Category Archives: Organizations

Staples Students Plan Afternoon Of Gun Violence Awareness

The Parkland massacre 2 years ago — and a subsequent assault rifle scare at their own school — affected, then galvanized many Staples High students.

Elana Atlas was just a freshman. But she organized a national letter-writing campaign to legislators, and created a website — Action Against Gun Violence — filled with background information on school shootings; texts sent by terrified students in the midst of gunfire; counter-arguments to the “right to bear arms” clause; links to gun safety organizations; advice on how to start your own movement — and of course, her letter templates.

Elana Atlas, at work 2 years ago.

Two years later, the epidemic continues unabated. But — rather than being discouraged, or overwhelmed by the pressures of being a Staples junior — Elana is committed more than ever to doing what she can to making America’s schools and streets safe for everyone.

In the aftermath of Parkland, she joined fellow Stapleites Audrey Bernstein, Ruby Coleman, Kaela Dockray, Brooke Kessler, Peri Kessler and Eliza Oren in creating a local high school chapter of Students Demand Action. That’s the national organization — affiliated with Everytown for Gun Safety — fighting for common sense gun reform and usage.

Now, Elana has helped turned it into an official Staples High School club.

She’s sparked a number of intriguing projects. The group is working on an open letter to Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader who has stalled most gun legislation in that chamber. They’re coordinating with student groups around the country — especially in McConnell’s home state of Kentucky — to get viral social media attention.

Staples’ Students Demand Action and the Westport/Fairfield Moms Demand Action chapter presented a panel on gun violence in schools. Elana was one of the speakers.

Next month, and again in June, the students will commemorate Parkland.

Right now, they’re gearing up for their biggest event yet. On Friday, January 24 (3 p.m., Toquet Hall), Students Demand Action sponsors “An Afternoon of Gun Prevention and Activism.”

Toquet will hum with activities. There will be information about local, state and national legislators’ stands on gun laws; signmaking (with photos, to post on social media); voter registration, and speakers, including lawmakers, studens, and Tara Donnelly Gottlieb, whose parents were killed in 2005 during a robbery of their Fairfield jewelry store.

The goal, Elana says, is to show that the Westport gun violence movement remains strong — and help people get involved.

In 2018, Staples High School students stood in the courtyard to demand action on gun violence. They’re still going strong. (Photo/Ali Feder)

“An Afternoon of Gun Prevention and Activism” is open to all. Elana hopes many high school students will attend, and that parents will bring their children too.

“It will be uplifting — not gory,” she promises.

And very, very important.

(Pre-registration is not mandatory, but it helps for planning numbers. Click here to pre-register.)

MLK Celebration Shines Light On Voter Suppression

Carol Anderson teaches African American studies at Emory University. She is one of America’s foremost experts on voter suppression.

Anderson’s research has identified suppression that, she says, could have reversed results in key states during the 2016 presidential election. She also studies voter disinformation (election meddling), and the disenfranchisement of black women voters from the suffrage movement through the 1960s.

Anderson’s latest book is  One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying our Democracy.

Dr. Carol Anderson

All of which makes her an excellent choice to deliver the keynote address at Westport’s annual Martin Luther King Day celebration. It’s set for Sunday, January 19 (3 p.m., Westport Country Playhouse), with an audience Q-and-A, reception and book signing to follow.

The event also includes performances by award-winning opera soprano Helena Brown, and students from Trumbull’s Regional Center for the Arts.

The importance of voter suppression — as we hurtle toward the 2020 presidential election, and voter registration lawsuits plod through the courts — is why, in addition to the usual MLK Day sponsors (TEAM Westport, the Westport Weston Interfaith Council, Westport Library and Playhouse), Anderson’s appearance draws strong support from the Westport League of Women Voters, and Westport’s 1919 Committee.

That’s a group of library staff and volunteers who have planned events throughout the year to commemorate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage.

One Person, No Vote is included in the Westport Library’s 2019–20 WestportREADS program, which celebrates that centennial.

The MLK Celebration on January 19 is free. However, tickets are required. Click here to register.

Erasing History?

