Tag Archives: Harold Bailey

TEAM Westport Teen Essay Winners: “Black Lives Matter”

Black lives matter.

They matter in Westport. And they matter to Staples High School students.

That’s evident from the responses to this year’s TEAM Westport Teen Diversity Contest.

The 8th annual event — open to all students attending high school here, or who live in Westport and go to school elsewhere — focused on the broad yet controversial movement that gained strength and power last summer, following the deaths of unarmed Black Americans.

The prompt from TEAM Westport — our town’s multicultural organization — was:

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?

Nearly 2 dozen students submitted essays. The winners were announced last night. A small group attended the ceremony at the Westport Library, which co-sponsored the contest. Many others watched via Zoom.

Nearly 2 dozen students submitted essays.

TEAM Westport Teen Essay Contest finalists (from left): Curtis Sullivan, Maxwell Tanksley, Jaden Mello.

Maxwell Tanksley won 1st prize — and $1,000 — for his essay, titled “Words of Power.” The Staples High junior writes powerfully about his experiences — and emotions — as a Black teenager growing up today. He recognizes too the emotions of his white friends, in his deeply personal essay.

Second place, and $750, went to Staples freshman Curtis Sullivan. In “Black Lives Can Matter More. Here’s How,” he takes a somewhat contrarian view, arguing that both the “Black Lives Matter” name and the lack of clear leaders led to misinterpretation, and allowed detractors to tarnish its message.

Placing 3rd, with a prize of $500, was Jaden Mello. The Staples sophomore’s essay — “The Responsibility of a Nation” — looks at the BLM movement from the perspective of a white student, eager to understand and help.

TEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey.

1st Selectman Jim Marpe, TEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey, Essay Committee chair Susan Ellis, chief judge Dr. Judith Hamer and Library executive director Bill Harmer all spoke about the importance of the contest, and hearing young voices.

But the evening began to those young voices themselves. The 3 winners delivered their excellent essays with poise and passion.

Each looked at the subject through a different lens. Taken together, they offer an important look at a complex issue — one that 3 Westport teens are not afraid to tackle.

You can read — and reflect on — their essays below. (To read the winners of all 8 TEAM Westport essay contests, click here.)

MAXWELL TANKSLEY: “WORDS OF POWER”

Does your life matter? For many in Westport, this question borders on absurd.

How could my life not matter? For us people of color, however, this question has become more pressing, and the answer has become more disturbing.

For me, the answer to that simple question comes from the deepest depths of history and identity and it emerges not as a fully formed manifesto or
speech, but as a strong bundle of emotions.

My life matters. I decided on that one pretty quickly. I’ve also decided that would be the end of it—if I were white. There is not a doubt in my mind that my life matters to me. I recognize my own worth, I recognize my own ability.

I believe, for those same reasons, that my life matters to God and the universe.

But does my life matter to society? To put it bluntly, do I
matter as much to society as a white man?

No.

My life, black lives, simply matter less to the society we live in than those of our white counterparts, and we see it every day. We see it in Trayvon Martin, shot dead in the street. We see it in George Floyd, whose pleas and cries were met with stone-cold silence.

We see it in incarceration rates, with black Americans—only 12% of the population—making up 33% of the prison population. We see it in the courts, where our killers go free. We see it in jobs that won’t
hire us and laws that target us. We even see it in our friends, who say: “He wouldn’t have been shot if he weren’t resisting” or “You’ll definitely get into that school, you’re black”.

This vast dichotomy between what our lives ought to be worth and what they are worth is why the statement “Black Lives Matter” means so much to me. It fills that gap and expresses—contrary to society—that my life matters.

When I say the words “Black Lives Matter,” I feel many things. I feel pride in my black heritage. I feel awe at the tenacity of my ancestors, who suffered for being black. I feel enraged that I will be judged not by the content of my character, but by the color of my skin. All these latent feelings—characteristic of the black experience in America—explode cathartically when I think of the phrase “Black Lives Matter.”

Maxwell Tanksley

Of course, as my interpretations of Black Lives Matter are colored by my experiences, so too are those of others. I remember playing video games with a group of friends when the topic of recent Black Lives Matter protests came up.

One of them began to casually rant about how “black lives matter [are] criminals.” Agitated, I remarked that I had an inherent interest in Black
Lives Matter, and he flew into a tirade that gave me a slight chuckle.

