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The Allegheny County Youth Poet Laureate with a 30-year plan.
Danielle Obisie-Orlu processes emotions, memories and pain through words.
“Words are finite and shape the environment around you — how you feel about yourself, how other people feel — so when I say or write something, I want it to be powerful, moving and to reflect my understanding and represent me when I am not in a room,” said Obisie-Orlu, a junior intending to pursue a degree in international and area studies and political science through the University Honors College with minors in history and French.
“I don’t lack a voice, I don’t lack words. What I do require from other people is acknowledgment that having a platform where I can use them is important.”
In September 2021, the poet, public speaker and performer received her platform.
The City of Asylum, a Pittsburgh nonprofit that claims to be the world’s largest residency program for writers living in exile, selected Obisie-Orlu as the 2021-2022 Allegheny County Youth Poet Laureate. She is the second person chosen for the program, which began in 2020 to celebrate young writers with a passion for their art and community. In addition to this designation, she received a prize of $500, paid performance opportunities, entry into a regional competition and publication in the National Youth Poet Laureate Network anthology.
“I try to be the embodiment of Ubuntu,” said Obisie-Orlu, “which means ‘I am because you are.’”
Born in Washington, D.C., to Nigerian parents, her family then moved to Johannesburg, where she spent her formative and high school years. Education at home was as enriching as what she learned in the classroom.
“My parents encouraged us to have a depth of creativity and to explore multiple avenues of one thing,” said the youngest of five, who enjoyed incorporating unexpected vocabulary into everyday conversation and learned early on to voice her opinions with confidence. She studied math with songs, history by writing poems.
Words played a significant role in her identity discovery as an expat and became a way for her to manage difficult situations.
One day during a primary school lunch break, she was sitting with a group of friends when one of her male peers was asked if he’d date her. He said no, citing that her dark skin reminded him of chesanyama, or burned meat.
Excusing herself to the bathroom, she composed herself, shrugged off his cruelty and vowed then and there to use her words to leave spaces better than she found them.
“That was a moment where my dignity and humanity was laid bare, and people didn’t say anything,” she recalled. “I decided if no one will champion for me, I will champion for everybody else and myself.”
Returning to the U.S. and Pitt in 2019 was her homecoming, she said.
She’d considered schools in Washington, D.C., and New York City — cultural hubs that would lend abundant opportunities with international affairs organizations — but decided on Pitt because of the Honors College. (Her sister Immanuela coincidentally also picked Pitt.)
At Pitt, Obisie-Orlu is the Resident Student Association (RSA) president, a Global Ties mentor, a European Studies Center student ambassador and part of a working group through Pitt’s Ford Institute for Human Security that seeks to localize the U.N.’s sustainable development goals. To further her academic interests in migration and xenophobia, she also partners with ARYSE, a local group founded by a Pitt alumna to promote inclusion and support of immigrant and refugee youths. Her involvement in these organizations was inspired by her own experiences as a Nigerian-American.
“I've been able to do what I want to here at Pitt and feel more fulfilled,” said Obisie-Orlu, whose 30-year plan includes obtaining a law degree, becoming the U.N. secretary-general and, eventually, president. “If I went to another university, I don't think I would be the person I am right now because there's a sense of community and belonging here unlike anywhere else.”
While she acknowledged that Pitt still has work to do, it’s an institution she wants to fight to improve because it's fought for and supported her.
“Every day, I wake up and do what I must to ensure the legacy I leave behind isn't something to be walked over,” Obisie-Orlu said. “Here, I can be someone who decides that community is what you create and actively create that community. Pitt has encouraged me to have agency over my voice, and I want to encourage others to do the same.”
— Kara Henderson