What’s Your Story?
STUDENT ESSAY CONTEST
One First Place Winner: $1000
Two Runners Up: $500 each
How has politics affected you or your family?
How has a law—or the lack of one—changed your life?
How have you been involved in a social movement?
The contest will reopen in January, 2018. For more information please contact Erica.firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Well, why did you let him rape you?” I sat stunned in the passenger seat, not exactly sure if I had heard him correctly. I was speechless at the realization that this was exactly how those in my community thought of sexual assault. I had always been an advocate for women’s rights. I never hesitated to jump in a protest, and I even spent my entire college career running The Vagina Monologues. However, it wasn’t until after my own assault that I realized the true need for a shift in culture. I quickly learned that society was not survivor-friendly. The police didn’t want to be held responsible for running an individual’s life in what they told me was a “he said she said game.” The university didn’t want to tarnish its reputation. This meant university police officers were not interested in returning phone calls, and that investigations promised to last only three months would go on for six. School officials didn’t care that my most humiliating moment had been documented. That pictures and recordings were passed around the internet like candy. The Vice Chancellor declared, “There is no reason to ruin a student’s academic future.” And it seemed that everyone around agreed with him. I quickly realized that if real, substantial change was ever going to occur, then a sense of responsibility would need to be inflicted. I was tired of my friends, my university, and even my family holding me at fault for another’s action. Everywhere I turned, victim-blaming comments were overflowing. I soon realized that the reason it is so easy for people to live in a bubble where they fall ignorant to the reality of sexual assault is because of how they carry themselves. It’s hard for a survivor to feel comfortable speaking in a society that has already blamed the victim before the crime has even occurred. I decided to take matters into my own hands and do what I could in the social movement to end rape culture. I decided to lead a project that would force individuals to realize the weight of their words. I titled my poster project Love Shouldn’t Hurt. I began reaching out to members of the survivor community at my school. I listened to their stories and triumphs in a society that was not there to support them. I asked them to write some of the most hurtful words they had heard on posters and then pose on campus with the posters covering their faces. I was shocked by the stories I heard. I was even more shocked by the words that have been said by not just students, but also by faculty. Students had been called drama queens and liars. They had been silenced and mocked for requesting trigger warnings in class. While every story was different, they all had one thing in common: each individual had been mocked, and their pain ignored. My passion became a war. I began organizing protest after protest on my campus. I argued with teachers who mocked or refused trigger warnings in their classrooms. I flooded my Vice Chancellor’s office with letters and emails demanding answers for his ignorance of such an epidemic. I took to the streets of my own community demanding change, demanding respect. I filled my car with students and drove them to protests all over the state of California demanding that safety and the right to one’s own body become a basic human right. I joined a speaker’s bureau for survivors of sexual assault. I began speaking at universities, high schools, and club meetings about the effects that such a culture has on the individual. I became part of a social movement, using my voice in honor of all those who had their own taken from them. However, this fight is far from over. Former Vice President Joe Biden said, “Only when no woman blames herself for being assaulted, and when no man rationalizes his behavior based off tradition, culture, or the law; only then will we have victory.” Former Vice President Biden is fully aware that rape culture is present in America. However, our political leaders can’t implement real change until the people do. We must take responsibility. Responsibility for every rape joke we said or laughed at. Responsibility for sexist comments that we let go unrefuted. Responsibility for every victim-blaming comment said far too casually both by us and by those near us. We must as a public find our voice."
