Carnegie Mellon University
September 04, 2019

Students Break Down Issues of Difference Through Writing Awards

By Stefanie Johndrow

Now more than ever, young people are speaking out against issues of injustice. Carnegie Mellon University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Writing Awards gives these voices a platform to discuss topics like discrimination, prejudice, sexual and gender identity and more. 

“Each year we hear the eloquent voices of our young people responding to current events and telling their personal stories dealing with these issues. I’m looking forward to reading what they have to say this year,” said Jim Daniels, the Thomas Stockham Baker University Professor of English who founded the awards in 1999.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Writing Awards invites entries from all currently enrolled high school and college students in the Greater Pittsburgh area, as well as all Carnegie Mellon campuses.

The first place winner in the high school prose category last year, Madison Katarski recounts the Pulse Night Club shooting and her own sexual identity in “The Fear of Queer.”

Katarski writes:

“When I hold my girlfriend’s hand down the hall, we get stares. I’m uneasy, nervous, knowing what these kids might do to me. I’ve watched enough television, grown enough at this point to know that being a gay teen in rural Pennsylvania is akin to being covered in blood in a tank of sharks. We are vulnerable here.

Later, in June, Omar Mateen will travel two hours from Fort Pierce to Orlando to erase 49 lives.”

Police brutality is the focus of Joss Green’s poem, “Happy Birthday, Laquan McDonald,” which placed second in the college poetry category. McDonald was a 17-year-old African American who was fatally shot by Chicago police in October 2014.

“This trial is four years too late but ain’t no killer cops finna walk around this city on me and my clique’s watch. He finna see justice, Laquan. Justice in your name for the sake of all ‘em blk boys who got snatched and erased like you. You woulda been 21 today so we pourin up for you. Smokin out for you. Right in front of the cameras which parade our blk suffering to the white people who like to pretend that they care about you too but stayed home because of the rain.”

Winning entries will be published and cash prizes will be awarded. Award winners will read their work at CMU on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (Monday, Jan. 20, 2020).

Students may submit their poetry or prose entries online. Prose entries should be no more than 2,000 words, and students may submit up to two poems. Questions can be emailed to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Writing Awards. Submissions are due Sunday, Nov. 24, 2019.

The Pittsburgh community doesn’t have to wait until the annual awards celebration to get involved. Two nationally-recognized authors and Carnegie Mellon alumni will visit Carnegie Mellon’s campus as part of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Writing Awards Fall Speaker Series. The events are free and open to the public.

Shannon Gibney (DC 1997) will give a reading on Thursday, Sept. 19, at 4:30 p.m. in the Tepper Building Room 2700. Gibney, who writes and speaks extensively about the intersection of race, gender, class, family, power and identity, will read from her second novel, “Dream Country.”

Sarah Valentine (DC 2000) will read from her acclaimed new memoir, “When I Was White,” on Thursday, Oct. 24, at 4:30 p.m. in CMU’s Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion, located on the lower level of the Cohon University Center. “When I Was White” recounts Valentine’s upbringing in suburban Pittsburgh as a mixed-race African American in a white family.

“Having two alumni come to campus for the speaker series this year is very exciting. Their books both resonate with the mission of the awards and will provide inspiration for current students,” Daniels said.

The 2019 Fall Speaker Series is sponsored by CMU’s Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion, Dietrich College for Humanities and Social Sciences, English Department, Modern Languages Department, Division of Student Affairs and Office of the Vice Provost for Education.

Pictured above: Hannah Daniel recites her poem “They Sat in the Back” at the 2019 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Writing Awards. Daniel’s poem placed first in the college poetry category.