Thursday, March 23, 2023


TEAM Westport Essay Finalists Present Moving Personal Prose

By Jarret Liotta

Team Westport 2019 Winning Essays

The intensity, heartbreak, and subtle ignorance of “microaggressions” were passionately and visually highlighted tonight as the four finalists in this year’s TEAM Westport Teen Diversity Essay Contest shared their work. Image
Finalist from Staples High School include (l-r), Angela Ji, 17, Olivia Sarno, 16, Chet Ellis, 17, and Daniel Boccardo, 18. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Jarret Liotta for

Gasps and breathless attention met the powerful words of four Staples High School students at Saugatuck Congregational Church as they read about their personal experiences, respectively, dealing with issues their treatment and mistreatment as part of their race, ethnicity and identity.

The annual competition was sponsored by TEAM Westport, the town’s official diversity committee. Created in 2003, TEAM stands for Together Effectively Achieving Multiculturalism.

“I think Westport as a whole isn’t the most diverse place overall,” said Olivia Sarno, 16, who appreciated the chance to bring light to the issues facing many students.

“Today, at 16, I am proud of who I am,” Sarno wrote in her essay “Deconstructing the Voice in My Head,” “but there are times I still feel ashamed.

“I have come to realize that this little homophobic voice in my head is not my own — but the echo of countless times I have heard my identity be associated with something dirty, strange or abnormal.”

“I think it’s really great that TEAM Westport is making an effort to pop the bubble and see out of the shell,” said Daniel Boccardo, 17, who wrote about being the child of Venezuelan parents, “because it is an issue and it is very hard to see.”

“Unfortunately, I am not alone in my struggles,” he wrote in his piece “Cactus in a Rainforest.” “There are countless Hispanics with parents who were born and raised in different countries who sometimes feel as if they are the enemy and have no place in America.”

“This year’s essays are among the most moving I’ve ever read,” said First Selectman Jim Marpe. “Each one touched me.”

There were about 15 entrants in all, with honorable mention awarded to Sarno, third place to Boccardo with a $500 prize, second place to Angela Ji, 17, with a $750 prize, and first place, along with a $1,000 prize, going to Chet Ellis, 17.

“I think TEAM Westport as an organization is amazing,” Ellis said. “Marginalized issues in Westport are so often ignored and they go unseen.”

“I really think it’s important,” he said of the group outreach.

Ellis’s essay, called “The Sound of Silence,” recounted some shocking experiences he had as one of only two black players on the freshman soccer team at Staples.

It is where the lines between good-natured jocularity and poignant racist jokes blurred, and he was left with little understanding of how to react.

“I see now that every microaggression I let slide in middle school opened the gates for more aggressive aggressions in high school,” he said.

He cited an instance in which one of his teammates doctored a team photo that put Ku Klux Klan hoods on the white players surrounding Ellis in the photo.

“I’ve come to realize that racist, sexist, and homophobic ideas are like weeds that need to be yanked out at their inception,” he wrote.

It was the second win for Ellis in the TEAM essay contest.

The Staples senior who moved to Westport from New York City eight years ago with his college professor parents and two sisters won in 2017 with an essay on white privilege, “The Colors of Privilege.”

“I’ve always been really interested in social ideas and I love writing, so I’m really happy to have had this opportunity,” said Ji, whose essay was entitled “Ripping off the Band-Aid: Microaggressions and How We Address Them.”

“Fostering an open discourse is not just limited to individuals,” she wrote.

“It is crucial that administrators and teachers promote direct exposure in our education to encourage cultural awareness and tolerance in our students,” she wrote.

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