I did not think I’d be posting another story on the Westport Museum for History & Culture’s decision to replace the name of the Sheffer Gallery (honoring a family with a long history of philanthropy and volunteerism) with that of Daniel Offutt (whose trust recently gave a large gift).

However, a number of “06880” readers remarked on the irony of a “historical society” turning its back on history.

Now, it appears the exhibition space is not the only place they’re doing that.

For years, the website (interestingly, it’s www.westporthistory.org) included information about many previous exhibits. One reader — who recalls that it went back to 2000 or so — found the descriptions and photos very useful when he was pitching his own exhibit idea, and again in the planning stages once it was accepted.

Now, the “Exhibits” page shows only 3. All were mounted under the current executive director and her staff.

In addition, the “Media” tab shows articles only since December 27, 2017. That one — the oldest — is headlined “Historical Society Names New Executive Director.”

The Westport Historical Society received excellent press coverage over many years. You wouldn’t know it, though, by looking at the website. That history is gone.

Also gone: a list of advisory council members. It was there Tuesday.

In addition, the list of board members on the same page was substantially shorter than the day before.

Yesterday, what appeared to be a link to the advisory council was no longer working. Like the organization’s history prior to 2018, the advisory council too is now invisible.

NOTE: Some readers have wondered why they have not heard the Westport Museum’s side of the story. No one has responded to the Comments section in an official — or even unofficial — capacity. And not a single staff member has contacted me, on or off the record.

Youth Concert Brings China To Westport

Years ago, the Westport Youth Concert began as an opportunity to enrich students’ cultural awareness, through music.

As the school district’s emphasis on global understanding has grown, so has the Youth Concert. It’s evolved into a cross-cultural, collaborative event involving not only music, but Westport Public Schools’ visual arts and world language departments.

Outside organizations like the Westport Library, Westport Public Art Collections and PTA Cultural Arts have signed on as community partners.

A scene from last year’s Youth Concert.

This year’s event exemplifies the music department’s mission. “Music of China” features Staples High School musicians, the award-winning Middle School Percussion Ensemble, and guest artists from the New York Chinese Cultural Center. They’ll perform a lion dance and musical piece using a pipa, guzheng and erhu — with mini-lessons about each instrument.

The feature performance is Tuesday, February 4 (7 p.m., Staples auditorium). On that day, and February 6, in-school educational concerts for 3rd through 6th graders will complement the public concert.

It’s a huge undertaking. Youth Concert planning begins at the start of the school year. Coordinator Candi Innaco creates a classroom guide. It introduces the theme, and includes links to resources and classroom instruction.

Leading up to the event, teachers at Greens Farms, Long Lots and Saugatuck Elementary School had students design China-related art: hanging lanterns, wish kites, brush paintings, Ming Dynasty vases and the like.

Westport student art: Ming Dynasty vases.

All elementary music instructors are teaching the tune and lyrics to “Jasmine Flower.” At the concert, students will sing it from the audience — led by Staples’ Orphenians.

Staples’ world language department is involved too. Mandarin students will emcee the concert, and photos taken by teacher Chris Fray on his recent visit to China will be shown.

WestPAC, meanwhile, is displaying art and photography from China at their traveling pop-up galleries, at every school.

In March, the Westport Library will bring the same guest artists from the New York China Cultural Center, to perform again.

China lion dance, performed by members of the New York Chinese Cultural Center.

The public is invited to the free February 4 evening performance. For more information about this event and the Westport music program, click here.

[OPINION] Dorothy Curran: Westport History Museum Broke Faith

Dorothy E. Curran has lived in Westport since 1977. She has served on the boards of the Westport Library (trustee; co-chair, River of Names community capital campaign) and Westport Woman’s Club (past president, chair/co-chair, many Yankee Doodle Fairs).

Dorothy Curran

She is also — most importantly for this story — a Westport Historical Society past president, chair or co-chair of 5 Holiday House Tours, and co-curator of multiple exhibits, including the original “Cover Story: The New Yorker in Westport.”

