Carnegie Mellon University
January 09, 2020

Western Pennsylvania Students Tackle Issues of Difference and Diversity Through Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Writing Awards

By Stefanie Johndrow

Stefanie Johndrow
  • Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences
  • 412-268-1788

Although Martin Luther King, Jr.'s role as a spokesperson and activist in the Civil Rights Movement took place more than 60 years ago, his message of equality, human rights and social activism is as relevant today as it was then.

Carnegie Mellon University's Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Writing Awards gives high school and college students in western Pennsylvania a safe space to creatively explore their personal experiences with difference and discrimination through writing. This year, prizewinners touched on topics ranging from race to culture and ethnicity to sexual orientation, religion, sexism and sexual harassment, to immigration status and neuro and physical disabilities.

The first-ever Special Drama Award will go to Paloma Sierra, a master's student in CMU's School of Drama, for her performance piece "YoUr EnGlIsH iS sO GoOd."

"This year's entries clearly show a generation willing to take a stand against injustice and for inclusion," said Jim Daniels, founder of the awards and the Thomas Stockham Baker University Professor of English in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. "Hearing these young voices gives me hope for the future in these complex, difficult times."

In its 21st year, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Writing Awards will take place at 5 p.m. on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (Monday, Jan. 20, 2020) in CMU's Cohon University Center Rangos Ballroom with a reception starting at 4:30 p.m. The event is open to the public and will feature readings by the student winners and performances by CMU's School of Drama Musical Theater Ensemble.

Joss Green, a junior in CMU's School of Drama, will step on stage for the second year in a row. Last year, Green placed second in the college poetry category with their piece, "Happy Birthday, Laquan McDonald," a poem about a 17-year-old African American who was fatally shot by Chicago police in 2014. This year, Green will receive first prize in the college poetry category for the poem "the fancy media company uses the word 'slave' to describe machines controlled by the master computer."

my school bus used to drive past a youth prison every morning. i would sit in the window seat directly behind the driver and wait for Western and Lake where i searched for the bodies of the imprisoned boys pressed against the glass. i would count each face, memorizing them, so i could draw them to mind as i prayed at the dinner table that night. — Excerpt from “the fancy media company uses the word ‘slave’ to describe machines controlled by the master computer”

"I've submitted a poem the past two years, because, for me, the most important kind of writing is about how we can learn to empathize," Green said. "I try to use these awards as a means to bring people's awareness to something. Even if that's only the people judging the awards, it is worth it to even help teach one person about something they didn't fully understand before.

"A lot of my work is written for people who I love and people who I think that the world at large should have more compassion for. I write for Laquan McDonald and for the boys imprisoned at IYC Chicago and for every Blk person who has ever been pushed aside and ignored by the world at large, because I want to push those around me to empathize with those people. My work is about empathy and remembering our privilege in every space we enter."

"Confessions of a Biracial Disabled Woman" is Diana Putri Lozinger's winning piece for the high school prose category.

When I show my family photo, I get a mix of different reactions. Some say that it is a lovely picture and leave it at that, but mostly, I get the standard questions: So they are Muslim? What do they think about you being a Catholic? Is their country dangerous? Are the women forced to wear thatExcerpt from “Confessions of a Biracial Disabled Woman”

"I was driven to write for this competition because the discourse around multiculturalism and around disability are deep-seated passions of mine. I wanted to share my perspective as someone who has a very nuanced experience with these topics," said Lozinger, who attends Vincentian Academy.

Students who submitted entries represented 24 high schools and seven universities — including schools that are large and small, urban and suburban and public and private — and included 10 high schools and one university that have never been involved in the awards before.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Writing Awards is sponsored by UPMC, Cohen & Grigsby, Hachette Book Group, Champtires, CMU's Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion, Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences and English Department.

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