Homegrown in Rose Park, 18-year-old Olivia Slaughter is a recent high school graduate with big goals. Last May, after schools moved to online learning due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, Olivia persevered to win several major awards and create an exhibit she hopes will impact Utah’s education curriculum.
Although born in New York, Olivia has lived in Rose Park since she was three. She attended Rose Park Elementary and graduated from the Salt Lake Center for Science Education (SLCSE) in June of 2020. She says growing up in Rose Park gave her a sense of community and how to “go with the flow of life while at the same time working hard towards a better future.”
In March, Olivia won the statewide finals of the national Poetry Out Loud contest and took first place in the Earth and Environmental Science category of the University of Utah Science and Engineering Fair, qualifying as a finalist for the International Fair. This was a big deal, because after years of persisting, she not only made it to regionals in both contests, but won.
Such honors meant that Olivia would represent Utah on the national stage in Washington, DC, and at Disneyland, respectively. However, both competitions were canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Although she was disappointed, Olivia chalked up the cancellations to one of those hazards of life. But when she found out the capstone project for her senior seminar would also be canceled, she decided to host the exhibit she had planned on her own.
The capstone, co-led by teachers Kelly Haakenson, Myles Crandall, and Niki Hack, is part of SLCSE’s optional senior seminar. Participating students write a research paper with the help of a community mentor and then design a project to bring their research to life.
Some students had planned civic outreach for their final projects, for example, a voter registration drive and an educational outreach project on the problem of clothing waste. Olivia wanted to spotlight Black female changemakers, who aren’t often heard of or taught. Newly developing coronavirus restrictions, such as social distancing requirements and bans on large gatherings, presented a huge obstacle for all of these audience-engaged projects.
When it was clear that Salt Lake County schools would have to end the term virtually, Olivia had the option to drop the assignment, but that didn’t sit well with her. “One of the main parts of the project was reaching out and informing people about these women and their importance. I felt like if I didn’t go forward with the exhibit, that would kind of get lost.”
So she brainstormed another alternative with her mentor on the project – me. I am a University of Utah professor who teaches African American literature and a course on Black Feminism, and was connected with Olivia through the outreach committee of the UofU’s English Department. This committee has volunteered in a number of schools over the last six years, including West High, Horizonte Instruction and Training Program, and SLCSE.
To meet the challenge of raising public awareness but also following social distance protocols, Olivia came up with the idea to host the exhibit in her own yard.
Titled “Outspoken Literary Perspectives: The Impactful Voices of Black Women,” with a colorful banner to announce it, the event took place in Olivia’s driveway on May 23. Those attending were treated to a collection of hand-painted shoe boxes which opened to images, biographies, and powerful quotes by activists that Olivia had researched.
To ensure the safety of guests, Olivia staggered her invite times and provided gloves and extra masks, if needed. She hosted around twenty people by the end of the day – teachers, family, class peers, friends, and even a curious neighbor.
“The six women that I highlighted in my exhibit are Mary Church Terrell, Pauli Murray, Florence Kennedy, June Jordan, Toni Cade Bambara, and Claudia Rankine. A majority of people haven’t heard of them,” Olivia said, “even though each of them have done extraordinary work and written impressive works.”
Olivia learned from a statistic published in The Guardian, only three out of the top ten books taught in secondary and higher ed institutions are written by women, and none are by women of color. Therefore, she says, “The shoeboxes I used represent the confinement of Black women’s voices throughout history.”
Spanning centuries, the Black feminist tradition can be summarized as a practice that promotes the visibility, social equity, and celebration of Black women. Olivia is proud to take part in that and connects her research project to the 21st century Movement for Black Lives, also initiated by Black women. “Something that made me happy is that directly following my exhibit there was a wave of Black Lives Matter protests and people started to bring African American history to the table. I just felt really good that that was something I was already trying to do,” she said.
Olivia received great feedback from friends who came to the exhibit and encountered such a rich history for the first time. “Studying these women made me encouraged to go out in the world and just be fearless, and really focus on change,” she said.
This fall, Olivia began attending Barnard College in New York as a prospective biology major. She also plans to continue studying women of color’s contributions to history through general ed and elective courses.
She worries, though, how gentrification will change Rose Park and its strong culture while she’s gone. She leaves these words of experience to other teens in the neighborhood: “The best advice I could give is just to look at the bigger picture. Especially right now, during this time of isolation, take the time to reflect on your values and who you want to be as a person, and I think that’ll come through in whatever work you do.”
To view Olivia Slaughter’s Poetry Out Loud performance at the SLC Main Library during the 2020 Arts Festival, visit https://uaf.org/fvf-june19/item/2988-readings-from-poetry-out-loud-2020-winner