Students share poetry, prose about overcoming racial, ethnic barriers

Last Thursday, July 11, six recipients of The Martin Luther King Jr. Awards read their poetry and prose on the porch of Alumni Hall. The contest prompts high school and college students in the Pittsburgh area to write about personal experiences confronting racial or ethnic barriers. The winners presented their work and then participated in a Q-and-A session with the audience, sparking a dialogue about how Martin Luther King Jr.’s teachings on morality and equality might apply to their generation.

Jim Daniels, one of the organizers of the contest and a professor at Carnegie Mellon, along with his wife Kim Kovacic, who taught some of the award-winners at Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School, have both been workshop leaders at the Institution several times over the past two decades. It was their connection to the Institution that made this poetry and prose reading a reality. The six students, winners from various years, shared the stories behind their award-winning pieces with the Daily.

Maya Best



  • Prize winner in 2013 for “Stranger”
  • 10th grader at Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School

“My piece is about being Indian. I’m not fully Indian; I’m just half-Indian. When I was in third grade I had an experience where there were some kids and they confused being Indian and Native American, and I sort of wrote my poem about that, Also, what it’s like being an outsider. I haven’t really experienced that, but I’ve seen people experience it, like being the new kid who’s from a different country. It’s always hard fitting in, so that’s what inspired me to write the poem.”

Laura Condon



  • Prize winner in 2013 for “Star”
  • 10th grader at Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School

“I just started Pittsburgh CAPA in 9th grade. Up until then, starting in kindergarten until 8th grade, I went to Sacred Heart Catholic School. I like to say it was sheltered, that we were very kept in our little Catholic community, but it was also very diverse. We had people from all over the world because Pittsburgh has lots of colleges, so people come from all over the world to go to college. Sacred Heart was close to a bunch of those colleges, so their kids would come to Sacred Heart. We had people from all over the world.”

“I really appreciated that I could have experiences with all of those different people, but at the same time it didn’t matter to me that we were different, so I wanted to express that through my poem. I also wrote another poem when I was entering this contest about black and white racism, but it didn’t mean as much to me because I knew so many other people would write about that. So I wanted to try something different and write about something that meant a lot more to me.”

Erika Drain



  • Prize winner in 2012 for “Anomalies: My Struggle for an Identity”
  • Graduated from Winchester Thurston High School; soon to attend Washington and Jefferson University

“It was very personal, definitely, because it had to deal with . . . You know, as I’ve read past winners I’ve noticed a lot of black and white racism, and I haven’t noticed any kind of self-reflection upon that — what it actually means to be part of a specific race, or part of an identity as an African-American. I wrote that piece basically explaining my thoughts on African-Americans as a population, as a whole, what it means to be black, and what it means as a skin color and as a culture. I hope that people are reminded of open-mindedness. Knowing that your skin color or your culture doesn’t limit you . . . The things that you desire, or the things that you hope to aspire to do or be — they shouldn’t be limited by what you look like.”

Jesse Lieberfeld



  • Prize winner in 2012 for “Fighting a Forbidden Battle: How I Stopped Covering Up for a Hidden Wrong”
  • Graduated from Winchester Thurston High School; soon to attend Pomona College

“It began as part of an assignment for our 11th grade English class. We were asked to read Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail,’ and subsequently we were asked to write essays for this contest that Carnegie Mellon hosts every year — the Martin Luther King contest. So when I was sort of putting the two things together, the words leapt out at me were how well what he describes — in terms of the civil rights movement, in terms of the largest problem being mass acceptance of injustice — how well that applied to a dilemma that I’ve long been faced with in my own experience. It was with Israel, about how it just did not receive the attention that it deserved, and it was glossed over because it was in our political interests to gloss it over.”

“So I drew a lot of similarities between the two, and that was how I got the idea for the essay. I hope that they understand that any belief that you’ve been given is not necessarily one that you should continue to hold for yourself. You should always take the time to look at what you really believe, and also take time to think about what people are telling you, and why they’re telling it to you, and why you believe what you do. Because that was hard for me to come to realize, so I was hoping they would be led to question that in some measure.”

Emily Nagin



  • Prize winner in 2005-2007 for poems “Keeping,” “Eye to Eye” and “Giving Up the Ghost”
  • Graduated from Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts in 2007; soon to attend University of Michigan to pursue an MFA in Fiction Writing

“I was trying to talk about what it’s like to be raised in a household with two religions — Judaism on my dad’s side, and Christianity on my mom’s side. Especially given the fact that neither are religious, so it was the cultural aspects of both. I identify as Jewish because my Jewish relatives live in Pittsburgh, so it was — culturally, we spent more time with them. So that’s the part of myself that I knew more about. And in high school I started thinking more about religion, and culture, and identity, so that was about me trying to figure out if I could really identify as Jewish, and if I did what it might mean. I hope they got the idea that identity is complex, and that you can identify as many things at once and that that is often OK.”

Jamar Thrasher



  • Prize winner in 2003 for “An Unforgettable Journey”
  • Graduated from Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts; Bachelor’s from University of Pittsburgh; currently a master’s student at Carnegie Mellon University

“The piece that I read was a coming-of-age piece that basically shows the growth that I went through as an adolescent to pretty much the beginning phases of adulthood where, I think, part of growing up is self-identification and how you identify in this big world that we all live in. The writing process for me. . . So I came back from [this] trip, you know, I kept a journal, I had tons of notes, tons of journal entries, I had loads of photos. So I wanted to get a story. . . If my trip could be described in a piece, what would I write about? So it really took me about two weeks of just searching for a good story that would sum up my trip, that would resonate with me, and also readers, and I think the most poignant part of the trip was the slave castles, because the slave castles were the beginning point of why I myself as an African-American man, who at the time a high school student, didn’t necessarily know my origin. I couldn’t go and trace it.”

“The story that I wanted to tell with the slave castles was that — this was it. This was the portal that took people from a country by force, and they were forced into labor, and I really wanted to tell the story of. . . I didn’t want to tell the slavery story, because I felt like that’s been done a lot. I think Americans and the world are familiar with the slave story, with slaves in America and on plantations and cotton fields, but I think that it’s underreported — the story of the transition, the journey, the voyage. And that’s what I really wanted to capture with this piece.”

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