Arts Competition

Kirby Edmonds and Laura Ward Branca of the Dorothy Cotton Institute and Karen Baer and Sarah Simmons of the Office of Human Rights. 

For nearly three decades, young people across Tompkins County have participated in an arts competition intended to educate, advocate, and stimulate. Presented by the Office of Human Rights (OHR), this year’s competition has an adjusted theme from years past. The hope is that the competition will, in the words of Karen Baer, director of the OHR, “ provide a more meaningful and dynamic human rights experience for both K-12 students and teachers alike.”

Formerly known as the “MLK Jr. Art and Poetry Competition,” this year’s theme invites young artists to reflect on the 30 Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, instead of MLK Jr. and the civil rights movement. Students will choose one or more of the articles and explore its meaning and relevance through a creative piece. 

As the orientation of OHR’s cornerstone program shifts, so too does the scope. 

New this year: the Dorothy Cotton Institute (DCI) joins the program as a cosponsor. A natural partnership, DCI is an Ithaca-based and internationally recognized resource center of human rights.

Having facilitated workshops for educators on how to integrate human rights education into their lesson plans, DCI is a crucial addition to the competition. As the theme expands in range and geographic scope, DCI brings experience working for a global justice movement, which coupled with OHR’s expertise in locally specific issues should make for a compelling and efficient team. 

In previous years, educators have organized lesson plans about civil rights and the civil rights movement around this competition, introducing icons such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks through a creative project. 

This year shouldn’t be too different, save for the fact that the theme of civil rights will be expanded to a more general human rights framework—perhaps a point of contention for some in the community who see the change as a turning away from Martin Luther King Jr., a doubling back on the tradition upheld by the annual competition. 

Yet organizers of the competition believe it is better thought of as an ‘opening up,’ rather than a ‘turning away.’ 

“You can’t really exercise [your civil rights] if you’re hungry, if you don’t have a job, if you don’t have a place to live, if you don’t have economic or social rights,” said Laura Ward Branca, senior fellow at DCI, capturing how certain basic needs, if unmet, prevent the expression of a person’s civic rights.

Likewise, Martin Luther King Jr. in his later years spoke less of a nationalized civil rights movement and spoke more towards a global fight for human rights. The need for an interconnected, global, and decentralized struggle for justice was captured in his Riverside Church Speech, delivered April 4, 1967:

A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies. 

An unbounded world community striving towards a future in common—this is the high ambition of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

When students are asked to interrogate the values nested in these 30 articles, they are being asked to look outside their window, to engage with the present moment as citizens, to express themselves with and through their immediate surroundings rather than a historical past. 

“The problem with anything that gets framed as being about Martin Luther King Jr.,” explained Kirby Edmonds, Senior Fellow at DCI, “is that many people understand it to be talking about historical 

things, and a certain kind of history, it’s something that happened before ... Shifting to a human rights framework says, ‘We’re not talking about a history here. We’re talking about right now’ ... It changes the trajectory of the thinking that people are doing as they engage with the contest.”

The contest has always been significant for educators and students throughout the county, but the lessons sought after this year will shed light on the ethics of civic practices for the here and now, not the memory of important yet historic figures.

As the stakes are raised, we are left with the question: why art? 

Sarah C. Simmons, Program and Outreach Specialist at OHR, offered insight into how creating art can help young people integrate thinking with feeling: “The opportunity to use your cognitive and affective abilities, and develop those together creates new knowledge in a different way ... and the creative process can help us, no matter what age we are, to feel in action that we are making the moment that we’re in, that we have that agency.” •

Entries may include visual art, poetry, or a short film (a new category this year) and are currently being accepted until Nov. 20. Winners will be announced Dec. 3. See for more information.

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