As fate would have it, Monday’s celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday fell on the same day that the first black president of the United States was sworn in for a second term, marking just how far the country has come in the fight against racism.
At an event last week that commemorated Dr. King and awarded two students with Racial Justice Scholarships at the YWCA of Greenwich, however, both the students and local politicians reminded the community that the battle has not yet been won.
YWCA President and CEO Adrianne Singer began the evening by taking a look back at the organization’s mission to eliminate racism.
“The YWCA has been a strong voice for racial justice since our founding in 1858… We continue today to bring together women of all ages, races, cultures, and backgrounds to work toward a common goal of peace, justice, freedom, dignity, and equality,” Ms. Singer said.
Those words, she said, were used in the Declaration of Independence 237 years ago and adopted as the Civil Rights Act in 1964, yet racism and bigotry continue to be prevalent throughout the country. Racial profiling is an everyday occurrence and “hate crimes continue to be part of our daily news,” Ms. Singer said, adding, “no matter how long this takes, we must continue our quest for racial justice every day.”
First Selectman Peter Tesei continued Ms. Singer’s message, encouraging the community to “live and support [Dr. King’s] vision and dream for all our residents in the state and nation.” Though people tend to focus on the differences between themselves and others, the reality is that “we’re more alike than we are different,” Mr. Tesei said.
“As a town we are blessed to have a very diverse community, one that is represented through all faiths and nationalities, and tonight is one way in which we celebrate that,” Mr. Tesei said.
Selectman Drew Marzullo and state Rep. Fred Camillo (R-151st District) also reflected on modern society, calling attention to last month’s tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown during which 20 students and six adults were murdered by a lone gunman.
Tragedy brings out the best in people, Mr. Marzullo said. As Dr. King stated, he said, the message of a man is not where he stands in a time of comfort but rather his behavior in times of challenge.
“We as Americans, in times of challenge, stand together as one, and that, no matter how hard one tries, cannot be broken,” Mr. Marzullo said.
Mr. Camillo echoed Mr. Marzullo’s comments as he shared his sentiments regarding the Sandy Hook tragedy. As someone with strong ties to the school, Mr. Camillo said, he traveled to Newtown a few days after the shooting and found that even in light of the gruesome event, residents turned to love, not hate, in their grieving.
As he passed Newtown storefronts and homes, Mr. Camillo said, he saw a number of signs with the same message: “We are Sandy Hook. We choose love” — a message that has since cropped up on billboards around the state. The significance of the message, he said, is that in order to be a socially just society, we must act, at all times, with love and respect.
Selectman David Theis and state Rep. Stephen Walko (R-150th District) also shared personal stories of triumph over social injustice. After growing up in Greenwich, Mr. Theis said, he was employed as a college student at the New Haven YMCA, where he became the minority among a diverse group of employees who “looked and sounded different than me.” The experience and lessons learned, he said, taught him more than he could ever have learned in a classroom.
Mr. Walko shared a story about his son, an elementary school student. The boy returned home from school about two years ago looking very sad and when asked why he was down, he told his father, “I’m so plain.” He was referencing the diversity among students at his school, Mr. Walko said, where fellow classmates were more exciting than he because of their “cool colors,” whether it be their skin or their hair.
“I thought to myself, boy, what it would be in life for all of us to think that … it was more about how exciting one’s hair could be or the color of it” than about being different, Mr. Walko said.
Mr. Walko, who was recently sworn in for his first term as state representative, also described his experiences with fellow representatives in Hartford. Although instances of prejudice are milder in today’s society, they still exist, he said. Speaking with politicians from other towns, Mr. Walko said, he constantly comes across those who believe Greenwich to be a high-income community with virtually no diversity.
“I find myself having to educate the very legislators I serve with that Greenwich isn’t simply about hedge funds,” he said. On a more positive note, he added, “We will all someday see a world where the color of your skin or your gender doesn’t matter a lick.”
After the speeches, high school seniors Kayla Mollica and Leslie Novella were each presented with a certificate from both the YWCA and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a town resident, along with YWCA Racial Justice Scholarships. According to Ms. Singer, the scholarships are awarded to students who “show interest in and a commitment to encouraging racial justice and diversity, and fighting bigotry and hate.”
Kayla was the first to be recognized for identifying Connecticut’s educational achievement gap as an issue of racial injustice. The Greenwich Academy senior submitted a public service announcement in the form of a film that drew awareness to the issue for her social justice elective course, eventually earning her a first-place award from the International Cinema Foundation at the United Nations.
Unsure of why Gov. Dannel Malloy sought education reform, Kayla said, she began doing research and discovered that the state with the largest achievement gap between students from affluent families and those from low-income families was Connecticut. Because of her own limited knowledge of the issue, Kayla said, she found it important to educate others about it through her film.
“The gap will not close on its own. We must work together to reform,” she said.
Leslie, a Greenwich High School senior, spoke of her own struggles with social injustice and of her work with the GHS Names Can Really Hurt Us program, which she has participated in since her freshman year.
Leslie was born in Peru, and she and her family moved to the United States when she was in fourth grade, at which point she did not speak English. On her first day of school, she said, the other students stared at her and whispered about her, making fun of the way she dressed and spoke. In what Leslie described as her worst elementary school experience, and an incident that has stayed with her over the years, she was bullied and mocked in art class for her attempts to speak English.
By her freshman year of high school, however, Leslie said, she had mustered up the courage to relate her experience to a class full of students on Names Day, a time in which the entire freshman class learns about prejudice, discrimination and bullying. To her surprise, some of her former bullies approached her after her speech to apologize for their behavior. The overall experience, Leslie said, encouraged her to “become an ally for others” through the Names Can Really Hurt Us program, which she described as the “most rewarding and empowering” experience she’s had in her high school career.