This morning, Dorothy reacts to the news that the Westport Museum for History & Culture — formerly the Westport Historical Society — changed the name of its main gallery. It previously honored the Sheffer Family, for their contributions of funds and time. It is now named for a new donor, Daniel Offutt. Dorothy writes:

No one needs to be a member of a historical society, pay annual dues, contribute to annual giving, volunteer to support its educational work, catalog its collections, staff its fundraisers, buy tickets to those same fundraisers, or then buy back donated auction items.

Yet in Westport for more than a century, many have done just that, and some have done even more: leaving substantial bequests to the Westport Historical Society’s modest endowment in their wills or contributing major capital to the campaigns that purchased the historic Bradley-Wheeler property, restored the rare heptagonal cobblestone barn, refurbished (what used to be) the period rooms, built the underground climate-controlled archive and constructed the exhibit gallery addition.

The Westport Historical Society was a people-friendly place with a devoted shoestring staff and intelligent, enthusiastic members and volunteers who contained the costs and raised the funds to keep it going. Most of them grew up somewhere else, but after moving here (Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman among them) were drawn to the WHS by the energy, camaraderie and front-row seats to the remarkable story of how this amazing little (population 25,000) coastal 06880 Zip Code came to be.

The Westport Museum for History & Culture — formerly the Westport Historical Society — on Avery Place.

How was it that Westport grew from the Pre-Contact era through the Puritan Colonial era, the farming, fishing and maritime commerce eras, the American Revolution, the War of 1812 embargo, the rise of small manufacturing, the market boat (local produce to NYC) era, the 1835 formation of the town, the building of the Maine to Georgia (and, in particular, the last piece: New York to New Haven) railroad, the onion (supplying Grant’s troops during the Civil War) and apple farming eras, the 20th century arrival of the nation’s leading artists, illustrators, writers, actors and performing artists, the 20th century leadership in breaking “the gentleman’s agreement” and other discriminatory practices, the building of Westport’s link in I-95 (Maine to Florida), the welcoming of the (United Nations) world through “jUNe Day,” ground-breaking models (like Save the Children and Newman’s Own) for social entrepreneurship, and now, in the 21st century, to providing a base for everyone from hedge fund managers to a burgeoning farmer’s market, from a humongous annual Maker Faire to Interfaith Housing and Homes With Hope, from the Westport Country Playhouse to pop-up art shows, from early adopters of front-line climate change resistance technology to the vigilant volunteers who staff the Historic District Commission?

It’s an amazing saga for a small, but nationally and globally influential town, and the primary place for the public to access this story, told in “chapters,” through exhibits and programs, has long been the Sheffer Gallery of the Westport Historical Society. When the WHS membership purchased the Italianate (built over the original saltbox) Bradley-Wheeler House, it had very limited exhibit and gathering space, and the financial burden of acquiring and refurbishing the antique home for WHS use had left many wallets thin.

The Sheffer family was in a position to help with a major, restricted gift: If the WHS accepts our capital, the new construction will be named, in perpetuity, “The Sheffer Gallery.”

An action that relies on a promise is a contract.

The Westport Historical Society gratefully agreed.

The organization’s recent name change does not give it license to break faith with its past contracts, nor would that be a wise choice for an institution committed, through the benevolence of donors, to preserving the memory of how today’s Westport came to be.

Westport History Museum Removes Historic Name

Ann Sheffer is a native Westporter. The Staples High School Class of 1966 graduate’s family arrived here nearly a century ago.

Her father Ralph served on the RTM for 16 years, 10 as moderator. He chaired the Nike Site Committee, which managed the difficult task of bringing two military facilities to town, on North Avenue and Bayberry Lane. As chief fundraiser for the Westport Library, he helped spearhead the move from the Post Road to its present location.

Ann’s mother Betty was an active town volunteer. After her death at a young age, the Betty R. Sheffer Foundation provided major funding for arts, education, health care and history projects.

Ann Sheffer

Ann has carried on the family tradition. She is involved in literally dozens of town committees and events, including arts, education, history and culture.

For many years, the main exhibition space at the Westport Historical Society was called the Sheffer Gallery.

The institution’s name change — it is now the Westport Museum for History & Culture — as well as new leadership has brought many changes. Among them: The Sheffer Gallery will now be called the Daniel E. Offutt III Exhibition Hall.

