Category Archives: Politics

TEAM Westport Teen Essay Contest Tackles Stereotypes

For 6 years, TEAM Westport’s Teen Diversity Essay Contest has considered specific, newsworthy topics.

Westport students have been asked to consider — and write on — issues like micro-aggressions, the “taking a knee” controversy, white privilege, Black Lives Matter, the increasingly diverse demographics of the United States, and self-segregation in school cafeterias.

This year, the town’s diversity action committee takes a different tack.

The 2020 contest asks teenagers to address a broad — but very important — theme: stereotypes.

TEAM Westport says:

A stereotype is a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a person, frequently based on that person’s race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or gender-identity. Stereotypes are often unconscious and may be introduced and reinforced — intentionally or unwittingly – by many sources, including family, peers, the popular media, curricula, and society at large.

This year’s challenge states: In 1,000 words or fewer, describe your experiences witnessing, delivering, and/or being subjected to stereotypes focused on race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and/or gender identity, and describe the impact that such experiences are likely to have upon recipients. Consider steps that organizations, schools, and/or individuals could take to counteract stereotypes—whether as initiator, recipient or witness.”

“In order to dismantle bias, it’s important to first understand the factors that build bias,” says TEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey.

“Stereotyping is a first step toward bias in what historians and sociologists call ‘othering’ — behavior that places the stereotyped group outside the normal considerations of society. History has proven that this can lead to dangerously impactful results.”

The entry deadline is February 28. Subject to the volume and caliber of entries received, at the discretion of the judges up to 3 cash prizes will be awarded. The first prize is $1,000; second prize is $750; third is $500.

Any student living in Westport — or attending school here — can enter.

The Westport Library is co-sponsoring the event. Winners will be announced at a ceremony there on April 2, 2020.

(For more information, including full contest rules and an application form, click here.)

MLK

This story has become a Martin Luther King Day tradition on “06880.”

Today is Martin Luther King Day. Westporters will celebrate with a day off from school or work.  Some will sleep in; others will ski, or take part in a Staples basketball clinic for younger players. Few will give any thought to Martin Luther King.

Twice, though, his life intersected this town in important ways.

Martin Luther KingThe first was Friday night, May 22, 1964. According to Woody Klein’s book Westport, Connecticut, King had been invited to speak at Temple Israel by synagogue member Jerry Kaiser.

King arrived in the afternoon. Kaiser and his wife Roslyn sat on their porch that afternoon, and talked with King and 2 of his aides. She was impressed with his “sincerity, warmth, intelligence and genuine concern for those about him — our children, for instance. He seemed very young to bear such a burden of leadership.”

King’s sermon — to a packed audience — was titled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” He analogized his America to the time of Rip Van Winkle — who also “slept through a revolution. The greatest liability of history is that people fail to see a revolution taking place in our world today.  We must support the social movement of the Negro.”

Westport artist Roe Halper presented King with 3 woodcarvings, representing the civil rights struggle. He hung them proudly in the front hallway of his Atlanta home.

Artist Roe Halper (left) presents Coretta Scott King with civil rights-themed wood carvings.

Within a month Temple Israel’s rabbi, Byron Rubenstein, traveled south to take place in a nonviolent march. He was arrested — along with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.

In jail, the rabbi said, “I came to know the greatness of Dr. King. I never heard a word of hate or bitterness from that man, only worship of faith, joy and determination.”

King touched Westport again less than 4 years later. On April 5, 1968 — the day after the civil rights leader’s assassination in Memphis — 600 Staples students gathered for a lunchtime vigil in the courtyard. Nearby, the flag flew at half-staff.

A small portion of the large crowd listens intently to Fermino Spencer, in the Staples courtyard.

A small portion of the large crowd listens intently to Fermino Spencer, in the Staples courtyard.

Vice principal Fermino Spencer addressed the crowd. Movingly, he spoke about  his own experience as an African American. Hearing the words “my people” made a deep impression on the almost all-white audience. For many, it was the 1st time they had heard a black perspective on white America.

No one knew what lay ahead for their country. But student Jim Sadler spoke for many when he said: “I’m really frightened. Something is going to happen.”

Something did — and it was good. A few hundred students soon met in the cafeteria. Urged by a minister and several anti-poverty workers to help bridge the chasm between Westport and nearby cities, Staples teachers and students vowed to create a camp.

Within 2 months, it was a reality. That summer 120 elementary and junior high youngsters from Westport, Weston, Norwalk and Bridgeport participated in the Intercommunity Camp. Led by over 100 Staples students and many teachers, they enjoyed swimming, gymnastics, dance, sports, field trips, overnight camping, creative writing, filmmaking, photography, art and reading.

It wasn’t easy — some in Westport opposed bringing underprivileged children to their town — but for over a decade the Intercommunity Camp flourished.

Eventually, enthusiasm for and interest in the camp waned. Fewer Staples students and staff members wanted to devote their summer to such a project.  The number of Westporters willing to donate their pools dwindled. Today the Intercommunity Camp is a long-forgotten memory.

Sort of like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Even on his birthday.

MLK speech

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.

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.

Pic Of The Day #995

The other day, this Cross Highway barn was decorated with a snowman. Now, there’s a new message. (Photo/Lynn Untermeyer Miller)

Pic Of The Day #993

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, downtown (Photo/Dan Woog)

David Hidalgo: The Sequel

David Hidalgo — the Bridgeport carpenter handyman beloved by many Westport families, whose battle against leukemia was reported by “06880” earlier this month — continues to fight.