He raved on about the sins of Black Lives Matter for nearly 10 minutes until another friend pulled him into a private call to deliver a nugget of information.

See, he had not known I was black — we had never met in person, so he assumed that I, like everyone else in the group, was white.

In a shocking twist, his demeanor changed. Somehow, the mere presence of someone with dark skin had caused his arguments to morph into backpedaling at such speed I began to fear for his health.

His and my reaction both were indicative of two different understandings of the phrase Black Lives Matter produced from 2 different worldviews from 2 different worlds. He understood it to be the rallying cry of self-victimizing criminals, using the wrongs of a distant past to create unjustified chaos. He saw groups of rioters marching down the main street, with police cars burning in the background. My rallying cry of empowerment was his siren song of destruction, both connected by strong emotional convictions.

Our discussions around race are often emotional because we have so many emotional memories relating to race, memories that we use to form our opinions about the matter. A child who was mercilessly bullied for coming from the poor side of town and one who felt that they unfairly lost their spot on a sports team to a child of a different complexion will have different outlooks on race in the future, and both will react emotionally when it is discussed.

Because my past experiences with race were emotional, my view of race is an emotional one. I react emotionally when the topic is brought up, I am emotional in my support for Black Lives Matter, and I am emotional in denouncing systemic racism.

On the other hand, my friend was equally emotional in his denunciation of Black Lives Matter. The emotions involved with discussions of race can be a problem, but they are also the solution. These emotions can cause feelings to be hurt and friendships to be broken, but they can also be the key to finding common ground.

When my friend learned I was black, he immediately began to consider how his words affected me. He and I had both felt the same emotions at points in our lives and he — if only subconsciously — began to empathize with me and understand why I felt the way I did.

Needless to say, not all issues of race will be solved with a magical cure of understanding and empathy. Reality isn’t a children’s cartoon. However, honest, open-minded discussions of race are the best step we can take towards promoting equity and equality in our society. By having these emotional conversations about race and by using these emotions to promote empathy instead of using them to fuel conflict, we can create a bridge to connect people with disparate experiences.

By having these conversations, we will encourage effective interracial
communication, and we will use empathy to create a better environment for people of all races.

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CURTIS SULLIVAN: “BLACK LIVES CAN MATTER MORE. HERE’S HOW”

ln the 1950s and 1960s, African-Americans protested unjust laws, which eventually helped frame the Civil Rights Act. But racial discrimination remains embedded in society, even
half a century later.

On May 25,2020, at the height of the worst pandemic the world had seen in over 100 years, tragedy struck the streets of MinnEapolis. George Floyd, an African-American man, was apprehended by police forces afTer unknowingly using a counterfeit $20 bill in a convenience store. He found himself with a knee on his neck, pinned by a police officer while he gasped, “l can’t breathe” — a phrase that became a symbol for the movement that ensued.

After 9 long minutes, he died. The coming weeks saw mass protests around the country, demanding an end to police violence and racial discrimination, calling for racial equality through laws and police reform, and raising awareness of implicit discrimination.

The movement, dubbed Black Lives Matter, was anything but novel. But the
added strain of the COVID-l9 pandemic, plus additional instances of the lack of police restraint when dealing with Blacks only fueled the flames of racial unrest.

There is no doubt that Black Lives Matter will be one of the most important movements of our time. While powerful and necessary, the BLM movement has some critical weaknesses that have been startlingly overlooked. These include: failure to communicate the movement’s message and purpose, and a lack of proper leadership to maintain relevance. Left unaddressed, these weaknesses
undermine the movement’s call to reform.

A clear and easy-to-understand message is critical to any effective communications, but particularly to a social movement. Suffragists argued for the right to vote, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about a dream that all Americans were equal.

“Black Lives Matter” is a catchy phrase that left too much room for interpretation or confusion by too many. Some people who are
opposed to the BLM movement felt that Black Lives Matter silences anyone who isn’t Black. They believe that the movement is saying only Black lives matter, and suggests that non-Black lives don’t matter.

As such, oppositionists have responded to the BLM movement with their own,
dubbed “All Lives Matter.” This tried to convey the message that every life matters, including non-Black lives. All Lives Matter misses the point that Blacks have seen systemic oppression since the founding of this country. ln their efforts to remind BLM dissenters about the importance of Black lives, the protesters stoked fears in some non-Blacks, albeit unfounded, that Black lives might matter more than non-Black lives.

