For 7 years, TEAM Westport’s Teen Diversity Essay Contest has considered specific, newsworthy topics.
Westport students have been asked to examine — and write on — issues like micro-aggressions, the “taking a knee” controversy, white privilege, the increasingly diverse demographics of the United States, and self-segregation in school cafeterias.
This year’s contest addresses a broad, complex and crucial issue: Black Lives Matter.
All students attending high school in Westport — or who live here and go to high school elsewhere — are invited to participate. The prompt is:
The statement “Black Lives Matter” has become politicized in our country. In 1000 words or fewer, describe your own understanding of the statement. Consider why conversations about race are often so emotionally charged. Given that reality, what suggestions do you have for building both equity and equality in our schools, community and country?
“Since the murder of George Floyd, the nation has moved toward an inflection point on racial reckoning not seen since the Civil War,” says TEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey.
“The ultimate resolution of that reckoning will have a profound effect upon the lives of our young citizens. Through it all, ‘Black Lives Matter’ has emerged as ubiquitous in message, aspiration and vision. TEAM Westport looks forward to the exploration of the impact of this phenomenon on our nation and community by Westport students.”
The entry deadline is February 26. The Westport Library is co-sponsoring the contest with TEAMWestport, the town’s multicultural commission.
First prize is $1,000; second prize is $750, and third prize is $500. Click here for he application form.
Students joined many others last spring, at several Black Lives Matter protests in downtown Westport. (Photo/Dan Woog)
Rex Fowler calls John Lennon “a genius.” “Imagine,” for example, is “one of the simplest, most straightforward protest songs ever.”
But not all Lennon’s social commentary songs measures up. “Power to the People,” for example, is “one of the worst.”
Fowler should know. Since founding the folk-rock band Aztec Two-Step nearly 40 years ago, he’s written his share of political tunes. “Living in America” and “Naked” are 2 examples.
It’s not easy, though. Fowler — a Westport resident — notes, “there’s a temptation to preach, or use platitudes.”
Fowler and his wife Dodie Pettit — now part of Aztec Two-Step — avoided those pitfalls with their latest release.
Aztec Two-Step: Dodie Pettit and Rex Fowler.
“Breathe” was born out of this summer’s peaceful, passionate protests after the murder of George Floyd, and other unarmed Black men and women.
“I was proud of so many people — young and old, every color and creed — getting out and doing something. It really gave me hope,” Fowler says.
But he knew better than to try to force a song. A good creation must be “visceral, soulful,” he says. “Once it starts, it rolls out. But I can’t manufacture it.”
For a couple of weeks, Fowler fiddled with a guitar melody. He particularly liked Neil Young’s “Down by the River.” Pettit thought her partner was on to something.
“It’s such an iconic song,” Fowler explains. “‘Be on my side, I’ll be on your side … You take my hand, I’ll take your hand…'”
Fowler and Pettit included 2 of Young’s verses, then added their own.
They also drew on Martin Luther King, Sam Cooke’s soaring anthem “A Change is Gonna Come,” rapper Killer Mike’s rallying cry to vote, and a few notable slogans chanted by the hundreds of thousands of peaceful protestors.
The result was “Breathe.”
Aztec Two-Step could not use Neil Young’s lyrics without permission. They tried hard to get it. They hired a lawyer, and sent letters to his publicist and manager. They received a cease-and-desist order. Fowler and Pettit are sure the singer/songwriter never knew what they were asking.
“He rightfully doesn’t want people taking his music, and changing it,” Fowler says. “But I think if he heard ‘Breathe,’ he’d really enjoy it.”
In fact, Fowler adds, in January Young — a Canadian by birth — became an American citizen. He did it in part to be able to vote against President Trump.
Undaunted, Fowler and Pettit removed the “Down by the River” verses. They changed Young’s melodic ideas.
But the beginning — Pettit’s gritty lead guitar solo — sounds like a tribute to Young’s style. “He really resonates with us,” Pettit says.
The song was recorded here in Westport, in Aztec Two-Step’s home studio. Band members came in one at a time — because of COVID-19 — to overdub their parts.
Rex Fowler and Dodie Pettit were married in Westport. Their studio is in their home.
At first, Fowler wanted to send “Breathe” out to disc jockeys and program managers complete with the back story. Instead, he and Pettit decided to let listeners hear it with “clear ears,” and figure the meaning out themselves.
