St. Mary’s Visitation seventh-grader Darby Koehne won the middle school category for the Spoken Word Contest portion of the YMCA of Greater Milwaukee’s 25th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. (Submitted photo)
Ever since Christ cautioned his followers to consider the “planks” in their own eyes before removing the specks from the eyes of their brothers, Christians have understood that positive change in society must come from within.
As 13-year-old Darby Koehne reflected on a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in crafting what would become an award-winning spoken-word essay, she began by drawing on her Catholic faith.
“I know it’s easy to judge and it’s easy to blame everyone else for the world’s problems,” said Koehne, a seventh-grader at St. Mary’s Visitation School in Elm Grove. “You can’t change people, but you can change your actions and words.”
Koehne’s piece was selected as the first-place winner in the middle school category for the Spoken Word Contest portion of the YMCA of Greater Milwaukee’s 25th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. The Jan. 17 celebration was held virtually due to the pandemic, but Koehne was filmed performing her piece at a local television studio.
“I was really, really nervous,” said Koehne, who decided to enter the contest after seeing it advertised on her summer camp’s Facebook page. “But when I started, it was a liberating thing. I’ve never had a chance to show myself in my writing, and I felt like this was a perfect opportunity to. I’m a very opinionated person, so it was about having something separate from school, something that was truly mine.”
In writing the essay, Koehne and other contest applicants were asked to consider the words of Dr. King: “Our goal is to create a beloved community, and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”
“People are so quick to sign petitions and talk about injustices, but never really look at themselves and say, ‘What am I doing that could hurt someone, or what am I standing up for?’” wrote Koehne in the essay. “Everyone wants to do what is comfortable and is not unpopular. You can’t change people, but you can change your actions and words. We must first start within ourselves for change.”
In the essay, Koehne touched on topics of sexism, homelessness, and lack of equity in healthcare and education. She said she was inspired in part by the time she has spent serving with her family at St. Ben’s Community Meal in Milwaukee, which has helped her to understand that “you need to treat everyone with kindness and respect and dignity.”
“Let’s do one little thing every day that challenges us,” wrote Koehne in her essay. “So, today my challenge to you is if we feel something is unjust, say it and see how the world around us has changed. Your words matter. Even if it is one little thing, it makes a difference.”
Gary Newman, Koehne’s theology teacher at St. Mary’s Visitation, said that conversations on Catholic social teaching are an important part of the curriculum at the school. He added that he was “impressed” that Koehne took the initiative to enter this contest on her own.
“She is a young woman who definitely is more socially attuned than the typical seventh grader, so it didn’t surprise me. I thought she did a great job,” he said. Her message of looking within to incite change was particularly inspiring, he said. “Certainly from a Christian perspective, that’s where it all begins — that idea of the conversion of the heart.”