- Caitlin Ritch, University of California Irvine
"Undocumented. It’s a dangerous word to a lot of people, apparently. To them, you see, without your documents, without it written down on paper who you are and what you are and where you started and how you got here, you don’t deserve anything. You could be anyone. You could be one of “them.” Documented. That’s the flip side, right? With it, in fact, written down on paper, who you are and what you are and where you started and how you got here, you deserve the American Dream. You could be anyone. You could be one of us. Generations ago, a Chinese man named Choy Congming chose to leave behind a mother country and everything he ever knew for the Gold Mountain he heard was waiting for him across the ocean. As he looked east from his seaside village, this glittering promise of prosperity, of plenty, of peace, hung on the horizon like the rising sun. It was 1929. He dreamed of America, and it was a dream of more and better. The United States, for its part, saw not promise or potential looking to its shores, but rather a strange and fearsome threat. The politicians called it the Yellow Peril: a pale, mocking reflection of Congming’s golden dreams. Faces dark with thunder and fists clenched in rage, they proclaimed to their countrymen that these colored-skinned, morally suspect foreigners would take our jobs and break our communities. And so they built a paper wall called the Chinese Exclusion Act to keep Congming and others like him out. From 1882 to 1943, the Act stood tall and unforgiving, leaving countless would-be Americans to, like a wave, crash against America’s western coast, only to be broken and turned away. Congming decided that this wall was worth climbing, and that he himself could climb it. So, he bought some documents, dressed in official robes of black ink and red stamps, which solemnly declared Choy Congming to be, in fact, Lawrence Choy Lowe, the long-lost son of a Chinese American citizen who had a bizarrely Scottish last name. He lied through his teeth, passed under a Golden Gate, and became a documented American with a paper name. And he passed that paper name all the way down to me. I’m documented. I have it written down on paper who I am and what I am and where I started and how I got here, but only because my father’s father’s father came to this country in direct violation of federal law. The difference between me and millions of undocumented Americans is simply a matter of timing and luck and maybe an immigration officer who had a careless day. The Chinese Exclusion Act lost my ancestors’ name to the wind, but so much more is at stake today for those for whom this country’s walls loom higher. In the end, Congming found the Gold Mountain he sought in San Francisco’s sloping hills. He raised a son, opened his own business, and found his true calling as a labor organizer, championing those who, too, dreamed of what America could mean. It was a mountain of gold he built on some empty words written on some fraudulent papers— some fraudulent papers that gave me my name and my life. Every comfort I enjoy, every opportunity I find, every part of who I am rests on that paper lie. And so my promise to Congming, to his son, and his son, and to everyone after bearing this paper name, is not only to remember his sacrifices, but also to fight for those who see the same glittering promise that he saw, and for whom golden mountains reach higher than paper walls."
- Marnie Lowe, UC Berkeley - Paper Names and Paper Walls
"I drew in a sharp breath as my 10-year-old self perused the newspaper, as I often did during my younger years. I had reached the 10th page of the local newspaper, and I saw the first public mention of gay people that I could remember. I was in the sixth grade, and it was November 2008. Barack Obama had recently been elected the first African-American president, and the state of Connecticut had just legalized same-sex marriage that October. It was the first time I realized that gay people existed in a public sphere and that other gay and lesbian people even existed. Six months earlier, I can remember meandering through my paper route, despite the impending threat of rain. As the skies above me threatened to open up, I was wrestling with an inevitable crush. I was desperately infatuated with my fifth grade teacher. I wanted to talk to her all the time, and I wanted her to help me understand the parts of me that I could not yet comprehend. She was rumored to be a gay woman who was dating another teacher in the school, and although I didn’t recognize it at the time, I wanted to be her. I couldn’t explain why I was so interested in her until it hit me that day. As I trudged along my paper route, I concluded that I had a crush on her. And then, I was desperately conflicted about what that meant for me. For a long time, I settled on being bisexual, because that meant I would never have to acknowledge to others that I was attracted to women. I was terrified to tell my parents, and I wasn’t even sure that gay people were real beyond the whisperings of gay rumors at my elementary school. I thought that I was an anomaly, alone. I was certain that I would never find anyone to love if I were gay. I walked up the stairs to my bedroom at the conclusion of my paper route, weary and resolute in my commitment to keep that side of me secret. I thought of all of the things that I couldn’t have if I were gay. I desperately wanted a wedding, a regular life, and children. I wanted to be loved by my parents, my relatives, and my neighbors. I didn’t know if they would love me if this secret ever got out. I obsessed over liking women for the next six months. I debated whether the crush was an anomaly or an indication of an identity. I thought about it constantly and questioned my certainty. I lived in isolation, trapped in my thoughts with no one to share them with. I was too afraid even to write them down. But then it was right in front of me in the newspaper: the discussion of same-sex marriage in Connecticut, and I was faced with the knowledge that other gay and lesbian people existed. That if I were gay, I wouldn’t be the only one. It also helped me to know that if I was gay, I might have some semblance of a normal life. In my home state, I would have the opportunity to get married, which meant that maybe I could have a family too. This knowledge gave me the courage to tell some of my friends at 11 years old that I might not be straight. It empowered me to kiss a girl at 12 years old and to come out to my parents at 14. It emboldened me initially to come out as gay instead of bisexual to myself, and later in front of an auditorium of my peers during a speech for class president during my junior year of high school. It allowed me to work consistently to change people’s opinions of gay people and to advocate for LGBTQ equality. My adolescence showed me that progress was possible for gay people. I witnessed state after state legalize same-sex marriage. I saw the Supreme Court overturn the Defense of Marriage Act when I was a sophomore in high school. I had just graduated high school when SCOTUS made marriage equality the law of the land. I came of age in a time when progress seemed not only possible, but also inevitable, when the LGBTQ community worked for it. I saw that minds and hearts were changing rapidly, and I was inspired to contribute to that effort. I constantly advocated for the LGBTQ community so that I would play my part in ensuring that we could have all of the privileges afforded to heterosexual people. I wish I could go back and tell 10-year-old me what I know now. I would tell her that it would be possible for me to have a normal life and that people would love and accept me. I would tell her how much of a blessing it was that I was gay, because the legislative and judicial advances for LGBTQ people fostered in me a love of politics and government which has shaped my life goals. I would tell her that I would fall in love for the first time and experience my first heartbreak during my first year of college, and then I would fall in love again with the woman I want to marry a year later. I would share that this past New Year’s Eve, my girlfriend stayed at my house and my parents welcomed her with open arms. The political journey of LGBTQ people and the laws that made marriage equality universal have shaped the course of my life in ways for which I will forever be grateful."