All proceeds will go to Black Lives Matter. That’s controversial, the couple acknowledges. There’s been pushback on social media from some people they thought were friends.
Still, Pettit says, “this is a moral cause we’re proud to lend our support to. We’re setting down our marker. We’re standing up and bein counted. We have a voice, and people listen.”
Westport has many beautiful churches. But in terms of looks — and denomination — it doesn’t get more New England-y than Saugatuck Congregational.
Old, wooden, white, and set back on a broad lawn in the heart of downtown, Saugatuck Church makes a strong statement to everyone about history and heritage.
Now it’s making a strong statement about current events, and the role of a religious institution in modern society.
A “Black Lives Matter” sign has been hung across the front of the church.
And it’s not a yard sign, or a banner you must squint to read.
The sign is big. It’s bold. It’s meant to be seen by everyone.
Yesterday morning — socially distanced because of COVID, but shoulder to shoulder emotionally — the church blessed the sign.
Harold Bailey — chair of TEAM Westport, the town’s multicultural committee — spoke briefly.
On Friday, Pastor Alison Patton sent a letter to her congregation. She wrote:
We are getting ready to hang a Black Lives Matter banner on the façadeof Saugatuck Church. We do so to support those among us who are black and brown, during a year that has been particularly hard on people of color, and to express our commitment to work against racism. This is a project initiated by our Arts and Ministry Team and unanimously supported by our Saugatuck Church Council.
Among the many inter-locking experiences that have defined 2020 is a heightened focus on systemic racism and its impact on communities of color. In response, many of you have taken steps to deepen your understanding of racism – reading, discussing, marching and asking, “What more can I do?” You have leaned into this moment with courage and curiosity.
Rev. Alison Patton
Together, we have grieved the harm inflicted on those among us who are black and brown. We have prayed, held small group discussions and shared resources to support our collective learning. We’ve begun to explore the uncomfortable reality that those of us who are white have advantages in this culture that are not afforded people of color.
We are only just beginning what is truly a life-long project: to unmask racism, unlearn our own biases, and develop the tools to build diverse, equitable and inclusive communities. As I said on Sunday, this is hard work; it is also heart work. It is uncomfortable and necessary and holy.
Why “Black Lives Matter”?
The work begins when we say, out loud, to each other and to our neighbors, that black lives matter – as much as any other lives. It is a deceptively simple assertion that has stirred up all kinds of discomfort, usually among those of us who are white. Some worry it implies that black lives matter more, or that other lives matter less.
It might help to know that this line got its start not as a message to white folks, but as a tweet by Alicia Garza, who is black, to her own black community, at a time when they were feeling particularly vulnerable. It was a 16-character love letter.** To repeat her words now is to challenge the systems that have perpetuated inequality in ways that deny the intrinsic worth of black lives.
I know you’ve heard me say this before: I am deeply convinced that we are called to this project as people of faith and, in particular, as followers of Jesus, who insisted on the God-created value of all people and showed us how to love publicly in a world of inequality.
And I believe that church is the perfect place to launch this work: here, where we can wrestle, confess, forgive, learn, listen, stumble, get back up, reach out, and practice loving – ourselves and each other – the whole way through.
During the 2016 election, Saugatuck Church was open for prayer and reflection.
So, What’s Next?
When Council gave its support to the banner proposal, we did so with the recognition that we need to pair the words with real efforts to equip ourselves to confront and dismantle racism. Here are our next steps:
On Saturday, 30 members of Saugatuck Church will participate in a racial justice workshop led by Dr. Donique McIntosh, Minister for Racial Justice for our Southern New England Conference.
**On Thursday, October 29, our online small group, VOICES, will feature a podcast about the origin and history of Black Lives Matter.
This is just the start. There are more learning opportunities in the works. We will continue to dig deeper, examine our own habits, seek out partners, and ask what more needs to be done to banish racism in our lives, our church and the world. Please reach out to me if you have questions or ideas about these efforts.
Beloved, I am so honored to be doing this work in partnership with you. May God bless our words and our actions, our listening and our learning. May the Christ in our midst keep us curious and brave.
