Angela Bassett, Conan O'Brien Honor Underprivileged Students at Beat the Odds Awards

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Liza Powel and Conan O'Brien

The evening celebrated L.A. high school students who achieved academic success despite tremendous obstacles.

On Thursday night, Children's Defense Fund-California hosted its 28th annual Beat the Odds Awards at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. The evening honored five L.A. high school students who achieved academic success despite tremendous personal obstacles, with stars Angela Bassett, Conan O'Brien, Jussie Smollett, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Kevin Nealon and Susan Yeagley in attendance. 

O'Brien, who has hosted the event in the past, said that he and his wife Liza have attended annually since 2010, and is something they look forward to all year because of the inspiring student honorees. 

"I always find them very intimidating because they're very poised and self possessed and very clear, and they've been on this difficult journey. They're so young — they're 16, 17, maybe they're 18 — but they've already overcome so many barriers," the late-night host told The Hollywood Reporter on the gala's red carpet. "You go to a lot of events, sometimes you can say 'I think this a pretty good cause, I think we're doing something good here,' and with this organization it's so overwhelmingly clear that the focus is where it should be." 

Children's Defense Fund is a national child advocacy organization founded by Marian Wright Edelman that has fought for education, health coverage and programs for the impoverished for more than 45 years. Smollett-Bell has served on the board of the organization for several years, along with being a co-chair and presenter at the Beat the Odds Awards, and had nothing but praise for the work Edelman has done. 

"She has never wavered in the five-plus decades she has been fighting for children; she's never tired," the actress said. "I've seen her in boardrooms, I've seen her at the White House, I've seen her at big galas tell people that we're failing children, and she's been so bold to say what no one wants to say. In this day and age with the climate that we're in, we need more than ever a champion for children."  

Inside the event, Bassett introduced Edelman as "the Robin Hood of today. You know the legend: The story of a fallen nobleman who robbed from the rich to give to the poor while at the same time defying a corrupt sheriff and king who many felt had no right to rule England. The difference, though, between Robin Hood and Marian is she is no legend. She is real." 

The star continued, "The work she's done for five decades with and on behalf of children and families is real and it continues today in this state and across the country... especially now during these perilous times in our nation. Marian won't back down, she is determined to defy a corrupt administration to continue the fight for the freedoms and the rights for children." 

High schoolers Jazmin de Luna, Samantha Galindo, Samarea Johnson, Ian Leui and Manuel Lopez were celebrated at the event for their academic achievements.