A simple fix might be changing the slogan to “Black Lives Matter, Too,” or “Black Lives Also Matter.” This change clarifies the message behind the Black Lives Matter movement, while disallowing oppositionists from claiming that their life might not also *matter.”

Curtis Sullivan

Undermining the call to reform, the Black Lives Matter movement failed to be clear about their purpose. During the initial phase of the movement, protests helped spawn rioting and violence. However, most of the rioters were not actual BLM protesters. Instead, opportunists were hiding behind the name and the momentum to initiate their own rampages and push political agendas.

Oppositionists were quick to accuse the BLM movement as supporting anarchy, distracting them from the movement’s intentions to improve racial equality.

These fears of anarchy were echoed by then-President Trump, who used the violence as an escape hatch, to get out of addressing racism as the crisis and the root of the movement. Several times Trump denied the existence of systemic racism in the US. Rather, he pushed a message of “Law and Order,” suggesting that the BLM movement was only demonstrating lawlessness, and ignoring the peaceful side of the movement.

Why were policy makers so focused on the “violent side” of the movement, instead of the original call to actisn? Because when riots first broke out, people within the BLM movement, who were calling for social justice reform, failed to denounce the riots. The movement’s message was not clear that it was advocating for police reform. Certain members of the movement even supported the riots and their violence. This distracted the public, and drew policy makers’ attention away from reform, and towards suppressing riots’

Most importantly, the BLM movement lacks key figures that the public can identify as its rightful leaders. During the civil rights movement, leaders were the public face of the movement. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr-, Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X were able to vocalize the vision, and keep people engaged in the fight for the end of racial segregation.

This also culminated in the famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended racial segregation in the US.

Every effective movement has some form of leadership representation to help
communicate the message of the movement. A person for the public to listen to, and for policy makers to meet with for negotiation and courses of action. Leaders can denounce violence in the name of the movement, and keep a public audience focused on the initial call.

Many will say that the BLM movement shouldn’t have leadership, as it is more focused on Black voices coming together against injustice, but leadership is important to maintain relevance in the movement.

One modern example is the Global Climate Strike of September 2019, spearheaded by Greta Thunberg. This movement caused people around the world to protest, encouraging world leaders to take action against climate change. Similar concrete leadership can help the BLM movement, and effectively convey an impactful message.

The BLM movement will be remembered for centuries to come. The call for social justice reform has left a lasting impact on society. However, without a clearer message, and strong leadership, the BLM movement will face significant obstacles in effecting major reform.

With these changes, I am hopeful it will be able to fight for a safe and harmonious future for all and for generations to come.

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JADEN MELLO: “THE RESPONSIBILITY OF A NATION”

George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijan McClain. Names most of us recognize.

But have you heard of Rayshard Brooks? Atatiana Jefferson? Botham Jean?

Somehow, so many victims of racially charged violence go unrecognized. Though we didn’t treat them as such, all these black lives mattered. Despite the simple, honorable roots of “Black Lives Matter,” it has been twisted into a politically charged statement due to white people’s threatened reaction to the movement,
caused by lack of awareness.

In our current political environment, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” has been twisted into a complex, controversial phrase. But its origins are simple, and meant to acknowledge the oppression of people of color. It is a reminder to our world that black voices need to be heard and are worth listening to just as much as anyone else’s.

It simply means that black lives matter as much as white lives. All lives can’t matter until black lives matter, so this phrase, this movement, is simply putting the focus onto a group of people that are not being treated as if they matter.

Many turn against this movement, screaming “All Lives Matter” in response. But this is a knee-jerk, defensive reaction. Often the people who feel so threatened by the BLM movement are accustomed to feeling a level of comfort in this world that has been built for them.

However, these people must understand that “Black Lives Matter” does not mean that black lives are superior. Despite centuries of protests, people of color are still oppressed and silenced. Our nation’s system is still pitted against them. Like Malcolm X said amidst the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s, “Black people are fed up with the dilly dallying, pussyfooting, compromising approach that we’ve been using toward getting our freedom. We want freedom
now.”

People of color have been denied their rights for centuries, and thus it is inevitable that they have become more and more impatient. They are tired of being told to wait for justice, respect, safety, and freedom, and with this frustration boiling for centuries, emotions have begun to overflow and surge through our nation.