For decades, the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge has been the site of political protests. Every Saturday morning since early summer, a group assembles there. Their message: “Black Lives Matter.” They are greeted more often than not with honks and thumbs-up signs. This was a recent scene.
Senior minister Rev. Dr. John Morehouse said, “Every time the banner is vandalized it fortifies our resolve to replace it and underscores the very need for its existence.”
Last week, the Unitarian Church sign was vandalized again. Written under the phrase “Black Lives Matter” was scrawled: “Is A Racist, Terrorist Organization.”
Someone then covered the graffiti with black tape, in an attempt to blot it out.
Each time haters struck, the church — well known for known for its commitment to diversity, inclusion, openness and social justice — contributes $100 to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Each time too, community reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. Strangers have sent words of support, and offered to help pay for a new banner.
“Black Lives Matter is a movement dedicated to the proposition that black lives should matter as much as white lives do today,” Rev. Morehouse says.
“But the fact is that currently, white lives matter more by almost every measure. Our Unitarian Universalist faith community has been, and continues to be, dedicated to defeating racism. The fact of the matter is that Black Lives Matter is avowedly anti-racist in its call for black and brown lives to matter as much as white lives.”
Once again, the church will repair the sign.
Once again, representatives say, “it will remain as a testament to our community’s aspiration.”
As Westport reopens, and the world continues to turn — if a bit wobbly — you continue to send us your work. Your many moods are reflected in your paintings, collages, sketches, photos, sculptures, cartoons and videos.
Please keep ’em coming. Professional, amateur, old, young — we want it all. Student submissions are particularly welcome!
The only rule: It must be inspired by, reflective of, or otherwise related to the times we’re going through. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Feeling Trapped in the Illusion of Summer” (Lauri Weiser)
Dereje Tarrant is a rising 8th grader at the Pierrepont School. He created this mural, which hangs outside his Westport home.
“When Life Gives You Lemons” (acrylic, Herm Freeman)
Weston High School asked Andrea Metchick to paint a mural for the Class of 2020. She asked principal Lisa Wolak, staff and parents for words that represented the students. Her work was hung on the Onion Barn near Weston center for the graduation parade; it’s still there. It was a gift of love: Andrea’s youngest child, Millie, was in that class.
Untitled (Carina Bockhaus, age 9, Kings Highway Elementary School)
Posted onJune 15, 2020|Comments Off on Beechwood Amplifies Arts, Social Issues
Beechwood Arts is one of Westport’s most important — and cutting-edge — cultural institutions. Through salons and workshops, in collaboration with artists, musicians, performers, filmmakers and many others, Frederic Chiu and his wife Jeanine Esposito inspire, illuminate and provoke a wide array of audiences, in often unexpected ways.
One of Frederic and Jeanine’s guiding principles is that art is an intimate part of the broader world. Beechwood always makes those connections clear — but never more so than today. Frederic and Jeanine say:
An important part of Beechwood’s mission over the last 10 years has been to build a collaborative community of artists, performers and audiences across the divisions of age, gender, race, cultural backgrounds and lifestyles.
Jeanine Esposito and Frederic Chiu, at their Beechwood Arts home.
We have been honored to welcome a diverse community across all of our events, including a large number of black artists, performers and audience members. We’ve been heartbroken and horrified by the many violent instances of black lives being extinguished and the evidence of enduring, systemic racism in our communities and our country. We stand in support of identifying and eliminating systemic racism and replacing it with respect and equal opportunity.
In these past tragic weeks, we have reached out to the members of our Beechwood community that are directly affected by these issues to discuss, collaborate and develop together a way for Beechwood to use our resources and our mission to best support them.
The answer that emerged is AMPLIFY. The goal of AMPLIFY is to use Beechwood’s resources to support black artists and the black community by giving them control of the narrative and amplifying their voice, while standing with them in support and solidarity.
For the next 2 weeks, we have invited black members of our creative community to participate with other artists they invite to collaboratively create visual art and to perform (and stream) from our Music Room or under the Copper Beech to share their voice in whatever way they choose through the lens of the arts. Juneteenth falls in the middle of this period. We will have a special performance that evening, from 7 to 9 p.m. (see below).
All activities will run for 2 weeks (June 14-28), on either side of Juneteenth (June 19), the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States.’