- Kaitlin R Maloney, Simmons College
"Hello, my name is Kayla Gissendaner, and I'm going to share my story with you. In February 1997, my dad, Doug Gissendaner, was murdered. I was only 7 years old, and his death devastated me. My dad was my primary caregiver, and he loved my brothers and me unconditionally. In November of 1998, my mom, Kelly Gissendaner, was convicted of convincing her boyfriend, Greg Owen, to kill my father. She was sentenced to death. My brothers and I went to live with our maternal grandmother. When I was a child, my grandmother used to take my brothers and I to visit our mom. As a young child, I could not grasp why my father had been taken from me. As my awareness grew, so did my anger towards my mother. During my teenage years, I stopped wanting to go visit my mom. When I was 17, I came home from school one day and saw that my grandmother had collapsed and died of a massive heart attack. Even though it wasn't anyone's fault that my grandmother had died, I blamed my mom. I thought the stress of what she had put my grandmother through for years, was what ultimately killed her. So, when I went to college, I quit visiting my mom for my first year. During this time, my mom continued to reach out to me, but I ignored her. After about a year, I decided to meet with her again. I had reached the point where I wanted to know the answers to questions I had about my dad's death, and I was ready to ask her those questions. During victim/offender dialogue, I was able to ask my mom these questions, and we were able to talk about the crime and what she had done, which is something we had never discussed before. It was hard for both of us, but she told me the terrible truth. As painful as that was, I realized then that I wanted to try to have a relationship with her again. I knew that I had to move from a place of anger and bitterness, to a place of love and forgiveness. I had to face what my mom had done, and find a way to forgive her. That was 6 years ago. After that point, we were able to have the mother/daughter relationship that had been missing for many years. I started to truly get to know the person my mom was during this time, and I could see, for the first time, how much my mom had transformed over the last 18 years. She became a selfless instead of a selfish person and truly put my needs and others' needs before her own. She found Christ in a profound and different way, and graduated from a theological program in prison. I've heard story after story from inmates that she helped and counseled. People who had given up all hope. My mom inspired them, gave them hope, and gave them confidence to become their best selves. I've struggled greatly over the years since my dad's murder with the immense pain of losing him and the fact that my mom was involved. I also watched my mom struggle through the years to come to grips with what she had done, and face her own horror about her actions. I learned that forgiving my mother was the best way to truly honor my father's memory and who he was. In March of 2015, I went before the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to ask them to save my mom's life. They heard that she had been redeemed, had been living a life of faith and works, and had been ministering to literally hundreds of desperate women in prison. I told the 5 men on the board that executing my mom would not bring any justice or peace, but only more pain and suffering. They ignored me and my brothers, but her life was spared in March because the execution drugs were faulty. The courts didn't care about this, and in September 2015, they set another execution date, and they killed my mom. The murders of my dad and mom are the most painful experiences of my life. I loved them dearly and cherish every memory of them. My dad would not have wanted my mom to be executed, even knowing her role in his murder. The death penalty is an endless cycle of violence and destruction."
- Kayla Renee Gissendaner, student at Georgia State University
Real People. Real Stories. Real Politics.