A student in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, once brought the crowd at an Annapolis historical marker dedication to tears with her essay reading that discussed acts of racism she experienced in her education.
This example sets an expectation for the Equal Justice Initiative’s inaugural racial justice essay contest in Alachua County, said Bre Lamkin, 36, one of the contest coordinators.
Lamkin said personal connections are some of the most important components in the essays she reads.
“Sometimes that looks like a student interviewing their grandparent about what they may have experienced during the civil rights movement or the fight for voting rights,” Lamkin said. “Just being able to convey that this isn’t something that is unrelated to who they are.”
The Equal Justice Initiative is partnering with the Alachua County Community Remembrance Project, which is working to dedicate a historical marker to the victims of racial terror lynching in Gainesville.
The essay contest represents a scholarship opportunity for public high school students. The scholarship is open to students attending Gainesville High School, Buchholz High School, Eastside High School, Loften High School, P.K. Yonge Lab School, SIATech High School and North Central Florida Public Charter School.
The submission deadline is April 15.
Winning participants will be announced at the site during a ceremony in May.
Prizes for the contest winners will total at least $5,000, and students may use them for any purpose. Don Fitzpatrick, 49, a curriculum specialist for Alachua County Public Schools and local organizer for the contest, said the scholarship amounts are much more than most essay contests in the county offer.
“The size of the prize lets the students see the importance of the topic and the importance that the community places on this,” Fitzpatrick, said. “It’s a big encouragement for students who might otherwise stuff this flyer in their backpack.”
Essay requirements and resources are available on the contest’s website. Participating students are asked to discuss racial injustice in America by exploring a historical event and relating its legacy to the present, while also imagining future solutions. The website encourages students “to reflect on how the topic impacts their own lives and communities.”
The contest website’s “Tips for Students” page offers a guide for students to organize their thoughts and a checklist to review prior to submission.
The Alachua County Library District offered virtual writing hours throughout the submission period to help students complete their essays. The hourlong Zoom sessions allowed participants to brainstorm topics, get research assistance from live librarians or use the time to write. Additional resources suggested by the library are located on its research page for the contest.
Lamkin said the Equal Justice Initiative believes racial justice is an essential topic for young minds to explore and understand in their education and crucial acknowledge in society today.
“If we aren’t able to sufficiently confront our history of racial injustice, we are doomed to repeat it,” Lamkin said. “We talk about truth and reconciliation, but they’re sequential. In order to get to the reconciliation point as a society, as a nation, we really have to tell the truth first.”
Above: Bre Lamkin speaks about why young people play an important role in the fight for racial justice. (Marlena Carrillo/WUFT News)
This truth, Fitzpatrick said, is especially important for students in Alachua County where racial injustice has been prevalent throughout its history. The Equal Justice Initiative has documented at least 317 racial terror lynchings in the state of Florida.
“The opportunity for an Alachua County student to be present at the City of Gainesville lynching memorial and to read their essay out loud to the public is just a great chance for our students to see themselves as part of the solution,” Fitzpatrick said.
Essays are judged during a roundtable discussion by an Equal Justice Initiative committee, and decision notifications are sent via email. Lamkin said the submissions are assessed based on content, and students shouldn’t be discouraged based on their writing abilities.
“This is a contest that’s not simply about who is able to write the most beautiful essay,” Lamkin said. “It’s not about prose. It’s about that reflection.”
Lamkin also recognizes the impact the essay process might have on participants. While the research opportunity is rewarding, she said, diving into the history of racial injustice can be emotionally taxing for students.
“It is completely natural to engage with these topics and feel overwhelmed,” Lamkin said. “But using that emotion to foster empathy for people who have gone through things that maybe we haven’t is important, and also using those emotions to vow that they are going to do something about it in whatever way they can.”
“Young people are kind of at the helm of this,” Lamkin said. “We want them to go out into the world armed with the knowledge that they need — armed with the empathy that they need — to continue this fight for justice.”