Submissions in TEAM Westport’s 10th annual Teen Diversity Essay Contest covered a wide range of topics.
A Filipino girl wrote about her sudden feeling of pride — not shame — in her heritage.
A boy described coming out of the closet, and into the light.
A white girl saw an unfamiliar map, and realized the US is not the center of the world.
The 3 essays were very different. The authors, though, shared the gift of writing maturely, insightfully, personally and passionately about their lives in a multicultural world that often seems, here in Westport, woefully monochromatic.
Greens Farms Academy senior Annie Dizon, Staples High School senior Tyler Darden and GFA junior Savvy Dreas captured first, second and third places respectively in the TEAM Westport contest.
The prompt was: “The Dialogue Challenge: Effective Engagement on Race, Ethnicity, Religion and LGBTQIA+.” In 1,000 words or less, “reflect on your own interactions with people who have different racial, ethnic, religious, and/or LGBTQIA+ identities and/or perspectives.
“What kinds of conversations were particularly helpful in prompting you to rethink your beliefs or opinions, perhaps causing you to change your mind or enabling you to better understand others’ points of view? Based on these experiences, what specific actions would you suggest that individuals, schools, and/or town entities in Westport take to promote good-faith dialogue, reduce bias, and foster understanding?”
Annie, Tyler and Savvy were awarded $1,000, $750 and $500 last night, at a Westport Library ceremony.
They read their essays clearly and strongly. The audience was as moved by their words as the judges had been.
“06880” readers will be too.
ANNIE DIZON: POWERPOINT AS PRIDE (1st PLACE)
Ang sakit sa kalingkinan ay ramdan ng buong katawan.
The pain in the little finger is felt by the whole body.
I could feel every fiber of the blue fluffy carpet scratching on the back of my legs, the chattering and fidgeting of my fifteen classmates surrounding me. Pinching the loose skin between my fingers to calm myself (to no avail), I watched anxiously as my dad worked with my teacher to set up his presentation on the SMART board.
I wanted to throw up.
I was in third grade, and each week a family member of one of my classmates — a parent or grandparent, an aunt or great uncle — had come to give a talk about their family’s origins in the United States. Each week was the same story: the Italian or Irish or English family that went through Ellis Island and settled across New England, building its wealth over generations to end up in its present-day privilege palace.
But my family’s story was neither as simple, nor as old. In 1979, my dad, his three older siblings, and his parents fled the Philippines in the wake of political turmoil as president-turned-dictator Ferdinand Marcos began taking over the country under martial law.
They settled in a three-bedroom apartment on the second floor of a dilapidated complex in San Francisco. But at the time, I barely even knew these facts. My only conection to a sense of the identity my father and I shared was a mutual hatred towards our aunt’s ugly toothless chihuahua and a love for lumpia.
I did not know that my father, a threadbare backpack strapped across his scrawny shoulders, worked inglorious part-time jobs after long school days. That my grandma traded in her aproned housewifery for 12-hour shifts in the basement-turned-sweatshop on the corner of 28th.
Or that my grandfather gave up his passion, teaching, and took work as a school janitor, mopping sweaty gym floors and dimly-lit locker hallways at night, haunted by gum tucked under the desks of empty classrooms and with only ghosts to fill the chairs for his late-night lessons.
So as I sat watching my dad set up his presentation, I knew I needed this to be perfect. I felt as if everyone was expecting my dad’s presentation to be something new, something unlike the other stories of European immigrants they’d seen before, for one sole reason: we were different. I was the only Asian, the only minority, in my class. If I thought it was bad that I barely knew anything about my Filipino heritage, my peers’ lack of knowledge about Asian culture was a travesty. I needed this presentation to explain our culture, our ethnicity, why it was important, the questions I didn’t have answers for. I needed this presentation to make sense of the why, for what reason my eyes slanted a little bit more downward and my skin was a little bit more tan than those of my classmates.
And I believed my dad was not going to be any help. I thought he would have two photos and a dumb story about Grandma, and everyone would get bored, annoyed that they had to sit through a presentation about a different kind of immigration story that wasn’t even relevant to what we were learning. They’d think it was unimportant, unnecessary to learn about, a lesson with nothing of value, and they’d take their frustration out on me. I could barely accept my own differences as something of worth. What would it mean for my existence in these white spaces I desperately tried to fit into, if my dad’s presentation tanked and that sense of inferiority became my reality?
The SMART board turned on. The screen flickered with a soft blue light, gaining in vibrancy as the projector stuttered alive, the machine filling the room with the sound of its quiet whirring.
It was a picture of Bruno Mars. Everyone looked at each other, confused.
“Do you kids know who this is?” he asked. A few kids raised their hands, not quite sure if this was some kind of trick question either.
