Ahead of the unveiling of a commemorative bronze statue of former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry Jr. outside of city hall, students remembered the legacy of the “Mayor for Life” in an essay oratorical contest Wednesday as part of a symposium highlighting Barry’s work and contributions in the District.
The inaugural Marion Barry Jr. Symposium, held at the University of the District of Columbia, included a panel discussion about the social, political and economic impact of Barry’s work.
Six finalists them faced off in the essay contest, reciting essays on the topic, “What the life of Marion Barry means to me and my community in today’s time.”
All of the participants were products of Barry’s Youth Leadership Institute, a year-round training and development program for city youths that helped create a platform for the State Board of Education’s Ward 8 representative Markus Batchelor, currently the city’s current youngest elected official.
“How did the son of a sharecropper become one of the most — if not the most — influential people of the nation’s capital?” said Lauren Brown, 16, of Woodrow Wilson High School. “Marion Barry was known as a champion for young people. … I am his legacy.”
The students reflected on Barry’s work as an activist and politician, noting his involvement in the civil rights movement and his elections to the Board of Education, the city council and, most notably, his four terms as mayor.
Barry gained national attention after a drug-related arrest in 1990, but many of the contestants said his legacy in the District extends beyond the controversy, citing his efforts to open up the District government to African-American residents to expand employment opportunities and economic prosperity in the city.
“People in my family and many other D.C. residents remember Marion Barry as the person who gave them their first job, as the person who got them off the streets and into the voting booths and as the man who helped them learn how to become financially independent,” said Jerra Holdip, 16, who took second place in the contest and a $200 prize.
Many of the student orators said despite the controversy Barry is often associated with, they have many reasons to look up to him.
“It was made clear that Marion Barry was not perfect, but he was indeed perfect for the city,” said Nathaniel Mitchell, 15, of D.C. International High School, referring to Barry’s 1992 slogan.
Some said his work remains relevant.
“The same issues Marion Barry worked on the 1970s still seem to be the Achilles heel of Black Americans in D.C. today,” said Miles Peterson, 16, who won third place in the contest and $100.
Ramani Wilson, 16, moved judges and won first place along with a $300 prize. All other contestants took home $50.
“Despite countless attempts of people trying to ruin his image and diminish his influence, Barry never backed down,” Wilson said. “In a society where history and politics was solely written by White Americans for centuries, Barry set the precedent for many people.”
The Marion Barry Youth Leadership Institute is now accepting applications. Click here to view the winning essays by Wilson, Holdip and Peterson.