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When Danielle Obisie-Orlu learned she won the title of Youth Poet Laureate of Allegheny County, her first reaction was not quite literary.
“I was like, wait. What?” she says with a laugh. “I was shocked. And I felt so beautifully affirmed. I’ve always written in poetry. That’s how I journal, that’s how I de-stress. The exclamation of ‘what’ was what a surprise, what a blessing, what a joy, what a gift, what an honor.”
Obisie-Orlu is the second Youth Poet Laureate in the Allegheny County program that began in 2020 to acknowledge young writers who have a passion for social issues and actively engage in civic life. Along with the designation, Obisie-Orlu will receive a $500 prize, paid performance opportunities throughout the year, entry in the Northeast Regional Youth Poet Laureate Competition and publication in the National Youth Poet Laureate Network anthology. Four other winning writers are designated as Youth Poet Ambassadors. (Read their poems below.)
The University of Pittsburgh junior certainly ticked all the boxes. Her focus in International Studies and Political Science includes doing European Union-funded research on immigration and xenophobia. She’s a Global Ties Mentor and a Student Ambassador for the European Studies Center. Obisie-Orlu spent the summer working as a counselor with ARYSE, a Pittsburgh organization that supports refugee and immigrant kids. She contributed as a mentor, teaching English as a second language and created a public speaking platform to help kids tell their stories.
“That opportunity was amazing and luckily I get to work with them in different capacities throughout the year. I’m really excited to continue that relationship,” Obisie-Orlu says. “Honestly, I think there’s a pool of compassion we have within ourselves and the more and more time you spend outside of your own little bubble, the deeper that well of compassion becomes.”
Her “Poem for the Expat” is a lovely, insightful tribute to the sense of belonging and identity that immigrants struggle to find. A Nigerian-American who grew up in South Africa, Obisie-Orlu’s writing and career ambitions — she plans on pursuing a law degree in international human rights law with a focus on social policy — are inspired by her life as an immigrant: Not quite fitting in as an American, or a South African or a Nigerian.
“I dealt with that for a long time,” she says. “I wanted to make sure that whatever I did, there was a voice inside saying that even if you don’t feel you belong in a certain place, you belong to yourself first and you will always belong to yourself.
“Basically, all of it comes from my personal experience,” Obisie-Orlu says. “What I do in terms of art and what I do in terms of academics is exactly the same. The medium is just different. My personal experiences of growing up as a dark-skinned Black woman in South Africa and the U.S. have really shaped how I hold myself.”
Obisie-Orlu hopes her research will further the African concept of ubuntu to an international level.
“Ubuntu essentially means ‘I am because you are.’ It is something that is so stunningly beautiful, an approach to life that’s about valuing human dignity in one another,” she explains. “I want to be able to understand these endemic issues and get to a place where I can say, ‘I recognize my humanity within you.’ And it doesn’t matter about your identity. You belong to yourself. I belong to myself. We just decided to be in these circumstances together and we are going to be able to make sure the world is going to be better.”
On Sept. 29 at 7 p.m., Danielle Obisie-Orlu will read her poetry at a City of Asylum Jazz Poetry Festival event with musician James Brandon Lewis. RAD (Allegheny Regional Asset District) and Urban Word NYC partnered with City of Asylum to support the Youth Poet Laureate of Allegheny County program.
Poem for the Expat
by Danielle Obisie-Orlu
my dearest, heart,
I hope you have found your home.
I hope the breeze from the East brushes gently across your cheek
As you rest in the sun-kissed South.
my dearest, heart,
I hope you feel as though you belong.
I hope your carnivorous mind
Hasn’t stopped telling them to eat their hearts out
When they tell you to pick:
“Pick a Language. A Country. A Name. An Identity.”
for the future.
to call home.
my dearest, heart,
I hope you know that your identity is yours
And no one can strip it away.
You might feel lost to every culture you have touched,
But I promise when you gaze within yourself
You will find an imprint of their footsteps.
my dearest, heart,
You do not need to ask permission
To see yourself as more than the sum of your parts.
You are not an outcast.
You are the embodiment of change.
