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TEAM Westport essay winners highlight town's lack of diversity

Published 5:08 pm, Tuesday, April 1, 2014
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Three Staples High School students have won this year's TEAM Westport Teen Diversity Essay Contest, each of which underscores the issues of growing up in a town that has little racial diversity.

The awards, presented in a Monday night ceremony at the Westport Library, went to:

- Megan Root, a Staples junior, awarded first place for her essay, "Diversity: the Maestro of Innovation."

The essay explores what the writer says she is missing in a town that is 93 percent white. "I think Staples classes present a lot of the right questions, but the dearth of diversity means there are perspectives I've never heard," Root writes. She states that she looks forward to being exposed to more diversity as the U.S. population changes, and she moves on to new environments -- "I don't think I can really complete an education in life until I join bigger, more varied conversations. America's diversity means access to cultures and traditions and ideas from every corner of the globe. Root's prize Megan's prize was $1,000.

- Eliza Llewellyn, a senior and valedictorian of the Class of 2014, was awarded second place for her essay, "No Longer 91 Percent."

The essay begins as Llewellyn notes that grew up in a "family whose ancestry was flanked by dragons: the crimson Welsh ddraig goch and the scaly Chinese long." She reflects on her experiences in Westport and how differences are sometimes regarded negatively. But she writes with hope about her future -- and America's. "Beyond economic strength, a mix of ethnicities will make us more tolerant and empathetic towards others. Rather than recoiling from a gay couple or crossing to the other side of a street from a black man in a hoodie, we can learn to see these individuals as people rather than a blanketed `other.' " Her prize was $750.

- Kyle Baer, a junior, was the contest's third-place winner for his essay, "Westport: A Bubble Refuses to Pop."

Baer describes his classes at Staples and experiences in town as interacting almost exclusively with white people. "This racial inequality sets Westport back from the rest of the nation in terms of its cultural richness," he writes. "To be stuck in an upper-class, all-white town in the coming years will be a significant disadvantage to students. We have little choice but to evolve, or risk losing our appeal as a family-friendly town. Yet the path on which Westport is headed shows, as of yet, no signs of diverging." He was awarded a prize of $500.

The winning authors read their essays at the awards ceremony, which was attended by First Selectmen Jim Marpe and Harold Bailey, TEAM Westport's chairman.

The essay contest, co-sponsored by TEAM Westport and the Westport Library, asked entrants to write about the impact of changes in U.S. demographics with the expectation that racial and ethnic groups currently considered minorities will collectively outnumber whites within about three decades. Specifically, the young writers were asked to: "Describe what you think are the benefits and challenges of this change for Westport and for you, personally."

Judges for the essay contest were grant writer and educator Judith A. Hamer, Jaina Lewis, the Westport Library teen services librarian, and Patricia Wei of Yale University.

"This contest gave high school students a chance to talk about the impact our nation's rapidly changing racial and ethnic make-up will have on their own lives," Bailey said in a statement announcing the winners. "I was impressed with the quality of the 25 essays we received."