Despite calls for change, people of color are still harmed, yet we expect them not to fight back. Malcolm X said that he believed it was a “crime” for anyone who was being abused to allow themselves to continue to be victimized without defending themselves.

The author Ta-Nehisi Coates said that “You do not give your body to the billy clubs of Birmingham sheriffs […] We must never submit ourselves […] to defiling and plunder.”

Jaden Mello

Despite their peaceful attempts to fight for equality, black people are still violently punished for these actions, constantly forced to accept abuse. Black people should not have to put themselves in harm’s way to fight for justice.

But it is also a crime to stand by and watch someone else be abused without defending them. White people must recognize that they have led privileged lives, and thus need to be willing to sacrifice parts of themselves in order to
defend their fellow black citizens.

As a white person, I will never be able to understand this pain and suffering, and the frustration that must come with it. However, I do understand that we cannot leave people of color to defend themselves from “defiling and plunder.” We must take part as equals in their fight, act as shields to protect them in their virtuous fight.

We must stand with them, for it is our responsibility to not force them to defend themselves and their rights alone.

In order to be allies of the Black Lives Matter movement, white people must yearn to be educated. We must not take over the movement, but simply listen and empathize so that we can better understand the oppression people of color are forced to endure as best we can. Only by doing this can we strive to become better, more useful teammates of those who have been oppressed.

Like Malcolm X said, “On the American racial level, we had to approach the black man’s struggle against the white man’s racism as a human problem.” None of us are innocent, none of us should be comfortable watching these events unfold without doing anything about it. Thus, like Malcolm X believed, we are all responsible to spread awareness and education.

The greater understanding people have of our nation’s history of oppressing people of color, of what has created this sense of entrapment and desperation, the more they will be able to sympathize with this movement, and hopefully eventually support and be a part of it.

Only by each person working to educate themselves and those around them, will Black Lives Matter be able to become de-politized, which will in turn enable people to be more open minded.

Only by doing this, will the movement be able to achieve its greatest and most influential potential in our communities and our nation.

From left: 1st Selectman Jim Marpe, Jaden Mello, Curtis Sullivan, Maxwell Tanksley, TEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey, Westport Library executive director Bill Harmer. (All photos/Dan Woog)

 

Bus Shelters Get Boost

Maybe you’ve seen them, and thought about them.

Maybe you’ve seen them, but never given them another thought.

“They” are the men and women who work in Westport, live elsewhere, and rely on Coastal Link buses to travel back and forth.

They wait, after hours of work, by the side of the road.

They stand in the heat of summer, in rain and sleet. They stand as cars race past, sometimes spraying water from puddles. When snows piles on the sidewalk, they stand in the road.

Our lack of concern, care and protection for bus riders is a townwide embarrassment.

Waiting for the bus. (Photos courtesy of Planning & Zoning Commission Bus Shelter Working Group

In May of 2009 — 2 months after launching “06880” — I wrote about this topic. Twelve years later, nothing has changed.

Finally, it might.

Last night, the Planning & Zoning Commission’s Economic Growth Subcommittee heard a presentation about the need for covered bus shelters.

3rd Selectman Melissa Kane — representing the Bus Shelter Working Group — addressed the need. They’ve worked for months with TEAM Westport, town officials and other stakeholders.

TEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey says:

Bus shelter support is a portal into the issue of who belongs in Westport. That is an issue upon which TEAM Westport is squarely focused. Citizens, workers and visitors use bus transportation, and  deserve protection from the elements when waiting for a bus.

Addressing this issue not only enhances the experiences of those who live, work and visit Westport, but sends a clear signal that all three truly “belong” here.

The working group has drafted language for a P&Z text amendment. They’ve reached out to the Connecticut Department of Transportation, which controls US 1 (the Post Road). State legislators Will Haskell, Jonathan Steinberg, Tony Hwang and Stephanie Thomas are all on board.

So are Westport officials, including 1st Selectman Jim Marpe and Public Works director Pete Ratkiewich.

Funds would come primarily from the state, and private groups. Some town money has already been earmarked.

Covered bus shelters would provide safety and shelter. They’d include information on routes and schedules.

They’d also be visible. That, in turn, would make bus riders — the men and women who work to make Westport work — more visible too.

There are not many ideas for improvements that should get 100% support, from 100% of the town.

This is one of them.

