The affluent New York City suburb of Westport, Connecticut is 97 percent white. The annual high school essay contest chose the topic of white privilege. The diversity council made national news for a high school essay contest on white privilege – uprooting the council’s quiet existence and questioning the purpose of diversity organizations. Some community members say it’s just what the town needs. Emily Dugdale has the story.
DUGDALE: Westport is just an hour by train from New York City – but the large, picturesque houses tucked away in the trees are just one of the clear signs you’ve left urban living behind.
DUGDALE: One of the only people of color at the station is a man named Rashid. He’s a cab driver. Unsurprisingly, he says that Westport isn’t an easy place to be non-white – especially for young residents.
RASHID: Well the nonwhite kids that go here – I’ve been here about four or five years, and I’ve seen some of the kids kind of grow up. I don’t know, they seem kind of quiet … Like I can’t explain it.
DUGDALE: Rashid says that some people of color just don’t feel like they fit in. It’s a fact that this year’s annual high school essay contest topic – white privilege – tries to address. The group behind the essay is Westport’s ten-year-old diversity council, TEAM Westport. The council of 15 volunteers prides itself on engaging the community in conversation about the world outside the town. But after nearly every town department – and social media feed – received hate mail aimed at TEAM Westport’s essay announcement, even the council is second-guessing themselves.
DUGDALE: Just off Main Street at the Westport Town Hall, TEAM Westport gathered for a morning of meetings with local department heads. They’re currently wrestling with the decision to allow students to submit essays anonymously – a concession that they agree undermines the central goal of the council.
BAILEY: To say, we want to have a free discussion of ideas and we can embrace that, and then to have to say, but we have to do it anonymously? Obviously we’d prefer not to do that. Because it almost says, we’re hiding.
DUGDALE: TEAM Westport doesn’t conform to the typical definition of a diversity council. Unlike corporate councils, they’re not looking at hiring practices or workplace discrimination. Instead, they’re quietly forming African-American literature classes at the local high school or co-sponsoring plays like A Raisin in the Sun. But Harold Bailey, Jr. – the organization’s chair – says that if you asked the average person in Westport what the diversity council did, they’d probably have no idea.
BAILEY: When you go to the talk back at the playhouse, you don’t know TEAM Westport did that. Or when you go to an event we’re co-sponsoring at the library, sometimes it’s like TEAM Westport isn’t even mentioned, even though we’re trying to help get people there.
DUGDALE: But that’s how TEAM Westport likes it. They don’t take to the streets with megaphones. The group is one of only two government diversity initiatives in Fairfield County. And they shy away from making political or controversial statements. Their efforts have a simpler focus: help make people of all backgrounds comfortable in the town.
DUGDALE: It’s an issue that hits home for Westport’s Staples High School – where the demographics reflect the town – over 90% white. English Department coordinator Julie Heller is encouraging her students to engage with – not dismiss – TEAM Westport’s white privilege essay topic.
HELLER: They recognize – we all recognize that this is a bit of a bubble if you will. And that it’s very important for us to push our students beyond that bubble if we’re really educating them to take their places as members in a diverse and global community.
DUGDALE: But even Heller admits that she hasn’t attended any TEAM Westport events outside of the high school. And she’s not the only one. Westport resident Jerri Graham has lived in town for ten years with her daughter – a sophomore at Staples High. She was disappointed she’d never heard of TEAM Westport before news of the essay broke. As a black woman in Westport with a biracial child, Graham has a special phrase for people like her in the town.
GRAHAM: We’re the chocolate chip in the scone of Westport.
DUGDALE: Graham struggles to understand what the purpose of a diversity council is if most people in the town haven’t even heard of them. She thinks the essay contest is exactly what the town needs – something to spice things up.
GRAHAM: In a town like this, how do you actually get out that you have a message and need to do something like this. I think that maybe this essay contest was probably the first thing. They maybe need to be a little more provocative in order to get people talking.
DUGDALE: They didn’t set out to create a stir, but in the end, Graham and others say the controversy is exactly what this town needs.
Emily Dugdale, Columbia Radio News.