Essay Contest Challenges Denver High School Students To Examine The Legacy Of Racial Injustice

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David Zalubowski/AP
Supporters raise their arms in support after Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed a broad police accountability bill during a press conference on the west steps of the State Capitol Friday, June 19, 2020, in downtown Denver.

A Colorado group has asked Denver high school students to look at the history of racial injustice in the United States and write about its legacy for an essay contest.

It’s meant to get young people interested in and thinking about history and how it affects what’s going on today, said Montana Stevenson, a volunteer with the Colorado Lynching Memorial Project.

The group works to acknowledge and honor racial terror lynchings in the state through the Equal Justice Initiative. The coalition is set to soon place a historical marker in Denver to honor the lynching of Preston Porter Jr. As part of the dedication, the group is hosting the essay contest for high school students in Denver Public Schools.

Denver Public High School Essay Contest
Colorado Lynching Memorial Project
Colorado Lynching Memorial Project's flyer for its essay contest in collaboration with the Equal Justice Initiative.

Students can choose any topic from enslavement to voter suppression or mass incarceration and more. Stevenson hopes “it's an opportunity for students to dig in to start to learn about a particular historical moment and maybe how that led up to something that's going on today and can help us move forward.”

For Jovan Mays, former Aurora poet laureate and volunteer with the coalition, it’s about “blowing the dust off.” He said he wants the essay contest and the work of the group to serve as an entry point into parts of the state’s history that may not be well-known or taught like the Amache Japanese Internment Camp, the Chicano Movement, the Sand Creek Massacre and more.

“The hope is that students understand that Colorado's not just this mountainous ski haven of nature freedom that is separatist from any of the grim realities of the urban centers that we see around our country and draws them into the privileges that this environment does afford you,” he said.

Long-term, he sees it as a way for the state to acknowledge its complacency and generate a conversation. Students are asked to think about solutions to end racial injustice, which Mays said he’s excited to see.

Rosemary Lytle, state president of the NAACP for Colorado, Montana and Wyoming, also works with the Colorado coalition. She said she wants as many students from diverse backgrounds to participate in the contest.

“There would be nothing as tragic as having an essay contest about black lynching victims that did not have any Black scholars participating in it,” she said.

Workshops will help guide students through the writing process and scholarships will be awarded to winners. Organizers also hope to take winners on a trip to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, headed by the Equal Justice Initiative. The contest deadline is Jan. 10, 2021.