In addition, Beechwood purchased 40 plain black lawn signs to post along the road on our property. We’ve invited black artists from our community to pick up a sign, create an artwork on one side, then pass it along to a supportive fellow artist of their choice to paint the other side and drop it off at Beechwood. As the plain black signs are replaced with finished artwork, a river of amplified artistic voices will emerge.
Beechwood Arts’ signs, before artists’ creations.
Although Beechwood on Weston Road is not yet reopened to the public, we have invited black performing artists from our community to record and stream performances of music, theater, spoken word, live art, etc. from Beechwood’s Music Room or under the embrace of the Copper Beech.
Performers will stream from Beechwood’s Facebook Live platform, and receive donations to support them and their work, and share with other supportive organizations as they choose. The schedule will be revealed as performers sign up.
For example, there is a special, poignant and powerful performance by Tiffany Renee Jackson’s “From The Hood To The Ivy League (and Back)” about her extraordinary journey as a black woman, on June 19 from 7 to 9 p.m.
Dr. Tiffany Renee Jackson
Dr. Jackson sings and performs the story of her life journey – from growing up in a tough New Haven neighborhoods, to the development of her singing gift in the black church, to walking to lessons at Yale, to becoming an international opera star (she has sung several times at Beechwood!), to teaching at private schools including Greens Farms Academy, to finally returning to New Haven to teach and lift up young black voices.
Once all the art is in and performances have begun, we will work with the artists to forge partnerships with other venues and organizations. The goal is to expand ways to show the art and use the performances to have dialogue and conversations that bring awareness, understanding and support of Black Lives Matter issues. Please email email@example.com with any suggestions, or if your organization wants to be involved.
We’d also like to share some history about the copper beech tree on Beechwood Arts’ property. Estimated at close to 400 years old, it has been witness to the history of black lives in America since the beginning of slavery.
Beechwood’s main house was built in 1806 — possibly earlier. Inside is a door that, when opened, appears to be a shallow closet, but whose side wall is a narrow entrance to a 4-room underground basement. It is believed to have played a role in the Underground Railroad.
It is reported that President Lincoln saw that tree when visiting Morris Ketchum, who owned Beechwood when it was part of the Hockanum estate.
Beechwood House, with its magnificent copper beech tree.
We did not know this history when we purchased Beechwood and set our mission to share the arts with the surrounding community by building a collaborative community of artists, performers and audiences, or when we included collaboration and community conversation in our mission to explore meaningful, and sometimes difficult and complex, themes through the arts.
But we believe that a space retains the energy of its history to influence its future!
Jerri Graham is a 13-year resident of Westport. A talented photographer, she is currently working on a portrait series capturing the stories and lives of Westporters.
Today she reflects on the past week in Westport — and the world.
Last Sunday I attended a demonstration on Jesup Green to protest the horrific murder of George Floyd. A bipartisan effort by 2 local activists that was put together within 48 hours as the country watched in anger, the gathering was a way to say” enough is enough,” and that Westport stood in solidarity with the rest of the country against police brutality.
Jerri Graham, with her daughter.
I attended as a sad and frustrated black woman, mother, photographer, and a Westporter. Walking around with my camera I saw friends I’ve known for over a decade, out for the first time in months standing in heartfelt angst with neighbors of every age, race and religion.
Over 400 locals listened to the calm, sincere and honest voices of town leaders, including the chief of police standing with us in our tears over the death of a man none of us ever knew.
As we stood together as a town, I had an overwhelming sense of pride in my community I’ve rarely experienced in my life. I felt, through the bodies — though only a fraction of our population — an immense wave of understanding.
When we stood in silence for the half the amount of time George Floyd was pinned down, we all felt the horror. We all felt the shame. We all felt the anger.
Tears came between me and my camera as I took photos. After the silence ended, I walked around the green with my daughter seeing the eyes over masks we’d known since she was in kindergarten. We even had a chance to meet up with the other black families who also live in Westport who attended the demonstration. It was also a bittersweet meeting of some of Westports finest melanin, though I wish we’d met under different circumstances.
That evening, my daughter and I recapped through tears the last few days. We, like most Americans had grown accustomed to reports of black children, women, and men murdered for existing by law enforcement. However, this time we both felt it was different. For the first time, our community was also disgusted and outraged. Over the years we had wept alone over Tamir, Trayvon, Michael, Eric, and Breonna. But this time, our grief was shared.
