2016 – National High School 2nd Place

Catie Turner, Maryland.

When All human innovation comes from imagination. Our ability to wonder is what drives us to explore and create. But meaningful change always comes more from knowledge than it does from imagination. In order for a person to truly know, they must first learn from the stories of others; in this way iknowledge connects us, both to each other and to our pasts. It opens up the opportunity for empathy, one of the most powerful forces in human life. In doing so, it makes possible the realization that our experiences are not just our own, that we play roles in various histories and hierarchies. It also helps us to realize that our suffering is not our own; that through coalition, we can fight back. Imagination may be what impels us to create, but it is knowledge that forces us to confront our lives and the lives of those around us in order to face what we hope to change.

As activist Marcus Garvey wrote, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” To combat oppression, Garvey advocated for Black Americans’ rediscovery of ties to Africa. This emphasis on heritage and history went on to play a central role in many anti-racist movements--in particular, the Black Power movement promoted the connections of Black Americans to African roots. The Black Power movement inspired pride, rather than shame, in Blackness and African heritage; it awakened generations of Americans to the injustices of racism, and to the power in fighting it. In this way, the Black Power movement made possible many of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century’s steps towards racial equality, including recent protests against police brutality. When a person is knowledgeable about their heritage, the circumstances of their life fit into a broader context, and they can use the information they have about their lives and the lives of others to pinpoint what should change. It is through history that we can experience what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “necessary outrage.” Of course, imagination played a central role in Black Power--how else could a group envision a new, just world rising from the ashes of an oppressive one? But the shared knowledge of a common history provides a community and groundwork for change.

Knowledge, like imagination, means little without action. Although it is through knowledge that we can understand our lives as they relate to those of others, this understanding’s power lies in how it can shape communities, not just in how it can shape our personal philosophies. Yet knowledge, put into practice, is what gives human lives weight, what creates serious, lasting change in society. Without it, it’s hard to believe we would be human at all.


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