Dr. Maya Angelou Essay Writing Contest: Contest Committee Announces 2023 Winners and Shares Samples of the Winning Entries

2024 Contest is Coming in November; Students Should Plan Ahead

“We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” — Dr. Maya Angelou

Oakland – Every year in early November, OUSD and the Dr. Maya Angelou Essay Writing Contest Committee invite high school seniors and juniors to write scholarly personal narratives. The contest produces unforgettable stories written with courage and authenticity that leave a profound impact on readers and our community. This is exactly what donor Guy Johnson, author, and son of Dr. Angelou wanted for young people in his hometown, Oakland, California and beyond.

Johnson’s powerful message of hope and opportunity for our children was always conveyed with quiet dignity and deflection of personal attention. This writing contest in his mother’s honor is one which Johnson quietly sponsored and lovingly tended. It was close to his heart, even in the days before he passed. Johnson transitioned in February of 2022, and was a longtime OUSD literacy advocate who created the contest to support excellence in writing. An inspirational guest speaker, Johnson spent nearly fifteen years coming to the high school English classes of veteran teacher, Marsha Rhynes. He facilitated powerful in-class writing seminars, encouraged students to write for publication, and served as an integral part of the Write to Live Project which gifts young people with books they can “keep and own.” Over the years, Mr. Johnson was a guest speaker for thousands of OUSD students who attended these literacy-based field trips.

“Some of the children Mr. Johnson met and encouraged were young people who lost parents; some were homeless; others struggled with chronic or life threatening illnesses of their own,” said Rhynes. “It’s impossible for us to forget the valedictorian who battled cancer or the homeless valedictorian. We respect their courage and celebrate their successes. There were young people who lost their lives to violence in the streets during the years when Mr. Johnson volunteered in my classes. It brought him to tears and made him groan each time he realized another life was lost. He has said that it was the sound of gunfire outside a school that became the catalyst for this essay contest. He was determined to do something more, something tangible, something the children would remember.”

Thamiah Tutt is the President and CEO of the Dr. Maya Angelou Foundation. “On the way to reaching their goals, we know that every student will need compassion, understanding and support,” she said. “This essay contest is a journey. It is meant to help our youth to uncover the extent of their gifts and abilities. Mr. Johnson was clear: students cannot reach this goal without the support and encouragement of educators and a community that believes in them and are prepared to uplift their efforts.”

Superintendent Johnson-Trammell affirms Johnson’s determination to support literacy. “Every time I had the pleasure to work with Mr. Johnson, his passion for supporting our students and promoting powerful writing was palpable. His presence was an integral part of so many of our students’ educational experiences, and our students appreciate the essay contest he created in his mother’s honor. We will carry on his legacy of improving literacy outcomes, and giving our students the tools they need to succeed in the 21st century.”

Now starting its fifth year, the contest has students eager to create and write, and is one that brings out the best in their writing. A hallmark of the contest is the donor’s requirement that students receive support in editing and revising essays. Every student who enters has the opportunity to have their work selected for publication in an upcoming anthology. This in itself is an amazing opportunity; the prospect of publication in an anthology excites students.

Guy Johnson

Like his iconic mother, Johnson spent many years supporting written anthologies and literacy projects for underserved students. Rhynes said the committee is excited to announce the first forthcoming published anthology, We Must Not Be Defeated, which will feature the writing of more than 35 young people from across Oakland. Rhynes and Education and Cultural Humility Consultant Betsye Steele, supported by the Maya Angelou Foundation and Marcus Foster Education Institute, are moving forward with a Master Class Teacher Collaboration that mirrors the work of the collective during the many years Johnson volunteered in Oakland Public Schools. “Frontloading literacy is critical to the lives and future of our students, especially now with political changes that mean our students must find ways to tell their own powerful stories for college admission,” said Rhynes.

Steele encourages people to embrace the student stories in this year’s essay contest along with the anthology.  “As you read the scholars’ personal narratives, we challenge you to open yourselves up to the richness of their hearts, their souls and their spirits.  By courageously giving you a glimpse of their life experiences, they have graciously shared a piece of themselves. And by reading their stories, you in return, will be giving them a piece of yourself; your heart, your soul, and your spirit.”

In his own words, Mr. Johnson insisted literacy is “a fight that cannot be ignored; there is work to be done and many battles to be won.” Those who had the honor of planning and structuring this unique scholarship program with Johnson, believe the longtime OUSD supporter would have smiled at the most recent virtual Celebration of the Legacy Awards event. He would have heard the stories of young people, who are determined to make a positive difference in our community and said aloud, “Bravo.”

Announcing the 2023 winners with the top essays:
First Place – Joselyn Mejia- Hernandez, Oakland Technical High School, $5000 Scholarship
Second Place – Victoria Asemota, Oakland Technical High School, $3000 Scholarship
Third Place – Oscar Villegas-Alvarez, Ralph Bunche Academy, $1800 scholarship
Eleventh Grade Winner- Janis Williams, Oakland Technical High School, $1000 scholarship

The 2023 Honorable Mention winners ($750 scholarships) are:
Wang Vincent Ng, Oakland High School, Class of 2023
Ngoc Ta, Coliseum College Prep Academy, Class of 2023
Angela Gil, Castlemont High School, Class of 2023
Kimberly Gard, Ralph Bunche Academy, Class of 2023

To read excerpts of the winning essays, please visit this link.

The Dr. Maya Angelou Essay Writing Committee said, “We are very grateful to our community partners and to the Estate of Stephanie and Guy Johnson for their determination to continue Mr. Johnson’s vision. We thank OUSD, the Maya Angelou Foundation, Marcus Foster Education Institute and the generous volunteers who helped support the contest. They served as committee members, judges, and supported the student editing process. To all of the teachers and educators who encouraged our Oakland children to write their stories, Guy Johnson would have been touched and encouraged. The essays of our young authors will be published in an anthology. Those of us who worked closely with Mr. Johnson can almost hear his voice, emphatically saying, ‘Bravo!’ to the children.”

In 2011, Mr. Johnson wrote an endorsement for an anthology produced by Castlemont students and Ms. Rhynes. Touched by the stories of the students, Mr. Johnson asked his mother to write a foreword to the book. Dr. Angelou’s words gave wings to this poignant and powerful collection of student writing in Oakland that was dedicated to a classmate slain just a few days before graduation.

The Dr. Maya Angelou Essay Writing Contest was created and funded by Mr. Johnson for Oakland public schools in 2019. He wanted our young people to understand that their words, their voices, and their ability to communicate their ideas have power and purpose. He was clear: students need the help of their teachers to master excellence in writing. The grand prize each year is $5,000 with additional substantial awards. The essay contest committee members respectfully invite all eligible high school seniors and juniors to enter each year in November when the contest cycle begins.

In Her Legacy: The Dr. Maya Angelou Essay Writing Contest Awards Ceremony from 2020

Oakland Unified School District Message
In California’s most diverse city, Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) is dedicated to creating a learning environment where “Every Student Thrives!” More than half of our students speak a non-English language at home. And each of our 77 schools is staffed with talented individuals uniting around a common set of values: Students First, Equity, Excellence, Integrity, Cultural Responsiveness and Joy. We are committed to preparing all students for college, career and community success. To learn more about OUSD’s Full Service Community District focused on academic achievement while serving the whole child in safe schools, please visit ousd.org and follow us @OUSDnews.