Roundup: IRS, MLK, WCP, More

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Congressman Jim Himes reminds residents of free tax filing resource,

The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program offers federal and state tax help to people earning under $56,000 a year. VITA is largely virtual this year, but there are also some drop-off locations. Click here to learn more.

The Connecticut Department of Revenue Services provides free tax help over by phone. Call 860-297-5770 to schedule an online appointment.

The University of Connecticut School of Law offers federal and state tax assistance for low-income Connecticut residence by phone. Call 860-570-5165 to learn more or book an appointment.

Click here for links to more tax assistance.

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“King in the Wilderness” is an Emmy-winning HBO documentary about the last 3 days of Martin Luther King’s life. At the end of the 1960s, the Black Power movement saw the civil rights leader’s focus on nonviolence as a weakness, while President Lyndon Johnson believe his antiwar activism was dangerous. King himself was tormented by doubts about his philosophy and future.

The executive producer was Westporter Trey Ellis. He’s an award-winning novelist, Emmy and Peabody-winning filmmaker, playwright, professor of screenwriting in the Graduate School of Film at Columbia University, and contributor to The New Yorker, New York TimesWashington Post and NPR.

On Thursday, February 25 (7 p.m.), the Westport Library hosts a conversation between Ellis and TEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey. Registrants can view the film for one week prior to the event. There is no charge; click here to register.

The program is part of Westport READS. This year’s them is “Towards a More Perfect Union: Confronting Racism.”

Trey Ellis

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The popular Westport Country Playhouse “Script in Hand” play-reading series returns Monday, February 22 (7 p.m.).

This time, audiences can hear the scripts in their own homes. The virtual performance is also available on demand any time, from noon February 23 through February 28.

This reading — “A Sherlock Carol” — should be particularly fun. It’s about a grown-up Tiny Tim, who asks Sherlock Holmes to investigate the death of Ebenezer Scrooge. Six actors take on the famed characters of Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens. Click here for more information, and tickets.

In addition, the Playhouse presents a free virtual conversation about Thornton Wilder’s timeless “Our Town” — particularly as it applies to the 21st century.

It’s this Sunday (February 14, 3 p.m.), on the Playhouse website and YouTube channel (Westport Playhouse).

Participants include Howard Sherman, author of a new book about “Our Town”; Anne Keefe, associate artistic director with Joanne Woodward for the Playhouse’s 2002 production of “Our Town,” and Jake Robards, who appeared in that show. The host is Playhouse artistic director Mark Lamos.

In other WCP news, the Playhouse has announced the 13 members of its inaugural Youth Council. They include Staples High School students Henry Carson, Kate Davitt and Sophia Vellotti, plus Cessa Lewis, a Westporter who attends St. Luke’s School.

“A Sherlock Carol”

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Suzuki Music Schools’ Connecticut Guitar Festival returns for a 4th year on March 5 to 7 — virtually, of course. It’s all part of the Westport-based organization’s mission to make international artists accessible to everyone — for free.

For a list of events, click here. For an overview of the entire festival and artists, click here.

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And finally … pioneering jazz pianist Chick Corea died Tuesday in Florida, of cancer. He was 79.

 

 

Roundup: Alysin Camerota, Artists Collective, Subtle Racism, More


Former CNN anchor Dave Briggs interviews his former colleague — current anchor of CNN’s “New Day” — Alisyn Camerota on Instagram Live today (Saturday, October 3) at 5 p.m. The pair of Westporters will talk about their town, and the world. Just search on Instagram for @WestportMagazine.


The “Playhouse at the Drive-In” event just got more remarkable.

As noted yesterday, the Westport Country Playhouse celebrates its 90th season on Saturday, October 17 (5 p.m.) with a a benefit event and screening at the Remarkable Theater drive-in (the Imperial Avenue parking lot).

Yesterday, The Artists Collective of Westport got approval from the Playhouse to hold their Affordable Art Trunk Show that afternoon, at 3.

Over 25 artists will be masked, in (socially distanced) cars — and as much “affordable art” as they can display on easels and tables.

The volume and flow of pedestrian traffic looking at the art will be carefully monitored by Collective volunteers.

The Playhouse and Artists Collective enjoy a great partnership, including meeting and exhibition at the WCP’s Sheffer Barn.


This Monday (October 5, 8:30 a.m.), the Coalition for Westport sponsors a Zoom talk on “subtle racism in Westport.” TEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey is the guest.

