Woog’s World / TEAM Westport shines light on diversity
For years, Westport has been a national suburban leader on social issues.
We bought Cockenoe Island to prevent it from becoming a nuclear power plant. Our Representative Town Meeting voiced its opposition to the Vietnam War.
Years later, we were the first town east of the Mississippi River to ban plastic bags. And Westport was one of the first suburban towns to open a homeless shelter, three decades ago. It’s still going strong.
I don’t think too many suburbs have a townwide diversity commission either.
TEAM Westport — the acronym stands for Together Effectively Achieving Multiculturalism — was founded by First Selectman Diane Goss Farrell. Her successors Gordon Joseloff and Jim Marpe have continued their steadfast support.
Low-key but effectively — hey, that’s in their name, right? — the organization has shined a light on the positive aspects of Westport’s diversity. It has also shown us how far we still have to go.
TEAM Westport has supported programming around Westport Country Playhouse and Westport Library initiatives, bringing in speakers and sponsoring events that amplify, or otherwise add to, a current play or the WestportREADS program.
They’ve organized panel discussions and teach-ins about current events — Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, for example, or attacks against Muslims. They’ve worked on Holocaust events with schools, and exhibits with the Westport Historical Society.
TEAM Westport has invited police department leaders to meetings, to better understand the dynamics of police work. At the same time, TEAM representatives have conveyed concerns from minority community members about the police to those leaders.
TEAM Westport does a lot. Its volunteers represent all kinds of diversity: racial, religious, ethnic, gender and sexual orientation. So it’s no surprise that the three winners (and one honorable mention) in this year’s Teen Essay Contest represent a broad array of Westport diversity too.
The annual contest encourages high school students — those at Staples or Greens Farms Academy, and anyone living in Westport but attending school elsewhere — to think about important issues. Past topics have included white privilege, Colin Kapernick’s “take a knee” controversy, and Black Lives Matter.
This year’s prompt was on microaggressions.
They’re “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults — whether intentional or unintentional — that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their membership in marginalized groups.”
Students were asked not just to describe microaggressions they’ve felt or seen, but to consider steps that organizations, schools or individuals could take to greatly reduce or eliminate them.
This year’s first place ($1,000) winner is no stranger to microaggressions or to TEAM Westport’s essay contest. Two years ago, then-sophomore Chet Ellis won also. He described being one of three African Americans in his U.S. History class (where a white student used the “n” word).
Chet is now a Harvard University-bound senior. He’s a top student (and one of the best high jumpers ever at Staples). But his path has not been easy.
In middle school, Chet tried to “hide in plain sight.” He remained silent in the face of micro-aggressive comments and supposed “jokes.”
At Staples, a freshman soccer teammate photoshopped Klan hoods on all the players around Chet. He was devastated, but again said nothing.
Soon, however, he realized that by not saying anything over the years, he allowed microaggressions to continue.
“I’ve come to realize that racist, sexist and homophobic ideas are like weeds that need to be yanked out at their inception,” he wrote. “As soon as you see them poke through the ground, it is our responsibility to pull up each and every one from the root. Left unaddressed, these toxic ideas and sentiments bloom into vast fields of hate and bigotry.”
Second-place ($750) winner Angela Ji is a Chinese-American. She was subjected to microaggressions like classmates pulling the corners of their eyes, and a stranger who does not understand that she is from Westport, not Asia.
“Microaggressions are a bit like finger pricks,” Angela wrote. “While they do not leave as large a mess as a sword wound in the form of Jim Crow laws or Japanese internment would, they are enough to make you wince. Some people are more sensitive to finger pricks that others, but we all bandage ourselves up afterwards, ignoring the sting in our thumb.”
Daniel Boccardo won third place (and $500) for “Cactus in a Rainforest.” The Staples senior has spent his life dealing with microaggressions based on others’ assumptions that because his parents are Venezuelan, he and his family fit certain stereotypes.
Olivia Sarno captured honorable mention. Part of the LGBT community, she wrote about the microaggressions that come from feeling invisible.
Two decades after its creation, some Westporters still wonder if we really need TEAM Westport. This month, four teenagers showed us exactly why.
Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog’s World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.