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Out of the Woods / Students take fresh view of long-time diversity issue

Published 6:05 pm, Thursday, April 10, 2014
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The recent essay contest sponsored by TEAM Westport, a local group working to improve racial diversity in Westport, got a boost when the Staples winners wrote about their disillusionment with our educational system. They said, in effect, that our school system deprives our kids of "access to cultures and traditions and ideas from every corner of the globe," as Megan Root, a junior and first place essay winner stated.

The students were asked to write essays on growing up in a town that has little racial diversity -- a longtime issue that has plagued our community. Westport has been touted as one of the most wide open, liberal towns in the nation because of our decades-old tradition of warmly welcoming writers, artists, musicians, and other creative people.

Root's essay is titled, "Diversity: the Maestro of Innovation." She commented: "The dearth of diversity (at Staples) means there are perspectives I've never heard."

Second place went to Eliza Llewellyn, a senior and valedictorian of the Class of 2014, whose essay was titled: "No longer 91 percent," a reference to the percent of Westporters who are white.

(Officially, according to the latest Southwest Regional Planning Agency, 24,429 are white; 305 African-American; 16 American Indian and Alaska native; 1,047 Asian American; 9 native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander; 932 Hispanic or Latino; 159 Other Race.)

Lyle Baer, a junior, wrote an essay titled "Westport: A Bubble Refuses to Pop." He observed: "This racial discrimination inequality sets Westport back from the rest of the nation in terms of its cultural richness. 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."

TEAM Westport was created in 1993 by Diane Goss Farrell, then the first selectman of Westport, with a small group of volunteers. Westport's traditional ties with neighboring Weston quickly added volunteers, led by its then-First Selectman Woody Bliss.

The official mission of TEAM (Together Effectively Achieving Multiculturalism) in Westport, according to its website, "is to achieve and celebrate a more welcoming, multicultural community." Issues stemming from multicultural shortcomings are national problems. Yet they exist in Westport and Weston, too. "A more welcoming, multicultural community" offers us a tangible, achievable objective for community action as well as of the world in which we live, that will strengthen the community's fabric -- the way our lives interact."

Harold Bailey, a former IBM executive and chairman of TEAM Westport, said in a statement: "This contest gave high school students a chance to talk about the impact our nation's racial and ethnic make-up will have on their own lives. I was impressed with the quality of the 25 essays we received."

TEAM Westport joined with the Westport Library to sponsor the essay contest. Students were invited to reflect on the fact that 30 years from now, racial and ethnic groups currently in the U.S. minority will collectively outnumber whites. Students were asked to describe the benefits and challenges of this change for Westport as a whole and themselves personally. The winners -- as judged by Westport educator Judith Hamer; Yale University's Patricia Wei and teen services librarian Jaina Lewis.

Westport's school system currently has a program called Project Choice in which minority students from Bridgeport are selected to attend our school system. In the past, a strong group of progressive thinkers introduced a number of programs to try and include minorities such as blacks and Spanish-speaking children.

Perhaps the most successful of all busing programs was known as Project Concern. While highly controversial in its initial announcement, it was funded by the federal and state government and started in Hartford in 1966.

In the spring of 1970, the concept of busing a limited number of minority Bridgeport children to Westport had the backing of several groups, including a number of religious organizations.

In an emotionally charged atmosphere that brought some to the verge of tears and others to the edge of rage, the Westport Board of Education met in April of 1970. Although it was not on the official agenda, the busing issue brought an estimated 1,000 fired up residents to Staples for the meeting. An organization calling itself the Bipartisan Education Study Team sprang up overnight to send out a questionnaires to residents. Some 90 percent of those who responded said they were against it.

However, in hindsight this was interpreted as mostly negative reaction from those opposed.

The battle finally came to a head on Dec. 7, 1970, when the state Supreme Court upheld the Education Board's 3-2 decision to accept the proposal to bus a limited number of Bridgeport students. Embattled Westport Board of Education Chairman Joan Schine, who survived a recall measure, was truly one of the heroes of Westport's successful transition to integrating our school system. The experiment lasted only 10 years for lack of state funding.

Woody Klein is a Westport writer, and his "Out of the Woods" appears every other Friday. He can be reached at wklein11@aol.com.