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What MLK means to them: Sixth-graders channel civil rights leader 

Top entries explore belonging, body image, equal rights

Grand Rapids — When asked to reflect on an issue of social justice for a contest, Jeanne Uwase didn’t have to look far for inspiration. 

For her first-place entry in GRPS’ Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Social Justice Legacy Contest, Jeanne, who attends Grand Rapids Montessori Academy, wrote about the discrimination her father has faced as an immigrant from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Her essay, “Ode to Peace, My Dad and MLK,” topped a list of hundreds of submissions, including essays, poems, stop-action videos, paintings, drawings, songs and PowerPoint presentations, from sixth-graders throughout the district. 

Rounding out the top three were Madison Sheets of Riverside Middle School in second place and Malachi Gamble of the Center for Economicology in third place, according to a release from Warner Norcross + Judd, the law firm that sponsors the contest. 

The contest’s goal is to “encourage students to think about how King’s legacy of peace and justice applies to the world in which they live,” the release states. Submissions were evaluated based on theme, personal connection, message and overall impact by a team of 50 Warner firm members. 

‘I just want people to know that it’s not OK to judge people for where they came from, because we’re all the same.’

— sixth-grader Jeanne Uwase

‘Ode to Peace, My Dad and MLK’ 

In her piece, Jeanne wrote that her father encountered derisive comments from coworkers because of his nation of birth. He even considered quitting his job because of it.

Jeanne connected the story to King’s quote: “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”

“I just want people to know that it’s not OK to judge people for where they came from, because we’re all the same,” Jeanne said. “We’re all human, we breathe the same air.”

Jeanne said when her teacher, James Emperor, told her she’d won, it was the “best news ever.” 

She said she’s looking forward to seeing what future sixth-grade classes will contribute.

“For the people who are going to be doing it next year, I can’t wait to see what they enjoy and their favorite thing about it,” she said.

Madison Sheets, Riverside Middle School

‘Our Lives, Our Bodies’

Madison’s essay, “Our Lives, Our Bodies,” is about dealing with bullies who have insulted her about her body image. 

“The reason I chose to write about body image is that my siblings … used to bully me about my body, and it was not fun,” she said.

Though it was an assignment to enter the contest, Madison said she’s glad she put in the effort to do well. She’d encourage others to do the same. 

“You never know where it could take you,” she said.

Malachi Gamble, Center for Economicology

‘Equal Rights for All’

Malachi’s third-place entry, titled “Equal Rights for All,” is a colored-pencil and paper drawing.

In his artist statement, Malachi wrote: “Equal rights for all, not just one, or some, but all human beings, of all ethnicities. This is what equal rights means.”

Malachi said he chose equal rights as a subject because of the injustice that he sees in the world, even at his young age.

“There are so many people who aren’t being treated equally in this world, and I want to stop that,” he said. “To me, this contest allows me to share with others how I feel. This contest is really important to me, because it allows me to express my feelings and also listen to others.”

Malachi’s drawing, ‘Equal Rights for All’

Read more from Grand Rapids: 
Feedback sought for new school at Aberdeen Academy site
Bolstered by many while a student, this grad now supports others

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Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley is a reporter covering Cedar Springs, Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids and Sparta school districts. An award-winning journalist, Riley spent eight years with the Ludington Daily News, reporting, copy editing, paginating and acting as editor for its weekly entertainment section. He also contributed to LDN’s sister publications, Oceana’s Herald-Journal and the White Lake Beacon. His reporting on issues in education and government has earned accolades from the Michigan Press Association and Michigan Associated Press Media Editors. Riley’s early work in journalism included a stint as an on-air news reporter for WMOM Radio, and work on the editorial staff of various student publications. Riley is a graduate of Grand Valley State University. He originally hails from western Washington.


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