To register, email kbernhar@optonline.net.

 


Lindsey Baldwin is a Staples High School senior. She’s an EMT. And she just received kudos from State Senator Will Haskell, for another type of community service.

Last year Lindsey set up donation bins at various pharmacies and dental practices. She collected 2,000 toothbrushes, toothpaste tubes and floss cartridges. She also created a fundraiser on Facebook, and collected $1,430.

In February, Lindsey traveled to Honduras with CapeCARES. The on-profit sends volunteers to remote areas. They provide free medical and dental care.

She brought those 2,000 dental products with her. Many villagers had never had access to toothbrushes. It was an important moment for them — and for Lindsey, who returned to Westport grateful for all she has, and the opportunity to serve.

Lindsey Baldwin, in Honduras.


And finally … of course:

 

Awards Highlight Westport Aces

The 2020 ACE Awards will have a distinctly Westport-Weston look.

The event — the acronym is for Arts & Culture Empowerment, and it’s sponsored by the Cultural Alliance of Fairfield County — is set for October 22 (5:30 p.m., online). Registration is free.

Westporter Miggs Burroughs earns the Artist honors. Local residents Harold Bailey and Bernicestine McLeod receive the Citizen award.

Miggs Burroughs

Burroughs — a native Westporter and Staples High School graduate — has designed hundreds of logos, ads, brochures and websites for commercial and non-profit clients since 1972. His lenticular photos that explore change and transition are displayed at shows and galleries, and in tunnels like Parker Harding Plaza and the Wesetport train station.

A founding member of the Artists Collective of Westport and the first artist-in-residence at the Westport Library, Burroughs actually designed the actual ACE award — which was 3D-printed in the library’s MakerSpace.

Bailey and McLeod — both Brown University graduates and trustees — are committed to civic work and philanthropy. Bailey is a former IBM vice president, who chairs TEAM Westport — the town’s multicultural commission. McLeod — president of an IT consulting firm — serves as treasurer.

Harold Bailey and Bernicestine McLeod

Bailey is also a board member of the Westport Country Playhouse, and a founder of Stamford’s 100 Black Men organization.McLeod has served on many boards, including the Westport Library and Fairfield County’s Community Foundation.

Weston’s Jim Naughton hosts the event. Tony Award winner Joanna Gleason — who works often with Staples Players — will talk about the essential role of music and arts education.

Videos for the virtual event are produced by Westporter Doug Tirola, president of 4th Row Films, and the guiding light behind the Remarkable Theater.

To register for the free event, click here. For more information, including sponsorships, email david@culturalalliancefc.org.

Why Is Westport So White? The Discussion Begins.

The title was provocative: “Why is Westport So White? What Can You Do About It?”

The speakers were heartfelt. Their list of examples was long, at a meeting last night that covered topics like long-ago real estate practices, current zoning regulations, and the roles of schools and police.

The event — organized by a group of residents ranging from long-timers to newcomers, as well as TEAM Westport — drew a crowd of about 75 (outdoors and socially distanced) to MoCA Westport. Another 25 or so joined via Zoom.

Black residents spoke of their experiences as a very small minority, in a very white town. In one compelling example, Ifeseyi Gale was confronted by a suspicious family when she pulled into a driveway to pick up an item.

Ifeseyi Gale addresses the crowd at MoCA.

2020 Staples High School graduate Natasha Johnson — now a Wharton student — sent a recorded message that recounted many painful experiences, starting in elementary schools.

Many speakers described their love for the town. For example, TEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey noted Police Chief Foti Koskinas’ grace and calm, and applauded new Superintendent of Schools Tom Scarice’s openness to hearing about what can be done differently and better, in terms of diversity and inclusion.

But they did not shy away from demanding that the town do a better job in race relations.

A white student described a survey, in which recent Staples grads were asked about their preparation for living in a diverse society. Many noted that they had been led to believe the world is color-blind — but it is not.

TEAM Westport sponsors an annual high school essay contest. Past prompts have included micro-aggressions, and taking a knee protests. TEAM Westport has spent has spent nearly 2 years working with the school system on a framework including training, hiring, curriculum and staffing that would address diversity and inclusion. Winners of the 2019 TEAM Westport essay contest are (from left) chair Harold Bailey, and Chet Ellis, Angela Ji, Daniel Boccardo and Olivia Sarno.

