Bullying. Body-shaming. Anti-LGBTQ discrimination. Homelessness. Persecution of immigrants. Racism.

When 11 Austin fourth- to sixth-grade students took the stage of the Boyd Vance Theatre at the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center on Thursday for the 15th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Oratory Competition, they weren’t afraid to tackle the big issues.

That’s exactly what they were expected to do, said Yvette Crawford, a member of the Austin Area Heritage Council who has coordinated the competition since its inception.

"As we continually react to the constant changes in our society, our youth see what the realities of the world are. They are the next generation to embrace and to carry forward Dr. King’s unfinished work, because change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time," Crawford said. "Our youth, you are the change-makers, our guiding light of hope and justice. We are counting on you to continue Dr. King’s dream and legacy by embracing his inspirations."

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For the competition, students were asked to write speeches that were five minutes or shorter, based on the following prompt: "If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were alive, what would you discuss with him in creating change in America that would halt the evils of racism, hatred, inequality and social injustice happening to the people in our country today, and how would you do it?"

All speeches had to be memorized and were judged based on delivery, stage decorum, content, interpretation, expression and memory. Below are edited excerpts from each participating student’s speech.

KENNEDI JEFFRIES, Volma Overton Early College Prep (first place)

"As Martin Luther King Jr. would say, our lives end the day we become silent about things that matter. Dr. King, I bet you heard that African American and Hispanic mothers are dying — dying — more than Caucasians. … Mothers die each year from not getting the same health treatment. It doesn’t matter if they’re blue, black, white or green, they should be treated equally no matter what."

LISEL MCQUEEN, Maplewood Elementary School (second place)

"You may not know that I’m nonbinary. That means that I don’t have a gender or, as I like to say, I don’t own one. Sometimes I’m afraid to correct people that I’m not a boy or a girl. Not just because of their authority, but because of discrimination against LGBTQ. It scares me so much I don’t fully express who I am. … Barack Obama once said that if all Americans are treated as equal no matter who they are or who they love, we are all more free. I feel that if someone said this to a person who (identified) as LGBTQ, it might give them a little more courage to be themselves. Then again, it might not. Living as a nonbinary in today’s cruel world, even hope might not get me to be myself. We have to start making a difference. I may just be a kid, but I’m warning you now, I won’t stop speaking until I’m heard and something is done. I will keep writing, I will keep spreading my message, I will protest, and I will fight in my heart for what I believe in. I mean, did MLK stop? Did he walk away?"

CYLERA CLARK, Blackshear Elementary Fine Arts Academy (third place)

"If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was still here, I would talk to him about bullying. When I say bullying, I mean gender inequality, racist bullying and how poor or rich a person is, economic bullying. It makes me sad that I know people who have dealt or still have to deal with this. … Schools can put up banners and have people not bully by the race that a person is or anything a person has but (judged) by the content of their character like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said. … Think about this once I’m done with my speech: What can we do to stop the bad evils that the people have to deal with in this world?"

YOSGART CANO-GARCIA, Barbara Jordan Early College Prep

"Mexican Americans are being treated like they mean nothing to this country and their opinion is not valued. America, can you believe it? Land of the free and home of the brave, a country founded by immigrants, a country with the words on a monument crying out, ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.’ While we, Mexican Americans, are tired, poor and huddled masses, looking for refuge. Let’s not forget that many people that have not only succeeded but have helped America succeed were Mexican."

S’RAIAH CURRY, Texas Preparatory School

"All you have to do is look at real life, look at the news, look at our schools, look at the homelessness crisis happening in our city and in our country. We are still fighting for freedom."

REEM ALHARBI, Maplewood Elementary School

"LGBTQ rights and rights for everyone are as important as the air that we breathe. No one should have to live ashamed of who they love, ashamed of who they are. Because love is love. Promise me that you will stand up for people who are being mistreated in the LGBTQ community because of sexual preference or orientation. Let’s stand together and make sure that everyone has equal rights."

TYSHA GORDON, Volma Overton Early College Prep

"Did you hear about the boy who was bullied for being disabled? Or the girl who committed suicide for her learning disability? Such heartbreaking stories, I know, and I’m tired of them. … When I grow up, I want to become a teacher. If I become a teacher, I will teach my students to take the diss out of disabilities. What I believe, and you should too, is that everyone has the ability to be whoever they want to be and do whatever they want to do. Before you decide to change someone else, think about the change you — yes, you — are going to make in this world we all live in."

JA QUAN WILLIAMS, Barbara Jordan Early College Prep

"I aspire to be in the NFL one day. I want the equal opportunity to be a player or even an owner. I have taken the time to research what it would take to be a player and an equal participant, and from what I have learned, the fact that I’m black already means I’m a few steps behind in the NFL. Forget about the fact that I am an amazing athlete and student and will be an awesome businessman. The fact that I am black already sets me back."

RUBY JUNE MADISON, Lee Lewis Campbell Elementary Media and Performing Arts Institute

"One way of being in unity every day is by treating each other equally, and an example of equality is fair pay, regardless of someone’s gender or abilities. Some people have the same job and skills but are paid differently, and if you think about it for a while, you’ll see that’s not fair. Dr. King believed in fairness. Fair and livable wages help people live happy lives and be their best. Some people, however, don’t have that privilege."

PAITYN RODRIGUEZ, Blackshear Elementary Fine Arts Academy

"We should all be equal and have peace. You should treat people how you want to be treated. Don’t treat people like they’re wild animals. We should all have a dream to do what we want in the future and now. Just because you’re different from someone or don’t look exactly like them doesn’t mean you should be treated unequally."

SHEILA LEANN NYAMSI, Lee Lewis Campbell Elementary Media and Performing Arts Institute

"Let’s pause to think about how often people are getting bullied because of their body. It’s not just people. Magazine covers always offer you a product to lose weight — did you recognize they are body shaming you? They compare you to a model and basically tease you by asking if you want to be like that. People think if you don’t have the same looks or figure as them that you should be treated unequally, but that’s not fair. Everyone deserves to be treated equally. Why do people always judge someone by the way they look but never by their heart?"

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