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‘African American students deserve to be celebrated’: Mass. students compete in NAACP’s annual ACT-SO competition

Kyle Denny, 17, at his home in Milton with the chemistry project he is entering in the NAACP ACT-SO competition. ACT-SO is a program meant to showcase the scholastic and artistic achievements of Black high school students. Denny's project demonstrates how activated charcoal can be used to filter dangerous emissions from household appliances.Vincent Alban For The Boston Globe

Kyle Denny is the rare 17-year-old who loves chemistry.

The rising senior at Milton High School will have the opportunity to demonstrate his passion for the subject this week at the NAACP’s National Convention in Boston, where he’ll face off against high school students across the country, similarly seeking to show off their chemistry mastery with experiments designed and executed on their own.

“We don’t have science fairs or anything like that at my high school, so this is the closest thing I get to that,” said Denny, who crafted an experiment with deconstructed plastic bottles showing how activated charcoal can be used to filter out dangerous emissions from gas stoves. “[ACT-SO] shows the world that anyone has ideas and can share those ideas.”


The notebook of Kyle Denny, 17, who is entering his chemistry project entering in the NAACP ACT-SO competition. Vincent Alban For The Boston Globe

High school students from more than 200 NAACP chapters nationwide will compete, starting on Thursday, in nearly three dozen categories across a range of disciplines, including performing and visual arts, science, technology, engineering, and math, for the preeminent civil rights organization’s annual ACT-SO achievement program.

ACT-SO — short for the Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics — was founded in 1978 by Vernon Jarrett, a trailblazing Black reporter and columnist. The first national competition was held in Portland, Ore., and featured students from 14 NAACP chapters across the country.

“We see this as an opportunity to level the playing field for many of our students, no matter what their resources are, at every single locale,” said Larry Brown Jr., national director of the ACT-SO program.

An unidentified young man viewed a sculpture on display at the Denver Hilton Hotel in the "olympics of the mind" competition sponsored by the NAACP, holding its 72nd annual convention in Denver in 1981 at the Afro Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics. Denver Post via Getty Images

Jarrett believed, “African American students deserve to be celebrated on platforms similar to those that their non-African American counterparts were celebrated on,” Brown said. “He saw this as an opportunity to celebrate African American students for their mental and scholastic athleticism, if you will, not physical athleticism.”

Two Massachusetts NAACP chapters — Boston and Brockton — are sending students to the national convention, competing in categories such as contemporary dance, poetry performance, and earth sciences. Students first compete in their respective categories at the local level in spring, and gold medal winners are invited to compete nationally, where they perform or present their project before a panel of expert judges. They work with coaches and mentors throughout the year to help them prepare.


There’s no cost for students to participate, and medal winners receive cash scholarships up to $2,000, in addition to lucrative technology prizes.

“The pressure is on,” said Phyllis Ellis, president of the Brockton area branch of the NAACP, “but it’s a great experience for them because they do get to meet kids who look like them.”

Sixteen-year-old Mal Eason, of Dorchester, is competing at ACT-SO for the first time this week in the photography field. Eason was interested in entering the competition to “be around talented and likeminded artists.” He submitted three photographs, including a two-part series on isolation: They’re self-portraits of Eason, covered in white fabric, standing outside his old school in New Haven, Conn. He’s meant to look like a ghost.

“That played into the theme of alienation, and being overlooked and not feeling seen,” Eason said. The images represent his time in New Haven, where he had trouble making friends.

For Eason, the nerve-wracking part of the competition will be the brief presentation he’ll give the judges on his photographs, which will cover his works’ themes and techniques.


“This is a really big thing and a really big opportunity, and probably the biggest thing I’ve done so far,” Eason said. “A lot can depend on how well I do.”

Kayla Thugi, 16, of Brockton, is also a first-time competitor. Thugi is vying for a medal in two ACT-SO categories: drawing and poetry performance. Thugi will do a reading of “Our Astronomy,” an original poem about Black history beyond slavery. She’s also showcasing a self-portrait, drawn on black paper with white charcoal, limned with a few deft brush strokes of green and red acrylic paint.

The colors, she said, represent the Kenyan flag in honor of her immigrant parents and family.

“Being African is an irrevocable part of my self-expression,” Thugi said. “It’s a tribute not just to my parents, but all of my family members that migrated from Africa to America.”

A part of the chemistry project, Kyle Denny, 17, is entering in the NAACP ACT-SO competition that measures the volume of gas pumped through charcoal containers. Denny's project demonstrates how activated charcoal can be used to filter dangerous emissions from household appliances.Vincent Alban For The Boston Globe

The ACT-SO competition begins at 8 a.m. Thursday, culminating with an awards ceremony Saturday in which students will perform. The projects and artwork will be on display at the ACT-SO STEM & Visual Arts Gallery from Friday to Sunday at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center in the Seaport.

Returning competitor Yvangi Jacques, 17, of Brockton, an incoming senior at Avon Middle-High School, and participant in the earth sciences and instrumental classical music categories, said he’s most looking forward to meeting new friends and making connections with “a rising generation of students of color.”

“There’s a whole wealth of knowledge that students of color can provide,” he said. “This competition gives these students a stage to showcase their skills locally and nationally against other like-minded students of color.”


Deanna Pan can be reached at deanna.pan@globe.com. Follow her @DDpan.