Family and friends — including those from Westport — are working hard to get his relatives to come to the US, from David’s native Costa Rica. They may be a match for a potentially life-saving bone marrow transplant. But his mother has already been denied a humanitarian visa, and under current immigration policies his siblings may face similar difficulties.

As News12 reports, Senator Richard Blumenthal has gotten involved. That story (click here to see) includes an interview with Weestporter Julie Mombello, and “06880” reader Sally Wanamaker.

Westporters and other area residents were very generous, ensuring David’s family had as nice a Christmas as possible. But he’s still out of work, and expenses continue to mount. Click here to help, via a GoFundMe page.

David Hidalgo, and his family, at Yale-New Haven Hospital.

What Would Mr. Rogers Think?

It’s the holiday season. Many Westporters hang wreaths on their doors. They string lights on trees or fences. Some place candles in every window.

Well, it’s also impeachment season. One Westporter has let his views be known. He lives at #1 High Point Road — the very first house, on the longest cul-de-sac in town. A neighbor writes:

Typically, this house displays a “God Bless President Trump” banner. Recently a new one was added: “Merry Christmas from President Trump.”

The  banners are an eyesore but harmless. The most recent one is offensive.

It says “Democrats, impeach this” — with an arrow pointing to a hand displaying the middle finger.

I drive past it no less than 6 times a day with my children. A neighbor has already talked to Town Hall. Their response was, “this is a civil matter. There is nothing that we can do.”

I know. It’s freedom of speech. But this has crossed over into being inappropriate and offensive.

“06880” wants to know: What do Westporters think? We all recognize and appreciate the First Amendment. Where does it intersect with neighborhood life? Is this actually inappropriate — or just aggravating, because the homeowner’s politics differ from his neighbor’s? Is the middle finger truly offensive, in this day and age? Westporters already display yard signs during election season — is this a valid extension of that, or somehow beyond the bounds of neighborly norms?

Feel free to weigh in on those questions. Please be civil, and do NOT veer into a discussion of the pros and cons of the impeachment issue itself — that’s not what this post is about. Comments not addressing the “neighborhood” issue above will be removed. And remember: All “06880” commenters must use full, real names. Thank you!

Mo Rocca, Jeff Pegues Team Up As Library’s Newsmakers

Last year, Jeff Pegues arrived early for a book signing.

The 1988 Staples High School graduate — who rose through the broadcast ranks and is now CBS News justice/homeland security correspondent — had published his second book,  Kompromat: How Russia Undermined American Democracy.

He sat in his car at the Saugatuck Congregational Church, watching dozens of people arrive. It was a bigger crowd than in many major cities.

“I was humbled, and struck by how many Westporters are interested in information beyond the headlines,” Pegues says.

“That’s not always the case. And it troubles me.”

When the Westport Library — which had sponsored his talk off-site, during its renovation project — wrote a thank-you note, he started thinking what more he could do.

He’s a fan of New York’s 92nd Street Y, which sponsors a long-running, provocative speakers’ series.

Jeff Pegues

Pegues lives in Washington, DC. But his hometown — and hometown library — retain strong holds on him.

Would the library be interested in a series of interview/conversations with intriguing newsmakers? he wondered.

Would we ever! replied executive director Bill Harmer.

With a generous donation from Christian J. and Eva W. Trefz, the Newsmakers Series kicks off on Saturday, January 25 (7 p.m.). The first guest is Mo Rocca, noted CBS News correspondent, podcaster and TV personality.

It takes place in the soaring Forum — which, thanks to a previous $1 million gift, already bears the Trefz name.

Quarterly events are planned. Pegues will help bring intellectuals, foreign policy experts, politicians, actors, artists, athletes and other newsmakers to Westport — and will moderate each. His job is to help the audience “understand who they really are.”

Pegues is enthusiastic about the project.

“The library is a destination for ideas,” he notes. “And it’s important for newsmakers to come to a town with so many influential people.”

As a journalist, he notes, he often asks questions like “how did you get here?” What, for example, motivated the child of a single mom in Akron to not only become a basketball superstar, but to speak out about topics most athletes would not touch?

LeBron James would be a perfect candidate for a Trefz Newsmaker evening, Pegues says.

Mo Rocca

Rocca — the first interviewee — has “a unique take on people,” Pegues says. “He has an incredible ability to mix news judgment with a comedic touch.”

Rocca’s resume includes 4 seasons each with “The Daily Show” and Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show”; the “Mobituaries” podcast and book (an irreverent but well-researched appreciation of intriguing things past), and current gigs on both “CBS Sunday Morning” and NPR’s “Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me!”

He’s won 2 Emmy Awards — one fewer than Pegues.

“Westporters should have access to people like Mo,” Pegues says. “They want clarity and insights.”

He looks forward to helping provide it — in a place that is particularly meaningful to him.

“Westport is a huge part of my upbringing,” Pegues says. “My parents moved here in the late 1970s for 2 reasons: the minnybus, and the library.”

The townwide transportation system — whose hub was Jesup Green — is long gone.

In 1986, the library moved to its new location, next to the green. A few months ago, it reopened in a transformed, 21st-century way.

Next month, Jeff Pegues helps the Westport Library become even more special and vibrant than it already is.

(General admission tickets for the 1st Trefz Newsmakers Series on January 25 are $35, and include a copy of Mo Rocca’s “Mobituaries” book. VIP tickets are $100, and include a private reception with Rocca, and preferred seating in the Forum. Click here for tickets.)