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Wangari Maathai Essay Competition

Wangari Maathai

The essay prize competition is named in honor of Wangari Maathai (b. 1940-d. 2011), the Kenyan scholar and activist who, in 2004, became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Wangari Maathai was a Kenyan environmentalist who began a movement to reforest her country by paying poor women a few shillings to plant trees. She was the founder of the Green Belt Movement and authored four books: The Green Belt Movement; Unbowed: A Memoir; The Challenge for Africa; and Replenishing the Earth.

Born in Nyeri, a rural area of Kenya, Wangari Muta Maathai was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree (1971). She was internationally acknowledged for her struggle for democracy, human rights, and environmental conservation. According to the United Nations, at the time of her death, her Green Belt Movement had planted more than 30 million trees in Africa and helped nearly 900,000 women while inspiring similar efforts in other African countries.

In the spirit of Dr. Maathai, the essay contest is intended to encourage excellence in undergraduate and graduate scholarship on the experience of Africa and its Diaspora. A prize of $300 will be awarded for the best original essay on any topic in African American, Caribbean, and/or African studies in each of two categories: (a) Undergraduate student; and (b) Graduate student.

The competition is open to all University of Michigan undergraduate and graduate students, and submissions may include essays written for courses. Because DAAS is a multi-disciplinary department, the essays may stem from a wide range of fields, such as anthropology, architecture, art, art history, business, drama, economics, education, environmental studies, health, history, journalism, law, literature, medicine, music, nursing, policy studies, political science, psychology, social work, sociology, urban planning, and women's and gender studies.


  • Submission date: Wednesday, March 31, 2021
  • Please send the following two items to Each item should be a separate email attachment (Adobe PDF or Microsoft Word):
  1. Essay coversheet, including:
    • Your name
    • Email address
    • Student status (undergraduate or graduate)
    • Essay title
    • Course for which you wrote the essay, including semester and year (if applicable)
  1. Your essay
    • no more than 6,000 words in length
    • typed, double-spaced, 12-point font
    • Please include a title page that includes ONLY:
      • essay title
      • the word “undergraduate” or “graduate”
      • (do not include your name, email, or course on the title page) 


For further information, please email

Past Undergraduate Essay Winners

Alexis Stanton
Essay Title: Healing Hair: A Historical Evolution of Black Women's Hairstories

Jaclyn Sylvain

Essay Title: Golden Handcuffs: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Influence in Senegal

Abigail Celis
Essay Title: Knowledge In Place: Modes of Seeing in Literary and Exhibitionary Narratives of Francophone Africa

Zachary Petroni 
Essay Title: Exploring Exclusion, Contemplating Control: Structures of Violence in Wildlife Conservation in Narok and Laikipia Counties, Kenya

Lauren Myefski
Essay Title: Preserving the History of Shotgun Houses

Nicole Yadon
Essay Title: The Rise and Fall of Kwame Kilpatrick

Emily Schiller
Essay Title: To Give Medicine Back to the People: The Black Panther Party and Community Health Activism

Kara Van Patten
Essay Title: Lest It Not Be forgotten: The Impact and Legacy of Idlewild

Rachel A. Nisch
Essay Title: The Transformation of the African American Domestic Landscape: Who Knew Grass Could Mean So Much?

Lauren Silverman
Essay Title: NGOs in Kenya: Potential for True Development?

Elizabeth M. Griffin
Essay Title: Another Side of Slave Religion: African Muslims in the United States

Gabriel Peoples
Essay Title: Stopping the Pattern: Hip Hop and Its Potential for Revolutionary Activism and Praxis in the Role of the DJ and the Cypher