A number of Westporters who were long associated with the WHS have expressed dismay at the changes — including the renaming of the Sheffer Gallery. Ann Sheffer is among them. She sent this open letter to the Westport History Museum:

Last week I drove by Wheeler House. I was pleased to see that the bricks that I bought to commemorate my family’s tenure in Westport are still there (and my husband Bill’s name is now spelled correctly), as are Miss Liberty and Uncle Sam, who have graced the porch or lawn of the house since we donated them in 2000 as part of the Millennium celebration.

Bricks bought by Ann Sheffer and her husband Bill Scheffler, honoring the extended Sheffer family.

As the bricks note, my family has been part of Westport since 1930, and also very involved with the Westport Historical Society. I don’t want to recite all of the volunteer positions we’ve held, contributions to the archives we’ve made, and most significantly, the major contribution to the expansion of the building, which resulted in the naming of the Exhibition Hall in honor of my parents.

So I was dismayed to receive a letter from your board president, Sara Krasne, with the following vague, disingenuous “notice” that the Westport History Museum had received “a significant donation for the purpose of upgrading the exhibition hall to a modern, state-of-the-art standard in return for naming the hall after the donor.”

First, it’s very unprofessional of you to send me a letter rather than speaking to me in person — and trying to understate the fact that you are taking my parents’ names off of the Exhibition Hall. I’m disappointed that you don’t value our history of support for the organization enough to be honest about what you are doing.

Second, it is a fairly serious breach of faith and fiduciary responsibility to remove a donor’s name from a building without having the courtesy to ask their permission.

“Uncle Sam” and “Miss Liberty” — donated to the Westport Historical Society in 2000 by Ann Sheffer and Bill Scheffler — were almost sold last year. They still remain at what is now the Westport Museum for History & Culture. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

I would note that my family’s contributions are recognized by a number of other cultural organizations in town, most notably the Westport Library — whose director, Bill Harmer, called me as soon as the plans for the recent renovation were announced, to discuss how we would like our family’s name to be displayed in the new design.  Not only were we delighted to be consulted, but his approach resulted in our making additional contributions.

I’m very disappointed that an organization that is ostensibly dedicated to preserving and celebrating the history of Westport would be so insensitive and dismissive of the historical contributions that have insured their existence.

I have no interest in any further discussion with you. But I sincerely hope that you will not treat other donors in such a dismissive fashion, and that you will make an effort to honor the founding principles of the Westport Historical Society despite your name change.

Westport is, as we often say, a special place, with a long history worth celebrating — and the Westport History Museum has a responsibility to preserve that history in an ethical and professional manner.

 I asked executive director Ramin Ganeshram to respond. She emailed back: “Please find the official press release regarding the exciting opportunity to upgrade the Exhibition Hall in order to continue the Museum’s transformative path toward excellence in providing world class exhibits in the tradition of our award-winning ‘Remembered: The History of African Americans in Westport.'”

Here is that press release, dated Friday, January 10 but suddenly sent yesterday morning:

Westport Museum (formerly Westport Historical Society) is honored to announce that it will be naming its main exhibit hall after local philanthropist Daniel E. Offutt, III following a significant donation from the Daniel E. Offutt, III Charitable Trust. Mr. Offutt, who lived in Weston, was a generous donor to many local nonprofits both during his lifetime and via his estate.

The gift is the largest single donation ever received by the Museum. The main exhibit hall was formerly named after Ralph & Betty Sheffer, longtime supporters of the Museum who provided the major funding to complete the space in 2002.

“We are thrilled to be able to name this significant cultural resource after Mr. Offutt who was a generous and active member in the local community. His interest and support has helped many cultural organizations here and around the nation,” says Ramin Ganeshram, Executive Director of Westport Museum. “I only wish Mr. Offutt were with us to see the value his good work will bring to this and surrounding communities.”

Daniel Offutt had a lifetime interest in history and in art as both a collector and an artist. A self-described “farmer,” he was more aptly described as a “Renaissance Man”: a tennis player, traveler, sailor, metal sculptor, wood worker, fixer of anything, collector of everything, lover of projects, stock market investor, and a good friend. Mr. Offutt lived for more than 30 years in Weston, Connecticut in a house that he built himself.

