The all-purpose room at the Palmetto Youth Center was abuzz with weighty issues.
Students from Manatee County middle schools and high schools were tackling some of society’s toughest topics Thursday night, some in hopes of a $150 cash prize and laptop, others because a teacher made them, and others because of their passion for social change.
The students were competitors in the 16th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Essay and Speech Competition. The 227 students from Manatee County schools who submitted essays had been winnowed down to 27 finalists, and on Thursday evening, the students delivered their speeches interpreting the meaning of King’s quote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Before the event, middle school reigning champion Sully Maley, 12, offered some advice before he tried for a repeat.
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You have to look people right in the middle of the forehead so you don't have to have that awkward eye contact.
- Sully Maley, Nolan Middle School student
“You have to look people right in the middle of the forehead so you don’t have to have that awkward eye contact,” Maley said.
Maley opened up the night with a speech warning about the dangers of militarized police departments. Shortly after him, Alexa Bland, an eighth-grader from Haile Middle School, followed up with a speech entitled “Does Justice Mean Revenge,” criticizing the recent presidential election for leading to “the erosion of peace.”
Friends grew to hate each other, all because they disagreed on who our country needed to keep us going in the right direction.
- Alexa Bland, Haile Middle School student
“I have heard reports of families that were split up because they had different views on what this country needed,” Bland said. “Friends grew to hate each other, all because they disagreed on who our country needed to keep us going in the right direction.”
Bland called on people to unite, and her speech took first place in the middle school category.
Breanna Wallace, 17, criticized society’s tendency to swiftly react to, and just as quickly forget tragedy.
“The only time people care is when social injustices become tragedies, where multiple lives are lost,” Wallace said. “Why don’t people care when social injustices only affect one life?”
Wallace’s speech pulled from personal examples, Sirius Black of the Harry Potter series and current events.
Gabryelle Francois, 16, took home first place in the high school category. She said she was inspired to enter the competition by the North Dakota Oil Pipeline conflict between the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and the energy company Energy Transfer Partners.
“May we not disregard others’ pains because it doesn’t affect us,” Francois said. “It does.”
May we not disregard others' pains because it doesn't affect us. It does.
- Gabryelle Francois, Southeast High School
This is the 16th year of the competition, started by Patricia Johnson, who still serves as the chairwoman of the event’s committee.
“I think the first year we may have had four essays,” Johnson said. “The volume really depends on the topic. The year Obama was elected, I think we got into the 400s.”
First-place winners Francois and Bland took home new Dell laptops and printers and $150. They will deliver their speeches at the MLK banquet next Friday.
Alexa Bland, Haile Middle School: (New Dell laptop and printer and $150)
Sullivan Maley, Nolan Middle School: second ($100)
Bella Dombrowski, Haile Middle School: third ($75)
Hannah Ramsden, Haile Middle School: honorable mention ($50)
Gabryelle Francois, Southeast High School: first (New Dell laptop and printer and $150)
Carter Bedinghaus, Manatee High School: second ($100)
Kevin Townsend, Manatee High School: third ($75)
Felicity Degaetano, Manatee High School: honorable mention ($50)