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UCI's Black Lives Matter writing contest takes on issues affecting black community

A Black Lives Matter writing contest for UC Irvine students sponsored by the school's Department of African American Studies and the campus Center for Excellence in Writing and Communication is accepting poetry, essays, short stories and other entries until Nov. 24.

The contest, in its second year, is open to all UCI undergraduates.

"We pretty much wanted to give black students an opportunity to talk about their experiences, the negative and positive, and how they can use this as a platform … and initiate a conversation," said Shayon Falls, a co-chair of the Black Student Union at UCI.

"Students' voices are silenced if they have a critique for the university, and this is giving them an opportunity to voice their concerns," Falls said.

This year's contest theme is "Black Lives Matter: A Conversation About Black Connections — How to Overcome Internal and External Violence."

"We wanted people to be addressing the problems within the black community," said Caylyn Lawson, a member of the student committee that decided the theme. "An internal issue may be black women oppressed by black men or queer folks oppressed by straight folks. As far as external, it would be anti-black racism from non-blacks."

Sue Cross, associate director at the Center for Excellence — which offers tutoring services to students for writing, editing and research strategies — thought of the contest idea two years ago after a tutor said it didn't seem that many black students were using the center.

Cross said she sought input from African American Studies Chairwoman Bridget Cooks and the Black Student Union, and the group decided to hold the first Black Lives Matter writing contest during the 2015-16 school year.

"It seems like a basic idea, and yet it's been something that's very contentious nationwide," Cooks said of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has become synonymous with protests over police shootings of African Americans. "[The contest] is not about a competition in terms of someone's political views over someone else's. It's about being able to articulate your thoughts about something that matters to students."

Lawson won first place in last year's contest with her research paper on the dehumanization of black children in the media.

For the contest's second year, Cross and a group of UCI faculty members decided the theme should be determined by a student committee, which currently consists of Lawson and the two co-chairs of the Black Student Union.

In January, the Black Student Union called for the university to dismantle its police force, alleging it had failed to address the safety concerns of black students. University officials said they had no plans to abolish the police force but would encourage dialogue with the student group.

In October, more than 100 Black Lives Matter demonstrators gathered outside the university's Student Center to protest Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck's appearance at a race-and-policing symposium.

Fourth-year UCI student Amanda Valadez said she believes the Black Lives Matter movement is being misinterpreted.

"Some people change it to All Lives Matter, and, of course, everyone's life matters. But that's not what Black Lives Matter is trying to highlight," Valadez said. "The main thing is that racism is still a big problem in society and the judicial system."

Third-year student Matthew Akhavan-Kim said this year's writing contest could generate more awareness among students.

"The more awareness you have, the more you can affect change for the coming generation," Akhavan-Kim said. "Nothing ever happens immediately, and change is a slow process. But doing it at a university is a way to start that."

Contest entries can be one to 15 pages long and can be submitted to the Center for Excellence in Writing and Communication by 5 p.m. Nov. 24.

For more information, visit humanities.uci.edu.

alexandra.chan@latimes.com

Twitter: @AlexandraChan10

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