The gift from Mr. Offutt’s Trust will enable Westport Museum to make much needed upgrades to its main exhibit hall, in keeping with national museum standards to provide quality experiences with universal access to the widest audience. The goal of upgrading exhibit spaces at the Museum is part of a multi-year strategic initiative to create a world class regional Museum in Westport.

“As Trustee, I am pleased to support the growth and improvement envisioned for the Museum,” said Richard H. Orenstein. “Working with Ramin has been an easy and creative endeavor.”

“Thanks to this significant gift we will be able to create our next ground-breaking exhibit with the highest standards in mind,” said Ganeshram. The first exhibit to open in the newly remodeled space will be in late 2020 about Westport’s indigenous people who inhabited the town and surrounds for 7500 years before European colonization.

While the name change is effective immediately, a plaque will be formally installed to rename the gallery “The Daniel E. Offutt III Exhibition Hall at Westport Museum” at a ceremony to take place at the opening of the 2020 indigenous people’s exhibit in November.

3 Million Records — In Westport?

A few days ago, the New York Times ran a story about the Archive of Contemporary Music. The non-profit houses one of the world’s largest collections of popular music: over 3 million recordings, plus music books, memorabilia and press kids.

There are “shelves upon shelves upon shelves of vinyl records and CDs, signed Johnny Cash records… boxes of big band recordings, world music and jazz and original soundtracks.”

Keith Richards

It also holds the bulk of Keith Richards’ famed blues collection. (He’s on the board of advisers.)

But rising TriBeCa rents are forcing the mammoth collection elsewhere. They’ve got until June to find a new space.

Nile Rodgers —  the record producer and co-founder of the band Chic — is also on the Archive’s board.

Which raises an intriguing idea, first proposed by alert “06880” reader Jeff Mitchell. With those 2 luminaries so involved — and living in Westport and Weston, along with other great recording artists like Michael Bolton and Jose Feliciano, not to mention our long musical history of legendary concerts from Bo Diddley to the Doors; REO Speedwagon writing 157 Riverside about their time here; Johnny Winter and Joe Cocker recording and rehearsing in Westport — why not invite the Archive of Contemporary Music to set up shop here?

I’m (semi) serious. We already have a Museum of Contemporary Art (formerly the Westport Arts Center). a Westport Museum for History and Culture (most recently the Westport Historical Society), plus the Westport Country Playhouse (unchanged after 90 years). This would be one more cultural attraction.

Where would they go? That’s for wiser heads than mine to decide. But we do have an unused building sitting smack in the middle of Baron’s South.

And we keep talking about all those vacant stores on Main Street…

New home of the Archive of Contemporary Music? (Photos/Chip Stephens)

Zero Waste Roundtable Set For Wakeman Town Farm

Reducing the amount of daily waste is a priority for many Westporters. But although we want to do the right thing, we don’t always know how.

Wakeman Town Farm does.

This Monday (January 13, 7 to 8:15 p.m.), the Cross Highway sustainability center hosts an environmental awareness event. The multi-generational roundtable will offer information on how Westport schools combat waste, how we can incorporate initiatives into our own homes, and what we can do to help government effect greater changes.

State Senator Will Haskell will moderate the discussion. Participants include Stacy Jagerson Fowle and Ashley Moran, elementary school teachers who have helped lead the district’s push toward composting and zero waste; Bedford Middle School 7th grader Samantha Henske, a student leader in the fight for climate justice, and RTM member Andrew Colabella, who helped implement Westport’s plastics ban.

Monday’s event is free, but registration is required. Click here to register.

Greens Farms Elementary School offers 3 choices for waste. To find out what your family can do, head to Wakeman Town Farm on Monday night.

Staples Students: “JSA Changed My Life”

Charlie Effman’s first speech at Junior State of America was a nervous, mumbled mess.

Still, the audience applauded loudly.

