Danielle Obisie-Orlu. Photo courtesy of City of Asylum.

Meet Danielle Obisie-Orlu, the new Youth Poet Laureate of Allegheny County

This article first appeared in NEXTpittsburgh, a media partner that focuses on the people advancing the Pittsburgh region. Photo above of Danielle Obisie-Orlu courtesy of City of Asylum.

When Danielle Obisie-Orlu learned she won the title of Youth Poet Laureate of Allegheny County, her first reaction was not quite literary.

“I was like, wait. What?” she says with a laugh. “I was shocked. And I felt so beautifully affirmed. I’ve always written in poetry. That’s how I journal, that’s how I de-stress. The exclamation of ‘what’ was what a surprise, what a blessing, what a joy, what a gift, what an honor.”

Obisie-Orlu is the second Youth Poet Laureate in the Allegheny County program that began in 2020 to acknowledge young writers who have a passion for social issues and actively engage in civic life. Along with the designation, Obisie-Orlu will receive a $500 prize, paid performance opportunities throughout the year, entry in the Northeast Regional Youth Poet Laureate Competition and publication in the National Youth Poet Laureate Network anthology. Four other winning writers are designated as Youth Poet Ambassadors. (Read their poems below.)

The University of Pittsburgh junior certainly ticked all the boxes. Her focus in International Studies and Political Science includes doing European Union-funded research on immigration and xenophobia. She’s a Global Ties Mentor and a Student Ambassador for the European Studies Center. Obisie-Orlu spent the summer working as a counselor with ARYSE, a Pittsburgh organization that supports refugee and immigrant kids. She contributed as a mentor, teaching English as a second language and created a public speaking platform to help kids tell their stories.

“That opportunity was amazing and luckily I get to work with them in different capacities throughout the year. I’m really excited to continue that relationship,” Obisie-Orlu says. “Honestly, I think there’s a pool of compassion we have within ourselves and the more and more time you spend outside of your own little bubble, the deeper that well of compassion becomes.”

Her “Poem for the Expat” is a lovely, insightful tribute to the sense of belonging and identity that immigrants struggle to find. A Nigerian-American who grew up in South Africa, Obisie-Orlu’s writing and career ambitions — she plans on pursuing a law degree in international human rights law with a focus on social policy — are inspired by her life as an immigrant: Not quite fitting in as an American, or a South African or a Nigerian.

“I dealt with that for a long time,” she says. “I wanted to make sure that whatever I did, there was a voice inside saying that even if you don’t feel you belong in a certain place, you belong to yourself first and you will always belong to yourself.

“Basically, all of it comes from my personal experience,” Obisie-Orlu says. “What I do in terms of art and what I do in terms of academics is exactly the same. The medium is just different. My personal experiences of growing up as a dark-skinned Black woman in South Africa and the U.S. have really shaped how I hold myself.”

Obisie-Orlu hopes her research will further the African concept of ubuntu to an international level.

“Ubuntu essentially means ‘I am because you are.’ It is something that is so stunningly beautiful, an approach to life that’s about valuing human dignity in one another,” she explains. “I want to be able to understand these endemic issues and get to a place where I can say, ‘I recognize my humanity within you.’ And it doesn’t matter about your identity. You belong to yourself. I belong to myself. We just decided to be in these circumstances together and we are going to be able to make sure the world is going to be better.”

On Sept. 29 at 7 p.m., Danielle Obisie-Orlu will read her poetry at a City of Asylum Jazz Poetry Festival event with musician James Brandon Lewis. RAD (Allegheny Regional Asset District) and Urban Word NYC partnered with City of Asylum to support the Youth Poet Laureate of Allegheny County program.
Enjoy this poem by Danielle, and read more from the Youth Poet Ambassadors here

Poem for the Expat

by Danielle Obisie-Orlu

my dearest, heart,

I hope you have found your home.
I hope the breeze from the East brushes gently across your cheek
As you rest in the sun-kissed South.

my dearest, heart,

I hope you feel as though you belong.
I hope your carnivorous mind
Hasn’t stopped telling them to eat their hearts out
When they tell you to pick:

“Pick a Language. A Country. A Name. An Identity.”

A Dream
for the future.

A Place
to call home.

my dearest, heart,

I hope you know that your identity is yours
And no one can strip it away.
You might feel lost to every culture you have touched,
But I promise when you gaze within yourself
You will find an imprint of their footsteps.

my dearest, heart,

You do not need to ask permission
To see yourself as more than the sum of your parts.
You are not an outcast.
You are the embodiment of change.