Planning and Zoning Commission chair Danielle Dobin discussed how the lack of diverse housing impacts who lives here. She urged elimination of Westport’s cap on multifamily housing — which limits the total number of those units to 10% of total town dwellings, many of which are age-restricted and do not allow families — along with removing a restriction on “accessory dwelling units” with full bathrooms and kitchens. Permitting property owners to rent guest cottages, or create separate private living space, would expand housing stock and increase affordability and diversity.

Over the past few months, the entire country has talked openly about race. Organizers expressed hope that last night’s event will be an important beginning — not a one-time event — for their town.

Hundreds Unite Against Racism

Jesup Green — Westport’s historic site for anti-war, gun violence and other protests — drew several hundred people of all ages to another, this afternoon.

Organized in less than 48 hours following the national reaction to the death of George Floyd, it was as passionate as any in the past. But — coming in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic — it also marked the first large gathering here since mid-March. Masks were mandatory. Speeches were short.

But the message was powerful.

Organizer Darcy Hicks noted “the tension between wanting to stay home and keep the community safe, and the bubbling need to do something.”

RTM member Andrew Colabella and civic activist Darcy Hicks.

Police Chief Foti Koskinas read yesterday’s statement from his department condemning Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis officers.

Then he went further.

Police Chief Foti Koskinas (far right) with, from left, TEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey and 1st Selectman Jim Marpe. The town’s other 2 selectman were there too.

He apologized personally to the Floyd family, for the way their loved one was treated by police.

“I am never embarrassed, and always proud, to wear this uniform,” Koskinas said. “But Mr. Floyd’s death was devastating to this department.”

He then introduced Harold Bailey, TEAM Westport chair. The head of the town’s multicultural committee said that for every George Floyd, there are “thousands of other victims, in the dark and out of sight.” Indifference, he said, is just another way of sanctioning such acts.

Bailey added that TEAM Westport is partnering with the police, Westport Library, Interfaith Clergy Association and schools, on community forums and projects.

Hicks spoke last. “As a white, privileged person, I am complicit in the death of George Floyd and others,” she said.

“I have not always been engaged in fighting racism and economic inequality.” It is not enough to be “not a racist,” she said. “People have to do things.”

 

The protest ended with a long moment of silence: 4 minutes, 23 seconds. But, Hicks noted, that was only half the amount of time George Floyd’s neck was pinned underneath a police officer’s knee.

The silence seemed to go on forever.

And it spoke volumes.

(Photo/David Vita)

(Photo/David Vita)

(All photos/Dan Woog unless otherwise noted)

Dr. Kendi’s Journey

Exactly one year ago, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi was the keynote speaker at Westport’s annual Martin Luther King Day ceremony. A full house listened raptly as the winner of the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction described exactly what it means to be anti-racist.

It was a powerful, insightful lecture. Attendees contributed almost $3,000 toward anti-racism training in Westport.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi

In the weeks following, the MLK Planning Committee — TEAM Westport, the Westport Library, Westport Playhouse and Westport Weston Interfaith Council — worked with Dr. Kendi and his team to develop anti-racism training for senior management of key organizations in Westport. It includes town government, the police and the school system.

The year-long, successful pilot project is now in the action stage.

Dr. Kendi’s impact on Westport has been profound.

And it came while he was engaged in his own, very different struggle.

Last week, the Atlantic published a first-person piece by Dr. Kendi. Titled “What I Learned From Cancer,” it describes his whipsawing emotions as he was diagnosed with — and then battled — Stage 4 colon cancer.

It’s powerful, personal and raw. During grueling chemotherapy, he continued to research and write his new book, “How to Be an Antiracist.” It was, he says, “perhaps my way of coping with the demoralizing severity of the cancer and the overwhelming discomfort of the treatment, furiously writing and fighting, fighting and writing to heal mind and body, to heal society.”

Dr. Kendi’s Atlantic piece ties together his professional work, and his new insights into America’s healthcare. He writes:

America’s politics, in my lifetime, have been shaped by racist fears of black criminals, Muslim terrorists, and Latino immigrants. Billions have been spent on border walls and prison walls and neighborhood walls, and on bombs and troops and tax cuts—instead of on cancer research, prevention, and treatment that can reduce the second-leading cause of death.