Participating in JSA has helped Charlie immensely. Now co-president of Staples’ chapter of the national, non-partisan, student-led organization, he has learned about political debate, government, civic engagement, leadership and activism.

Debating ideas, at a JSA meeting.

He’s grown comfortable speaking in public. Last spring, no one told him he had to give an opening statement at the Northeast Electoral Candidate Forum. He nailed it — on the fly.

Vice president Elana Atlas entered high school convinced that everyone was judging her, and her voice was not welcome. Nervous and quiet, she went to her first JSA meeting.

The day before her first overnight convention, she panicked. But she went — and fell in love with it. Debates, speakers, knowledgeable students, fun — it all drew her in.

Convention by convention, Elana progressed from hesitantly asking questions to confidently leading her group.

“It was a place where I found my people,” she now says. “I realized my opinions were valued, and worth sharing.” In fact, she says, JSA has defined her high school life.

Lending support to a JSA friend.

At meetings, members debate everything from whether the US should get involved in military intervention, to whether or not dinosaurs would have been cool pets. They address complex, serious issues without scaring away newcomers.

“Meetings are safe places where students debate, discuss and learn, without being judged,” Charlie notes. “JSA is the perfect haven for young people to form their political understandings and beliefs.”

Convention speakers come from across the country — and along the entire political spectrum. Topics have ranged from free speech on college campuses to immigration. There are also activism workshops on topics like reproductive rights and gun legislation — again, allowing for a wide variety of opinions.

Charlie has written bills for the Winter Congress, clerked in a mock House of Representatives, run for elective office, and served as a mid- and high-ranking bureaucrat on the regional cabinet.

He’s learned to get endorsements, describe his platform, and win over voters. He’s found out how to talk about important issues with people he disagrees with — and how to take action. He’s discovered the highs and lows of politics, while having fun with friends.

Staples’ JSA contingent last year, at the Washington, DC convention.

Elana — now a convention coordinator for JSA’s entire Northeast State — debates “loudly, proudly, and most importantly, respectfully.” She runs meetings where she reaches out to students who remind her of her own freshman self.

“JSA taught me how to speak, and how to listen,” she says. “It taught me about different viewpoints, and allowed me to refine my own. JSA was life-changing.”

Club members attend 3 overnight conventions a year. The next is in February, in Washington, DC. It’s a great opportunity — but not everyone can afford to go.

JSA has set up a GoFundMe page. They’re already halfway there. To help the next generation of concerned citizens, click here.

Unsung Hero #130

Joseph Pontoriero is a Staples High School freshman. Nearly every day, he passes VFW Joseph J. Clinton Post 399 on Riverside Avenue. His grandfather is a Vietnam War veteran who meets friends every Thursday for lunch and camaraderie.

For Veterans Day, Joseph wanted to see the events VFW had scheduled. He was amazed to find the organization had no website.

Many youngsters would say, “too bad.” Joseph said, “I’ll create one!”

Joseph Pontoriero

VFW officials were happy to have him — and his many years of programming experience. Joseph spent hours designing a custom site. Now he spends hours more maintaining it.

“He exceeds our expectations every time,” says Post 399 quartermaster Phil Delgado.

“Joe is not content to use a drag-and-drop template. He’s dedicated and determined. He writes and customizes everything manually, and helps drive visitors to our website.”

The site includes photos; news about coat and blood drives, support of a medical dog project, holiday parties and more; a calendar with upcoming events; the dining room menu; sign-ups for the e-newsletter — even a biography of the post’s namesake, Pvt. Joseph J. Clinton.

Joseph makes time for the VFW alongside many other activities. He’s been a junior board member of Westport Maker Faire (now Maker Faire Connecticut) for 4 years. As a Westport Library MakerSpace volunteer, he’s helped teach people of all ages how to 3D print. In his spare time, he enjoys playing golf — and the bagpipes.

Veterans of many conflicts are grateful for Joseph’s service to VFW Post 399. Now the rest of Westport can honor this Unsung Hero too. Just click here — vfw399ct.org — and enjoy!

(To nominate an Unsung Hero, email dwoog@optonline.net)

VFW Joseph J. Clinton Post 399, on Riverside Avenue.