He pointed toward one towhead blond boy in the group. “Bruno Mars!” the boy shouted.
My dad nodded approvingly.
Next was a photo of Vanessa Hudgens.
“Do you know what these celebrities have in common?” he posed. There wasn’t as much of a response.
He gave a coy smile. “They’re both Filipino.”
My dad continued, displaying pictures and information of the vibrant, bustling cultures of the Philippines. He told the story of my family’s immigration, of the trials they all faced that I hadn’t even known. He talked about the diverse range of ethnicities, foods, and religions, and the deep-rooted love Filipinos hold for boxing and basketball. By the end of it, everyone was laughing, entertained by the captivating presentation they had just witnessed. They all knew it was the best they’d seen, better than any other of the drawn out, dead presentations made by the other kids’ stuffy white grandmas. My dad’s presentation on the Philippines, my heritage, was more entertaining, more captivating, more fascinating than anyone else’s, and everyone knew it.
This was the first time in my life I’d felt something other than shame about being Filipino, an invisible guilt to everyone’s eyes but my own. That morning, my dad planted within me the seeds for something I had never felt before, something that, not without its setbacks, has slowly sprouted throughout the years: pride. My dad taught me that there is strength in my differences, that there are blessings, power, and love beyond belief in the stories of the people who came before me. I have learned that what sets me apart from others is not a kind of weakness, and it is with that fact that I will continue to live with pride. Because, as the saying goes:
Ang hindi lumingon sa pinanggalingan, hindi makalcarating sa paroroonan.
A person who does not remember where they came from, will never reach their destination.
TYLER DARDEN: AMERICAN BOY DOLL (2ND PLACE)
When I was a child, my mother took me to the American Girl Doll store in New York City. I remember my excitement at walking through the store, seeing all of the stylish dolls lined up against the walls, and propped up on the tables. I wandered around for a while, scrutinizing every doll until I found the one: She had wavy brown hair that cascaded down her back, and she wore a vibrant blue sundress. I could not wait to show her off to my classmates; surely they would admire my doll as enthusiastically as I did.
I proudly carried my doll into school the next day, anticipating my peers’ faces when I introduced her to them. However, it didn’t go as expected. The boys glared at me like I had done something wrong, and the girls served up some serious side-eye. What I thought would be celebrated, was condemned, like a dog presenting a dead bird to its owner. I felt ashamed for bringing her, and from then on, I neglected my doll.
Even though I was young, I began piecing together what it meant to be a boy.
Boys are strong, fearless, brave, tough, and confident — but I was none of those things. Boys like girls. Boys are not supposed to like other boys — but I did. I was not “normal,” and the shame that came along with that would plague me for years. I did not feel comfortable in my own skin, and I could not be honest about who I was. I kept the world at an arm’s length.
Despite my internal struggles, there was hope: my mother. She had always known that I was different, and she loved me no less. I clearly remember her telling me, “If you want to be a ballerina, I’ll buy you a tutu.” She always tried to find ways to let me know she was, undoubtedly, in my corner, yet, I was consumed by shame. I kept the seemingly simple words “I’m gay” in the recesses of my mind.
After investing in my own personal development, I was able to cultivate a sense of self-love and self-confidence. However, it took a lot of time and hard work. I went through many treatment programs and worked with many therapists to come to terms with the root of my discomfort: fear that my sexuality wouldn’t be accepted.
I realized I could either let shame destroy me, or I could trust that people would love and support me, regardless of who 1 am or who I love. I came out to my mom knowing that she would embrace me, but I was still weak with fear.
“I’m gay,” I said. Those words had been sitting in my mouth for a long time and now they were free, floating in the air between us.
My mother smiled.
“I know,” she replied warmly.
The pure relief I felt is indescribable. All that I had been feeling faded like the outro of my favorite song. I was finally able to be myself.
I often reflect back on that carefree day as a child in New York City. I had not (yet) been affected by traditional gender norms or what it would mean to be different. I was simply excited to buy a doll and share her with my classmates. My mother was equally as excited, she only wanted me to be happy. How different things could have been for me if there had been any open discussion about sexuality and breaking traditional gender norms. Having those conversations could have helped to foster understanding and acceptance for people like me.
How can I possibly conclude this essay? It’s hard to suggest what can be done to foster acceptance when I have only recently come to terms with my truth, and shared it with others. However, I do believe I can offer a pearl of wisdom based on my experiences in (what I found to be) traditional and confining school environments.
I believe elementary schools should be the first step in introducing the concepts of diversity and inclusion. This can be done through simple things, like sharing picture books and creating art projects that express differences. In middle school, a time when kids are beginning to understand themselves a bit more, it is crucial to allow them the space to discover who they are without imposing societal norms. This may be through class discussions which explore topics like identity and non-traditional gender roles. High schools have the opportunity to create safe spaces for students through clubs and special events. This may be helpful to people who are questioning their own identities or simply hoping to show support to their peers. The earlier these concepts are introduced, the less taboo they become, and the more we encourage overall understanding.
