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N.J. students shine in a national competition that’s a springboard to stardom

Updated: Jul 25, 2022

Updated: Jul. 20, 2022, 1:39 p.m. | Published: Jul. 18, 2022, 9:24 a.m.

Sonya Redd remembers her first ACT-SO competition. The Rev. Jesse Jackson introduced a young teen abandoned by her family and living alone in a shell of a house in New York City.

“An NAACP family found that young lady and took her into their home,” said Redd, the State Conference NAACP ACT-SO chairperson. “The next year, she came to ACT-SO and won $7,000 in awards and scholarships. That blew my mind. I said we got to have this here in New Jersey.”

Inspired by that story, Redd, a branch president at the time and state vice president for the NJ NAACP, started the New Jersey ACT-SO program.

On Sunday, ACT-SO sponsor Lancome sent their brand ambassador, Academy Award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o to announce scholarship endowments of $10,000 for 40 young women at the NAACP’s weeklong national convention in Atlantic City.

Awards were also handed out in 33 categories, from dancing, singing and the sciences to the culinary arts. Five students from New Jersey were among the winners: Gloucester County’s Andrew Elmore took the gold medal for mathematics, Brazil Taylor received a silver medal for traditional dance. Newark also had two winners, Omotolani Azeez won gold for poetry and Briana Hobson won bronze for culinary arts. Samuelson Zany won a silver medal for short story writing. He hails from Oranges and Maplewood and plans to attend Montclair State in the fall.

ACT-SO is an acronym for “Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics. Students develop projects, participate in workshops and go on field trips related to their subject of interest. Competition begins at local NAACP chapters, where they receive medals and prizes from regional sponsors and donors. Those winners advance to the national round to vie for scholarships and other opportunities national sponsors provide.

The ACT-SO enrichment program was the brainchild of renowned journalist Vernon Jarrett who began his esteemed career amid the Great Migration to Chicago. After a failed attempt to start a program with the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago, he brought the ACT-SO program to the NAACP, which became an official program for the organization in 1978.

ACT-SO is not a well-known competition, yet its former participants are at the highest level of achievement in their fields. Jada Pinkett Smith, John Singleton, Lauryn Hill, Michael Beach, Kanye West and Anthony Anderson are a few of the performing arts competitors who have become household names.

Over the years, the categories have evolved.

“Now, we have a sustainable building category,” Redd said. “We have nine categories in STEM, five in visual arts, 11 in performing arts and humanities, and the culinary arts. So, it is a marvelous program, and many people’s careers have just taken off because of the benefit of being in the ACT-SO program.”

“This is more than a competition said Deborah Smith Gregory, president of the NAACP Newark branch and the current co-chair of the Newark Act-so program. “It is an academic and cultural enrichment program where the adult village supports the children. I became involved in ACT-SO 30 years ago when my son, Hakim Smith, was a student at Arts High School, and now I am introducing his daughter and my granddaughter, Darcy Smith, to the program.”

The kick-off event had everyone dancing

ACT-SO’s kick-off event got the competition off to a rousing start. The Tropicana showroom pulsated with the dynamic energy of the students who hailed from across the country. Several performances kept the crowd moving, like the Trumpet Chics from Camden and ACT-SO alum Ricky Persaud attended the Berklee College of Music on a four-year scholarship and recently graduated summa cum laude.

Persaud also had his inaugural performance at Carnegie Hall earlier this year. Students participated in a dance-off, followed by their chaperones, whose students rushed to the edge of the stage to record them dancing and cheer them on.

At 9 a.m. the next day, it was all business.

Jason Otoo Appiah competed in computer science and the original essay contest. Appiah built his Flag Game using primary languages for web games like HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. He says his ninth-grade computer programming class at Monroe High School was inspirational, where he learned programming fundamentals. “We also learned this cool thing called rent randomization,” he said, “which is trying to mimic the random nature of the world using math. So it was really interesting, and it’s really fun to play.”

“I decided to join as a mentor,” Michelle Nurse said as she organized Appiah’s original essay printouts for the judges. “I just love working with teenagers.” It’s like you can paint a picture. And you can see where they started and where they’re going to be.”

The culinary arts competition is fierce. The winner is guaranteed a spot at the Culinary Institute of America and the biggest cash prize in the competition. Briana Hobson is Newark’s competitor in the culinary arts. The 18-year-old attends Essex County Donald M. Payne Senior School of Technology. She said she likes to merge cuisines to create new flavors.

“ACT-SO is a great mentoring opportunity for adults in any field. We want to make sure we support students, whether in school or through life changes, said Amarilys Olivo, Hobson’s mentor.

Competitors in poetry and oration gather in a hallway at the Tropicana Hotel in preparation for their competition events. The students are jovial and excited to see each other perform.

Makayla Rivera and Omotolani Azeez are both poets, competitors and each other’s supporters. Rivera, who is 16, attends West Orange High School and says she would like to attend Spellman, Brown, Wesleyan, Columbia, or USC. Her poem uses a fairy tale structure to speak about social inequality.

“I wanted to show the contrast between my innocence but I’m able to write and understand these very real issues. And another reason I chose a fairy tale is because I think people have a hard time understanding the struggle Black women face, or they have difficulty admitting the truth about it. So by putting myself as a Black woman into the role of a heroine and fairy tale, I allowed the audience to sympathize and eventually make a change.”

Rivera says her poetry is about her voice. She wants to use her voice and her platform to make a change because she’s an activist at heart.

Azeez dressed to the nines to perform her poem about her beautiful dark chocolate-colored skin. The recent Nigerian immigrant said students in her class would make fun of her accent and tell her to speak English when she first got here. Now, the 18-year-old has a full-ride scholarship to Stanford University.

“The NAACP and this program, specifically ACT-SO is for the advancement of people of color,” Azeez said. “And I love that it gives people of color the opportunity to continue that work that started in Harlem where we are accepted and embraced. We are not enslaved people, we have our roots, we have our arts, and this organization just keeps pushing it.”

Brandon Magloire conceived this self-portrait for his photography competition. He says he created this self-portrait in his room at home. “I was inspired by music and how it made me feel. I wanted to translate that into photography, specifically the shoegaze genre, which is very abstract and instrumental with lots of noise. I just wanted to encapsulate that in this self-portrait.

Brandon Magloire did not win on Sunday. He didn’t even get to compete. The 17-year-old rising senior at Union High School intended to compete in the ACT-SO photography competition. However, he kept his appointment with the New Jersey Scholars Program for a possible spot in their Summer at Lawrenceville program. His photography competition started late; he couldn’t miss the meeting, so he attended it but did not make it to the next round of interviews.

“But you know, I’m here at ACT-SO, he said. “I’m learning through these experiences. And you know, it’s another opportunity to be better. So yeah, that’s good.”

Ande Richards is new to New Jersey. She wants to hear from New Jersey’s communities of color, people with disabilities, the LGBTQ+ communities, and those who feel underserved by traditional media. She may be reached at

Follow her on Twitter @anderichards.Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe today to

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