Local Rosa Parks Essay Contest winner encourages us to "Speak up!"

The City of Grand Rapids Community Relations Commission’s Rosa Parks Education Committee encourages students in grades 7 to 12 to write an essay about how to live out Mrs. Parks’ legacy by stepping outside of the bounds of their reality, taking risks, and shaping lives to make a difference.

The City of Grand Rapids Community Relations Commission’s Rosa Parks Education Committee encourages students in grades 7 to 12 to write an essay about how to live out Mrs. Parks’ legacy by stepping outside of the bounds of their reality, taking risks, and shaping lives to make a difference.


The writing prompt this year was:

Rosa Parks changed the world. She was able to do this because of the work of many who came before her and many who worked beside her. Historically, young people have always been the trailblazers who stood on the shoulders of their ancestors and led movements for the betterment of society. As your future unfolds, how will you bravely and authentically encourage others to blaze trails? For whom are you living the life and legacy of Rosa Parks and why?

The following essay is by freshman 
Thailin Johnson:

Rosa Parks was an innovator. She stood up against the government that made her life miserable. The Jim Crow laws of the South caused her and many others to be discriminated against, while other races and ethnicities were valued. Still, she was able to overcome these obstacles because of the people that came before her.

Rosa Parks most likely wouldn’t have had the courage to make her peaceful protest if it weren’t for Claudette Colvin. She also was an influencer who refused to give up her seat to a white passenger even before Rosa Parks did. People like Colvin gave Rosa the courage and motivation to accomplish something she never believed she could achieve. Today, Rosa has given many people, including me, the hope and encouragement do what is right. If we identify ourselves as agents of change, we can better our society.

As a young African American male in the United States, I have not been gifted with the natural ability to speak my mind. Because of this, my ideas are often neglected. I am looked upon by others as stereotypically ignorant. Societal expectations for African American males have been historically low; the same goes for others’ expectations of me.

There was a time a few months ago when I was playing a popular video game called “Fortnite:” While I was playing with my teammates, I asked if they could all hear me. The response I heard shocked me. He referred to me using a racial slur. Since I have always transitioned among the races quite easily, I didn’t have a quick come back. When I finally found my voice, I asked why he would call me that. He replied by saying some of the most hurtful things I have ever heard. His comments included telling me that nothing good would ever come of my kind and that I needed to go back to picking cotton. He said many more horrific things that are too inappropriate to say.

While he was barraging me with these ridiculous comments, some of his friends joined in with the racial insults. At this point I realized that most people would expect me to retaliate in kind. It came to me then that I only had two choices: I could sink to his level and go against my moral beliefs. I could resort to name calling, verbal abuse, and racial epithets. However, given my own life experiences, I knew this wasn’t the right choice. Instead, it became evident that this problem needed to be dealt with in a different way. I decided that the best course of action would be to follow proper channels and notify the formal authorities.

As I reflected on this experience, it occurred to me that I need to become a trailblazer for my own generation. Most kids our age retaliate against insult with violence. I believe I can follow in Rosa Parks’ footsteps and extend her legacy by becoming a youth leader or interact with youth in similar ways.

I currently work at a place called New City Kids. We meet together every day after school to help kids with their homework, encourage them to practice their musical instruments, and provide them with healthy snacks. Even though we are a church-based organization, we accept everyone no matter their race, religion, gender, or socioeconomic level. Everything we do is aimed at bettering lives.

As an adult, I intend to follow the examples of those agents of change who lived way before my time. They constructed the pattern that I, along with others who share my vision, need to follow. If we keep the interests of our fellow man foremost in our minds, we will be honoring the legacy of Rosa Parks. I hope she would be proud of the life I intend to live, inspired by hers.


My name is Thailin Johnson. I am a freshman at City High Middle School of Grand Rapids Public Schools. I work at New City Kids. There, I am a Teen Life Intern. I am also a tutor and Activities Teacher. My goal at New City and in my daily life is loving kids for change. I also act, rap, and help out any way I possibly can during the yearly production at New City Kids. One of my favorite hobbies is reading, specifically poems. One of my favorite poems is "Harlem" by Langston Hughes. My faith is very essential to me. One of my many goals is to be a theologian or an astrophysicist. I am in a youth group at Madison Square Church. I also love volunteering at many places. I plan on staying in GRPS until I graduate in 2022.

Special thanks to Misti Stanton, Rosa Parks Education Committee Chair, for leading and organizing this year’s contest, and to Maleika Joubert Brown, Director of Equity and Inclusion at Grand Rapids Public Schools, for her support of/assistance in publication of the essays.

Photo courtesy of Thailin Johnson.
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