Monday, May 16, 2016
By James Lomuscio
For years, Westport students have thought of themselves living a privileged life “in a bubble,” a life not reflective of the real world.
Tonight, at a Westport Library event, the town celebrated three Westport high school essayists who best showed they could think outside that bubble in terms of race relations.
“It’s about getting kids raised inside the bubble to think about the world outside once they matriculate to college and outside life,” said Harold Bailey, chairman of Westport’s TEAM committee (Together Effectively Achieving Multiculturalism).
The students won a TEAM essay contest that challenged them to put into 1,000 words or less how they, personally, would make sense of the racially charged events of the last year.
The prompt cited happenings “from Ferguson to Charleston to Chicago,” and the resulting protests in communities and on college campuses about the state of U.S. race relations.
The third annual TEAM Westport contest was open to all high school students from Westport.
The three winners took home plaques and first through third place awards of $1,000, $750 and $500 respectively.
First prize went to Jacob Klegar, a senior at Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, for his essay “The Black Lives Matter Movement: Past, Present and Future.”
Ellie Shapiro, a Staples High School junior, took home the second prize for her essay “Coming to Terms with Race in America,” and Ali Tritschler, a senior at Greens Farms Academy, came in third for her piece “Awareness.”
Ali wrote about how her views on diversity changed after Greens Farms hired a director of diversity and community and she joined a diversity club called LEAD.
“My first LEAD meeting was nerve-wracking because I thought my whiteness somehow made me less diverse,” she wrote.
“However, the reason for my nervousness quickly changed as other kids started to engage in an emotional debate about Michael Brown and Eric Garner, two names I don’t recognize.”
“After sitting silently for almost an hour, I left the meeting having realized that I have never had to open my eyes to the problems that surrounded our country,” she added.
” ..That day was the day I not only began educating myself on race relations issues that I seemed to have missed out on, but also the day I stopped allowing my race to define how important these issues were allowed to be to me.”
Second place winner Ellie expressed a similar epiphany about having grown up in a majority white town.
“I am living in an affluent town, sheltered from the harsh realities of race tensions,” she wrote. “I am living in ‘White America,’ naturally privileged due to race.”
She cited an opinion piece by George Yancy in The New York Times that changed her thinking.
She said her new way of thinking grew after watching “live coverage of the Charleston church shooting, listening to the court decision on the Ferguson case, even seeing in Grand Central, right in front of me, protests from the Eric Garner case.”
Jacob, who also took first prize in TEAM Westport’s 2015 contest and who is heading to Harvard in the fall, wrote candidly about the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I support the Black Lives Matter movement and all they have done to bring attention to police brutality and other forms of injustice,” he wrote.
“But I believe it is time for a shift in goals. Society has been saturated with discussion of the deaths of innocent black citizens; it is now time to solve the problem through legislation.
“The best, most thorough way to fix the underlying society problem that caused these deaths is to make far reaching changes to housing and education, a transformation that must originate with the government.”
Mary-Lou Weisman, a Westport best-selling author and one of the contest’s judges, lauded the students for stepping up to the challenge.
“I think the challenge was extremely difficult because diversity for these kids is a concept instead of an experience, so it was a challenge for them to imagine that which they have had very little exposure to in this town,” she said.
The prizes were presented by Bailey and First Selectman Jim Marpe, who praised TEAM Westport, saying it plays a critical role “in reminding all Westporters that we live in a world that is increasingly diverse.”
“The winning essays do an excellent job of making the case for individual action in addressing the ongoing challenges of achieving true diversity in a world that often seems polarized and unchanging,” Marpe said.
“All the students who entered the essay contest are to be congratulated for their thoughtful perspective on very difficult issues.”
Posted 05/16/16 at 10:02 PM Permalink
Great article, Jim, about the TEAM Essay contest winners and last night’s celebration of their achievement. The essays were personal, thoughtful, and well-written. TEAM members, especially Susan and Judy, work hard on this contest and have made it seem easy! Next year, let’s have lots more entries and a full room for the awards!
The PBS NewsHour has a test to help one determine if they live in a bubble. Here’s the link. Try it.