Youth Poet Ambassadors
colors of wrath
by Phoenix Thomas
is there not bliss in anger
is it not beautiful
to be so enthralled by an emotion
that not even your body can handle the aftermath
isn’t it wonderful
how pain can mold you
into something that is almost unrecognizable
isn’t it amazing how tears of hurt can
dry faster than a pool of blood
so you think, “maybe the rage isn’t worth it,”
but my god, isn’t it beautiful?
how words can paint a picture
but rage can fill a museum
and you, my friend
have exhausted the space on your canvas
so you cover your hands
in the colors of wrath,
and create a masterpiece so great
that not even you
can recognize your own creation.
Phoenix Thomas, 16, is a junior at Westinghouse Arts Academy, where he studies writing. He is a member of his school’s Black Student Union, which strives to elevate the Black voices and talents throughout the academy. He prides himself on his activism for marginalized communities through participating in local actions for Black lives, volunteering and writing, which he aims to educate and help others heal.
They will know me
by Ekow Opoku Dakwa
First day of the school year-
How will they react when I open my laptop?
Or when I speak?
Or when I ask for help to cut a piece of paper?
Such simple tasks that are like mountains in my way
The thoughts run through my mind
What do they think-
As I look down and type away whilst they speak?
I don’t write with a pen
Because these hands don’t write what I ask them to
When I speak, do they really not understand?
Are they tagging me as lazy, incapable, unable?
What I do know is that at the end of the year they will know me
My talent, my skill, my passion my drive
Oh they will know me!
And they will know that this disability doesn’t define me
Ekow Opoku Dakwa, 15, attends Allderdice High School. He loves to read, write, program board games and participate in paratriathlons. His interest in chess led him to win the Pittsburgh City Championship for the 24 Challenge Game for his grade. He was a National Ambassador for the 2020 Do The Write Thing challenge, from which his essay on youth violence and how it might affect him as a person with a disability is published in the Library of Congress. His goal is to use writing and programming to create tools and resources for other people with disabilities.
“I think about issues that I face that people without disabilities do not even have to think about,” says Opoku Dakwa, who has cerebral palsy. “Written words help me express my thoughts more easily than spoken words and allow me to get my ideas into the world.”
Mind and Hand, Pen to Paper
by Aja Lynn
I am not the things I write.
Nor the words that leave my mouth;
My actions and mistakes,
Are nearly indiscernible these days.
On these days, I will not
Regurgitate thoughts that are not mine,
In hoping that integrity
will always live here.
Hearing the difficult things
Never gets easier.
But today I will listen, and
Pay attention like I should have yesterday.
I have important things to write about,
But I am afraid they are not mine
To put words to, to say
It is a terrifyingly vulnerable thing.
Things are big and frightening,
But this world wants us to forget.
Regret has reinforced these walls for long enough,
And I refuse to leave it all to time.
Time will not become my excuse,
with words unloose on my tongue
My writing is not who I am,
But neither is this passivity
I am young, so then,
I still have time.
I’ll fight with my sword, and
Pick up the pen.
Aja Lynn, 16, is a junior at Hampton High School. As an avid creative writer, she appreciates the freedom that poetry provides. She is a member of her school’s Speech and Debate Team and is involved in the Drama Club, the Musical Club and the Writers Club.
“I have the pleasure of being surrounded by close friends who also have a knack for writing, an ear for the profound and a joy in sharing thoughts,” she says. So it is them that I have to thank for making me more sensitive to the poetry around me that is waiting to be written.”
by Shivani Watson
I am haunted by a girl who walked on
air. Even flower fields are filled with bombs
Like comets which fall from the sky towards
Our house waltzes across a mountainous
Ballroom. Our partner is already aflame.
My heart is a fire, living outside my body.
He cooks with me but all I taste are the
Ashes. Our family is woven together by
contracts and curses. It will unravel
once shooting stars return to the sky.
Shivani Watson is a senior at Allerdice High School, where she founded the Environmental Sustainability Club and contributes to environmental activism. She has composed and performed music through the Creative Expressions Program at Carnegie Mellon University. And she has served as an editor and writer for her school’s literary magazine.