I understand the toll suppressing one’s sexuality and conforming to traditional gender norms takes, and I empathize with those who are not yet out. I hope that people, no matter their identity, acknowledge how much courage it takes to reveal one’s true self. I believe if schools counteract the beliefs that society has etched into our minds, perhaps others will not succumb to feelings of shame.
SAVVY DREAS: LEARNING THROUGH OUr DIFFERENCES (3rd place)
Throughout middle school, I attended several Mosaic conferences centered around diversity and understanding our intersecting identities. Before these events, I had never encountered the phrase “socio-economic status” or thought that a history class could have a bias. These meetings never failed to leave me with a whole new perspective on my life and the lives of those around me through meaningful conversations, silent activities, and deep listening.
Hundreds of kids came from schools all around Connecticut creating the most diverse group of people I had ever been surrounded by at that age. However, instead of feeling overwhelmed or uneasy like many people express in uncomfortable situations, I felt an immense sense of love and camaraderie. When people chose to share an experience the room fell silent with admiration and respect for the speaker. Everyone belonged and didn’t belong all at once.
I vividly remember one girl about my age sharing her experience of the way race shaped her identity in a predominantly white school. I had never considered the possibility that someone had to think about or change the way they acted to feel a sense of belonging in a community.
Growing up white, I never had to think about race or privilege. This idea was intensified when I participated in a privilege walk for the first time. A speaker called out prompts relating to a multitude of identities like family make-up or racial experiences and people stepped forward or backward depending on what they identified with. Acknowledging where I stood in contrast to my peers, I recognized my privilege for the first time. After this experience, I started reading a lot of books regarding the history of minorities and biographies about growing up as a minority whether that be race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or disability.
I wanted to better understand what I could do with my privilege. That’s when I discovered the term anti-racist. The idea that just being an ally isn’t enough, but that racism and discrimination in this world require active resistance, this understanding was reinforced when I attend SDLC during my freshman year.
Despite being over Zoom, I felt the same kind of love in the break rooms and meetings. One of the most groundbreaking things I learned that week was about the underlying racism of our history curriculums, specifically the map of the world.
At that point in my life, I was confident that this mage was fundamentally engrained in my brain, so nothing said about it would change much for me. that was until the speaker pulled up another map right next to it with completely different proportions.
I sat there totally confused. Those two images were both of the world, but the one I was not familiar with had Africa and Asia drawn as much larger parts of the picture. The speaker then explained that many textbooks skew maps to make the United States seem like the center of the world, when in reality it only takes up a small fraction of it. I could not comprehend the fact that something I had been taught and shown over and over again was inaccurate and more alarmingly, racist.
This moment sparked a change in me that led to several conversations with my head of school about the history curriculum and eventually directed me to the Tulsa Massacre. When I first heard about it, I was certain that it could not have happened in the United States. In my naive thinking, I could not fathom that one of the largest racial massacres in the world happened in Oklahoma, yet was not mentioned once in any American history course I had taken.
My grandmother at the time lived in Oklahoma and taught in high school. I brought up the Massacre to her, hoping I would find more insight but was shocked to learn that she had never even heard of it. I didn’t really understand how a group of people could be silenced or have their history erased until that moment. Although it was only one event it opened my eyes to so many of the other discrepancies and biases in our everyday lives, both conscious and unconscious. Events like these are part of the underlying causes of the racism and tension in our country today and it is through educating ourselves on the history of our privilege and the past that we can try to make a small step forward.
One of the biggest drivers of change needs to be the ability to listen to one another in an open-minded and inclusive space. While affinity groups are incredibly impo1tant for allowing people to communicate their shared experiences, we need spaces for people of all backgrounds to be involved in open dialogue around diversity. Most people are unaware of the daily struggles others face and without acknowledgment, there cannot be progress. One of the things I loved most about the diversity conferences is that I got to learn through my peers about what they experience and what I can be more aware of. Through this space, all students interested in diversity work can have thoughtful discussions about uncomfortable or stigmatized topics to foster growth and understanding in our communities.
From a school and town position, we need to reiterate the importance of diversity conferences and interactions with people different than ourselves. There need to be more school assemblies about identity and the way it shapes people’s lives. Private schools, specifically, tend to avoid those topics out of fear of offending someone. However, if we live in a place of fear instead of a place of growth nothing will improve. Designating assembly times for speakers of different backgrounds can be a critical step in developing a community of respect and understanding. Education should be at the forefront of reducing bias and fostering understanding within our own communities.
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