InnerFaith Performing Arts Center, said ACT-SO seeks to give kids a self-esteem boost and foster “positive academic and artistic excellence,” as well as “high academic and cultural achievement.”

It also strives to raise the level of expectations and academic achievement that plagues many urban communities, by preparing kids for success in college and in the workforce. In many cases, ACT-SO has led its participants to pursue careers in their areas of competition.

Competitors over the years include filmmaker John Singleton, musician Kayne West, actress Jada Pinkett Smith and actor Anthony Anderson. 

According to the NAACP, the biggest goal of the program is to “mobilize adults in our communities” to continuously inspire kids to strive for academic and artistic excellence. As part of that effort, the NAACP urges its chapters across the country to recruit volunteers to serve as coaches, teachers, and role models for students participating in the program.

Just a few of the local community members who have taken on mentor roles include: Felisha Farrar, a singer-songwriter who has worked with notable Gospel acts, and Coran J. Smith, a musician who has collaborated with Lalah Hathaway and Eric Benet, Elder said.

Rev. Kenneth D.R. Clayton, president of the Paterson NAACP branch, said he is grateful the local chapter will be once again hosting the ACT-SO program.

“We look forward to cultivating the talent of Paterson youth and exposing them to larger places of service,” Clayton said.

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