Carnegie Mellon University
October 14, 2016

MLK, Jr. Writing Awards Impact Winners’ Families

By Emily Stimmel

uhail Gharaibeh-Gonzalez, far right, stands with his parents at the 2016 Martin Luther King, Jr. Writing Awards ceremony.

The first time Cleotilde “Coty” Gonzalez read her son’s poem, “Questions for a Black Mother,” she got goosebumps.

“It made me angry and sad and hopeful, all at once,” said Gonzalez, a research professor in Carnegie Mellon University’s Department of Social and Decision Sciences.

Her son, Suhail Gharaibeh-Gonzalez, won second place in high school poetry at CMU’s 2016 Martin Luther King, Jr. Writing Awards as a sophomore at CAPA. The piece described the 2010 shooting of Aiyana Mo’Nay Stanley-Jones by Detroit police officer Joseph Weekley in harrowing detail.

He wrote, “A bullet slices through the air, and it makes home in a seven-year-old’s head. She’s asleep on the couch, next to her grandmother. It obliterates fresh knowledge—how to spell ‘cat’ and how two plus two equals four.”

Gharaibeh-Gonzalez read the poem aloud to 350 guests at the awards ceremony, including members of the CMU and Pittsburgh communities and his family.

“Suhail looked so strong, secure and mature on stage. His poem clearly reflected who he is and how he feels as an interracial kid,” Gonzalez said.

Emily Nagin’s poem, “Keeping,” reflected her feelings about her interfaith heritage. As a sophomore at CAPA in 2005, she won first place in high school poetry with the piece.

Nagin wrote, “On Ash Wednesday my school went to church and while the other girls knelt and opened their mouths for wafers Alex the Atheist and I sat together and rubbed the ashes from our foreheads.”

Her father, Daniel Nagin, said the awards program fostered Emily’s talents from an early age.

“Opportunities to acknowledge excellence at the high school level are limited, but it’s important to nurture young people’s ambitions before college,” said Nagin, Teresa and H. John Heinz University Professor of Public Policy and Statistics in CMU’s Heinz College. “The writing awards gave Emily an outlet that acknowledged her creative activities in the context of social justice.”

Nagin, who also won first place as a high school senior with her poem, “Giving Up the Ghost,” graduated from CMU in 2011 with a bachelor of arts degree in creative writing and returned to CAPA this fall to teach fiction.

Gharaibeh-Gonzalez and Nagin are among more than 2,500 Pittsburgh-area students who have participated in the program since Jim Daniels, the Thomas Stockham Baker University Professor of English, established it in 1999. The awards program provides a safe space for students to discuss cultural differences and engages families with CMU’s vibrant community.

“Hearing staff members’ children is powerful because it illustrates the importance of meaningful dialogues to both CMU and Pittsburgh,” said M. Shernell Smith, assistant director of student affairs and staff council chair who organizes CMU’s annual month-long Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration. “The voices of younger generations can galvanize us to be better role models as parents and leaders when we may sometimes shy away from difficult cultural and social topics.”

High school and college students across western Pennsylvania are encouraged to submit both personal narratives and detailed reflections on Dr. King’s legacy by Friday, Nov. 25.

Winners will read their published entries at CMU on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (Monday, Jan. 16, 2017). They will also receive cash prizes.

Related Links:

Video: The 2016 Martin Luther King, Jr. Writing Awards

Pictured above: Suhail Gharaibeh-Gonzalez, far right, stands with his parents at the 2016 Martin Luther King, Jr. Writing Awards ceremony.