One scene from last Sunday’s protest …
During this period of time, the need to be vocal and loud against the injustices we see is important. We want to fix things that are broken. The racism that results in murder isn’t a hat someone pops on their heads, but are a result of generations never viewing blacks as equal. While I don’t have the answer to the ills of racism that has engulfed our country from its formation, I do know that once the marches have ended, the work for equality isn’t over and starts at home.
First, take a look at your own life and the relationships in it. Do you have black friends? It doesn’t have to be a bestie or someone you hang out with every week, but it is 2020. Broaden your horizons and circle by stepping outside of your comfort zone of who you know.
We are here in Westport. We don’t just work at the stores, and for you. Parents are currently scrambling for books on how to teach their children about racism, yet often they don’t have a diverse social circle themselves. When parents don’t, oftentimes their children won’t.
Now, don’t run out and try to befriend the first black person you see (I’m in hiding and there’s a service fee). It doesn’t work that way. But at least make an effort to establish real relationships with people who don’t look like you. It starts with a cup of coffee, a conversation, and connection. Understanding comes when we know one another as humans, not just sound bites on the evening news.
… and another. (Photos/Jerri Graham)
Second, put your money where your mouth is. No, I’m not talking about donations or setting up a fund for disadvantaged students. While I admire this level of helping others, what I want to see once the homemade signs have been recycled is monetary activism.
Vow to spend a portion of your income with black enterprises and black brands. While marching alongside us and for us can break the barriers, economic opportunity is the only way for us to be fully equal. Be an economic investor by looking at holiday and birthday gifts you plan to buy this year, and vowing that 20% or more will be from black-owned companies. It won’t be easy because they won’t always be the ones readily available, but it is a choice to spread the wealth around. Contributing to the building of a brand or business owned by a black person by consciously using your purchasing power is trickle around form of activism that kicks ass!
Do not let the fight against police brutality be where your activism to support black lives ends. Vow to carry a placard not just for a march, but one you hold within yourself through daily relationships, dollars, and choices.
One of Westport’s largest political protests since the Vietnam War drew a crowd of about 1,500 to downtown Westport this afternoon.
Organized by young people — and overwhelmingly young, but with families and at least one 80-year-old woman — the event was loud, enthusiastic, and peaceful.
A number of attendees were from Westport. Others came from surrounding towns and cities, including Norwalk, Bridgeport and Stamford. Many carried homemade signs.
Ten days after the death of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, the crowd chanted “I can’t breathe,” “Black lives matter” and “No justice, no peace.”
Floyd’s death — and similar actions around the country — was the catalyst. But placards invoked other black people killed in the country, and an array of injustices.
(Photo/Jennifer Meerow Berkiner)
Bobbi Brown — the youngest member of Bridgeport’s Board of Education — set the tone as the event began, on the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge. The symbolism was apt: That’s the site of some of the most memorable political protests in Westport. And this afternoon’s demonstration was, in part, a bridge between a wealthy white suburb, and its more socioeconomically and demographically diverse neighbors.
Brown spoke passionately about the need for involvement, education and activism. She was joined by several other young black leaders.
But she also handed the megaphone to a variety of speakers. A young autistic white man spoke of his marginalization. A young white woman in a wheelchair cried as she talked about supporting her black friend.
Westporter Mary-Lou Weisman said, “I’m in my 80s. My generation failed you. We have hope you can do what we didn’t do.”
Holding the hand of a 7-year-old white girl, Brown noted, “It’s up to us to make the world better and safer for her, and everyone.”
The crowd — growing bigger by the minute — then marched the short distance from the bridge to police headquarters.
Chief Foti Koskinas told the crowd, “You are making sense. You are making a difference. We are listening.”
More speakers took the megaphone by the station house. Everyone took a knee.
A half-white, half-Filipino college student said, “We were born into an enormous amount of privilege. We can walk around freely. But Westport cannot ignore injustice. We need to use our privilege to do better.”
The group then massed back on the bridge. The speakers, chants, pleas for justice and promises to act continued.
“Are you fired up?” one speaker asked the crowd.
“Yes!” they roared back. “Fired up!”
Police Chief Foti Koskinas promised to keep this in police headquarters.
State Senator Will Haskell was in the crowd, handing out masks.
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