Any politician pledging to keep us safe who is drastically overfunding law and order, border security, and wars on terror—and drastically underfunding medical research, prevention, and health care—is a politician explicitly pledging to keep our bodies unsafe.

Harold Bailey — chair of TEAM Westport, who with Rev. Alison Buttrick Patton of Saugatuck Congregational Church has helped lead the local anti-racism initiative — notes that Dr. Kendi’s Playhouse talk last year was his first public appearance after being diagnosed with cancer.

Bailey — but few others — knew of that back story as they worked through the year together.

Today, Dr. Kendi stands a good chance of joining the 12% of people who survive a Stage 4 colon cancer diagnosis.

In fact, on Wednesday, January 30 (8 p.m., Quick Center for the Arts) he will be the keynote speaker at Fairfield University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Convocation. (Click here for details.)

As for Westport: This year’s 13th annual Martin Luther King celebration scheduled for tomorrow (Sunday, January 20, Westport Country Playhouse) has been postponed. A new date has  not yet been announced.

The keynote speaker will be James Forman, Jr. He wrote the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner for general nonfiction: “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.”

James Forman Jr.

He is a leading critic of mass incarceration and its disproportionate impact on people of color. The Brown University and Yale Law School graduate clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. He then spent 6 years as a public defender.

Forman has contributed op-eds and essays to the New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The Nation, and the Washington Post.

(For Dr. Kendi’s full Atlantic article, click here.)

CNN Covers “White Privilege” Controversy — And Adds A Prize

The Great White Privilege Essay Contest Debate reached CNN this morning.

A few minutes ago, Michael Smerconish interviewed TEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey on his TV show. The segment was long, detailed, fair and balanced.

And — before it ended — the host invited the eventual essay winner to come on the show.

(That should spur entrants from Westport high school students! Interested? Click here for details. To view the segment on the CNN website, click here.)

michael-smerconish-cnn

(Hat tips: Lyn Hogan. Barbara Wanamaker and Lisa Metz)

“White Privilege” Essay Contest: Separating Facts From Fake News

The essay contest sponsored by TEAM Westport — our town’s multicultural commission — has sparked worldwide coverage. An AP story using “outrage” in its headline went viral. Outlets from the Christian Science Monitor to the Onion ran stories.

Like a game of Telephone, each telling brought more inaccuracies.

This AP photo of Main Street ran with many news stories about the

This AP photo of Main Street ran with many news stories about the “white privilege” essay contest.

This morning, TEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey issued a fact sheet about the contest. It won’t get as much press as the kerfuffle story, but for “06880” readers fielding questions from friends around the world — generally framed as What the hell is going on there?! — it’s a start.

The actual essay prompt reads:

White privilege surfaced as a topic during the recent presidential election. In 1,000 words or less, describe how you understand the term “white privilege.” To what extent do you think this privilege exists? What impact do you think it has had in your life — whatever your racial or ethnic identity — and in our society more broadly?

The challenge asks students to research the concept of “white privilege,” and describe to what extent they think it exists.

It does not

  • Make any statement one way or the other about its existence
  • Imply a right answer
  • Imply or signal anything about the town of Westport, beyond an openness to explore the topic.

The essay contest is voluntary. No student is forced to enter. Nor is it a part of any school curriculum or classroom requirement.

TEAM-Westport-logo2The contest is open only to residents of Westport in grades 9-12 attending any school anywhere, and non-resident students who attend public or private schools located in Westport. It is not open to individuals or groups outside the town.

The contest requires written permission of a parent or guardian for entry.

No taxpayer dollars are involved. All funding comes from private contributions (email info@teamwestport.org to donate!).

All members of TEAM Westport are volunteers.

This is the 4th consecutive year that the group has sponsored an essay contest. Previous topics involved race, religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation.

The takeaways:

The essay topic is meant to allow Westport students in grades to 9-12 write about what the challenge means to them.

It is not about what older people, people outside Westport, the press or political groups think.

Think about that!

TEAM Westport contest judges (from left) Jaina Shaw and Dr. Judith Hamer, and (far right) Mary-Lou Weisman flank 2016 essay contest winners Ellie Shapiro, Ali Tritschler and Jacob Klegar.

TEAM Westport contest judges (from left) Jaina Shaw and Dr. Judith Hamer, and (far right) Mary-Lou Weisman flank 2016 essay contest winners Ellie Shapiro, Ali Tritschler and Jacob Klegar.