Powerful Student Voices Emerge in Democracy & Me Competition

Chaotic, overwhelming, tragic… but also enlightening, bracing, a chance for rebirth.

Djibril Dembele

Students from across the WVXU listening area and beyond reflected on the past year of global catastrophe/metamorphosis in the Democracy & Me 2021 Student Voices Competition. With a colorful range of essays, poetry, visual artwork and more—158 entries in all—these 8th– to 12th-graders considered the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and other cataclysmic events, on our nation, in their communities, and for themselves.

“What will come out of our cocoon? Will democracy spread its wings and fly? Will hands of different colors come out clasping one another in friendship?” asked Walnut Hills H.S. ninth-grader Djibril Dembele, in his top-scoring essay. “Butterflies do not just emerge immediately resplendent. They have never flown before… just like America. We have never ‘flown’ before, though an eagle represents us. We have tried to, but were pushed down by the opinions and judgments and prejudices of a limited vision. But democracy will learn to unfurl its wings and soar…

Addison Thacker

Meanwhile, in her top-scoring poem, Talawanda H.S. ninth-grader Addison Thacker described 2020 as “The year we made history. the apocalypse year, a year of helplessness, the worst year ever… our chrysalis year.” 

Cincinnati home-schooler Molly Moser’s artwork “And Together We Rise” was honored by the judges for its craft, historical relevance, and robust emotion, while an upbeat essay by Tanvi Rakesh, of Ballyshannon Middle School in Union, Kentucky, earned notice for inspiring positive action in crisis times.

This was the third year for the contest, sponsored by the Charles H. Dater Foundation, and the first year in which a team of student judges—Democracy & Me interns along with one of last year’s winners—had their own $500 Peer Prize to hand out, in addition to the top $1,000 awards determined by Cincinnati Public Radio staff, board members and community partners.

Molly Moser and Lucy

A selection of outstanding entries is linked below; audio versions are featured in an Episode 42 of the Democracy & Z student podcast.

“The creativity was amazing to see from our youth,” said Jenell Walton, Vice President of Content for Cincinnati Public Radio. “The students took the contest prompt and created high-quality entries, from the poetic verse, essays and visual art. It was a challenge to select the winners.”


Here they are:

Djibril Dembele (Top Essay $1,000), Walnut Hills H.S., Cincinnati, Ohio

Addison Thacker (Top Creative Entry $1,000), Talawanda H.S., Oxford, Ohio

Molly Moser (Runner-Up $500), Home School, Cincinnati, Ohio

Tanvi Rakesh (Peer Prize, $500), Ballyshannon Middle School, Union, Ky.

These fifteen students also received high marks from the judges:

Jessica Kang, Central Middle School (Columbus, Ind.)

Zoe Wooten, Clark Montessori

Alexa Theurling, Clark Montessori

Sara Wells, Turpin H.S.

Chloe Ferguson, Turpin H.S.

Lexa Evans, Talawanda H.S.

Lily Franks, Talawanda H.S.

Emma Puckett, Talawanda H.S.

Stephen Mullally, Talawanda H.S.

Addi Schultz, Talawanda H.S.

Lydia Bartel, Talawanda H.S.

Morgan Sly, Talawanda H.S.

Abdul Arnaout, Aiken H.S.

Audrey Zelinski, Mariemont Junior H.S.

Ethany Bresnahan, Clark Montessori

In addition, Talawanda H.S. educator Michael Dyer won our random $500 prize drawing, for resources to support his teaching. Both Talawanda H.S. and Central Middle School, in Columbus, Indiana (teacher Mindy Summers), showed extraordinary participation this year, with dozens of their students turning in strong work, so we’re especially grateful to those educators for their support of the contest. 

Judges for the competition were WVXU staffers Jenell Walton, Tana Weingartner, Jolene Almendarez, Selena Reder, and Becca Costello; Cincinnati Public Radio board members/advisers Eva Grandison and the Hon. Michael Newman; Streetvibes editor Gabriela Godinez; Fourthwall Youth Studios director Frank O’Farrell; Elementz executive director Tom Kent; Bethany Pelle at Kennedy Heights Arts Center; Mary VanAusdall from the local League of Women Voters; and Democracy & Me’s educational coordinator Dr. David Childs, Associate Professor of Social Studies Education at Northern Kentucky University. Joining the Democracy & Me interns in awarding the Peer Prize was Anabel Villanueva, one of last year’s winners and a graduate of Walnut Hills H.S.

And here, for the record, was the 2021 contest prompt:

“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” — Maya Angelou

Like the humble caterpillar in its chrysalis, we’re all kind of in the dark here. No one knows how or when Americans might emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, a chaotic Presidential election, the struggle for racial justice, endless climate disasters, and everything else that’s happened this past year. Would you say we’re in the midst of a catastrophe… or a metamorphosis? How have things changed within yourself, your community, and/or your country as a whole? What’s been lost, gained, or held on to? And what comes next?

Thanks to all the competition participants and supporters—especially the teachers and parents who encouraged their students to submit pieces during this strange and stressful pandemic year. We’re excited to share their outstanding work with you, and we look forward with great optimism to next year’s contest… and to next year’s world.