Autumn Burton was floored when she first heard about Free Your Voice, a former Baltimore City high school student's successful campaign to prevent a trash incinerator from being constructed near her neighborhood schools in Curtis Bay.
After public outcry against the project, rallied mostly by Curtis Bay teenager Destiny Watford, multiple municipalities and Baltimore City Public Schools pulled their support from the project and the Maryland Department of the Environment pulled its permit. Watford, who is a Towson University senior, was awarded a prestigious environmental prize for her work to stop the incinerator's construction, according to The Baltimore Sun.
Seventeen-year-old Autumn, of Towson, who graduated this month from the George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology, said she found Watford's impact on her community so fascinating that she wrote an essay last fall called "Voices Freed" about the campaign.
Now "Mirrors," her self-published book which grew out the essay, is available from Amazon.
The book, which became Autumn's senior prime project at the Towson-based arts and technology magnet school, is a collection of short stories, each of which is followed by nonfiction essays examining topics that affect the developing world and communities in the Baltimore area.
Human trafficking, child prostitution and health disparities, can be found in Maryland, and especially Baltimore City, just as they can be in other parts of the world, Autumn writes in her book, using fiction and nonfiction to tell the story she wants to impart.
The book has garnered her awards and attention. She was one of two Carver students to receive the school's Literary Arts Vision and Artistry Writing Award for her work on "Mirrors."
Nationally, Autumn's essay, "Voices Freed," earned her the Scholastic Arts and Writing Award silver medal in journalism. The nationwide competition, sponsored by the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers, honors high school students for their creative work. She also received gold medals from the NAACP's Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics competition for the poetry and critical essay categories.
In addition, Autumn will promote and read from the book at several forums over the summer, including one scheduled for July 8 at Greetings and Readings, in Cockeysville.
A home run
Autumn attended Carver as a student in its literary arts prime — one of 12 programs at the magnet school — which focuses on writing, said Autumn's teacher, Suzanne Supplee, the literary arts department chair at Carver who oversees the senior thesis projects of students in the program.
Students begin brainstorming ideas for their senior thesis during their junior year and eventually go through the process of writing, pitching and publishing their work by the end of their senior year, Supplee said.
Once the writing is done, students are encouraged to self-publish through Amazon's CreateSpace, a self-publishing platform that allows writers to create and distribute their books for a fee.
Supplee said she steered the Towson teen away from her original proposal, a dystopian novel similar to the popular teen-trilogy-turned-film, "The Hunger Games."
"To be honest, I'd heard it before and I didn't feel it spoke to her strengths as a researcher and a scholar," Supplee said.
After going back to the drawing board, Autumn "hit the ball out of the park" with "Mirrors," Supplee said. "It's an intense project, and she really did a beautiful job with it."
In one story contained in the book, Autumn's fictional character, Farrah, leaves her home in Baltimore at night for a first date with Tony, a man who turns out to be twice her age and a child sex trafficker. The story, titled "Saving Grace," follows Farrah's journey from naive teen to the more experienced group of girls stolen from their families and sold to strangers and ends with a police rescue and the promised return of Farrah to her family.
As Autumn points out in the researched, nonfiction essays on child prostitution and sex trafficking globally and in Maryland that follow the story, "Exclusion Games" and "Sold," escape is not always the case for survivors of human trafficking.
Maryland's central location among major east coast cities, along with easy access to multiple highways, makes it a hot spot for human trafficking, according to the Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force. The task force, formed in 2007 by the U.S. Attorney's Office, the Attorney General of Maryland and the State's Attorney for Baltimore City, is the state's lead investigative, prosecutorial and victim services organization.
"It's the same thing at the end of the day," Autumn said. "Human rights issues are a problem no matter where in the world you are."
Autumn credits much of the inspiration for pursuing social justice issues to her mother, Anokwale Anansesemfo, who is a historian of the African Diaspora in America and a national park ranger at the Hampton National Historic site, a former Maryland plantation house.
Anansesemfo, who recounts the history of the Hampton plantation to daily visitors, is proud of the research, dedication and time her daughter put into the project, she said.
"She's been hearing this all of her life," Anansesemfo said of human rights work. "I live, eat and breathe this stuff."
In addition to writing, Autumn said she spent her senior year involved in as many activities as possible, including the National Honor Society, which requires students to meet academic, character and service requirements, and Model United Nations. She earned an unweighted 3.76 GPA.
Autumn said she is headed to Duke University in the fall on scholarships from the North Carolina school, the Education Foundation of Baltimore County Public Schools, a nonprofit foundation that directs public financial contributions to programs and activities of the school system, and the Carson Scholars Fund, a program founded by Housing and Urban Development secretary and former presidential candidate, Dr. Ben Carson in 1994.
She will study international law and environmental health to pursue a career in diplomacy, she said.
Before she heads to college, Autumn will promote her book at meetings of the Baltimore Rotary Club on June 6 and the Hunt Valley Rotary Club on June 21.
In addition to her appearance at Greetings and Readings, she is scheduled to present and sell books at the Baltimore Racial Justice Action Network's Public Dialogue Events on June 13 and July 13 at the American Brewery Building, and will host a book talk at Red Emma's bookstore and coffeehouse on July 11 at 7 p.m.