The 2007-2008 Essay Contest Winners:
1st and 2nd Place

High School Division

First Place

Gabriela Margarita De Jesus
New Haven, CT
Grade 11

The 2008 elections hold tremendous significance for Americans and the way we view politics in the United States. For the first time we have the possibility of a female candidate to hold office as president, as well as the possibility of an African American president. Anyone who has been listening to the news can undoubtedly name the aforementioned candidates. In the democratic primaries of this year, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have risen to break the mold of the typical candidate. Unfortunately, for many, the distinction of these two candidates ends at the point of gender and race. The media has focused on these two candidates precisely for this reason, because they are "different." However, rather than analyzing candidates' positions on the issues, media perspective has been fixed on the outward characteristics of politicians to distract voters, "frame" the candidates, and portray them in a biased light.

For the voters who haven't done any research beyond the TV screen, who they vote for rests largely on media portrayal. When we place our faith in the integrity of the media we forget that it is profit based. Despite what we are told, mass media is only concerned with what sells, not with presenting a candidate fairly. So when a newspaper runs a sensationalized account of a candidate's history of drug abuse, the peculiarity of his or her name, his accent, her wardrobe choices, whatever the case may be—they can skip the details of the issues that actually get addressed during a term of presidency. The media uses the rhetoric of distraction not only to discredit the candidates but to make us forget about important topics like our economy and the way our country will be run. In order for the media to be salable it has to leave the level of discourse at the superficial level, and so we base our decisions on whether or not the candidate seems appealing.

Some can see through media spin, but the reality is that a great majority cannot. There are a great number of Americans that assume the media has their best interests in mind and readily accept any opinion presented. Others recognize the bias of the media, and yet can't help but be influenced by the continuous assault on our perceptions. So how can one argue against the invasive and persistent media that permeates every part of our lives, political or otherwise? The truth is that we can't unless we look to other sources to get informed.

Gregory Mantsios once wrote in an article about the media that "...of the various social and cultural forces in our society, the mass media is arguably the most influential in molding public consciousness." This is especially true during elections because there is a sense of apathy and lack of interest when it comes to voting. Many place their ballots on the appeals the media makes to our emotions rather than taking an active role in their search for a candidate; it's therefore undeniable that the media has a major influence in the way that we vote and choose our representatives.

The role of the media should be to honestly report the candidates' opinions; rather than discussing their private lives, we should discuss their platform; instead of scrutinizing their appearances, we should be examining their commitment, and their integrity. To do this, the media would have to leave their commentary and opinions out of print and out of the ears of the voters. If that means establishing a separate forum for political discussion then so be it; only then could Americans truly make valid decisions at the polls.

Second Place

Aniket Bhalchandra Nikumb
Mahrashtra, India

Thomas Jefferson proclaimed that our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost." Yet, even today, an alarmingly large proportion of the world's population is denied the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression.

Each broadcast in Turkmenistan begins with a pledge that the broadcaster's tongue will shrivel if he slanders the country, flag, or President. Any opposition to the government is considered treason and punishable by life imprisonment. The present President is Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow. With 89.23% of the vote, it clearly indicates the absence of free elections and viable opposition.

In Pakistan, the current situation is marred with legal and political complexities. General Musharraf, according to the Constitution, can either be the Army chief, or the Presidential candidate. Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and exiled-President Nawaz Sharif have called elections in Pakistan "a farce, a mockery and a fraud upon the electorate." Several times in history, the army has taken over administration in the absence of a strong Government. It remains to be seen if new elections mark a dawn of democracy in Pakistan.

In Kenya, the National Rainbow Coalition won a 61% majority in the December 2002 elections. In November 2005, the Kenyan government banned rallies of opposition parties, rejecting calls for new elections. The government considers these calls for nationwide rallies "inappropriate and a threat to national security." Such a step portrays a threat to democracy and freedom in Kenya.

In the Republic of China (Taiwan), President Chen Shui-bian and Vice President Annette Lu were re-elected by a margin of 0.22% of votes. As the election approached, the tone of campaigning became increasingly negative, with charges of tax evasion, draft dodging and domestic violence on the part of opponent Lien Chan. Each side had moderated its position on key issues to be similar to each other, leaving nothing other than personal attacks to attract the few uncommitted voters. The media played sides in this campaign, with both sides using the media to bad-mouth each other.

In France, the Presidential elections were win by Nicolas Sarkozy of the Union for a Popular Movement with 53.06% votes. Sufficient freedom of speech and press is allowed in France and is visible in wide coverage by broadcasters, exit polls, publicizing of proposed policies by candidates, and easy access to lots of information for research and analysis.

Slovenia has a stable democracy characterized by regular elections, a free press, and an excellent human-rights record. A participant in the SFOR peacekeeping deployment in Bosnia and the KFOR deployment in Kosovo, and a charter World Trade Organization member, Slovenia plays a major role on the world stage in spite of its small size.

The champion of democracy, the USA is set to hold elections for the "most powerful man on Earth" in 2008. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Rudolph Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, etc., are running for President. Elections witness wide media coverage, including live debates among candidates. This is a very positive step, since potential voters know clearly what policies their candidates stand for. On the other side, campaign costs run into billions of dollars, which is not a very productive way of spending money.

From observations in the diverse countries mentioned above, it is clear that development and progress is associated with free and fair elections, a direct result of freedom of press and presence of opposition. Countries with freedom of speech like France, USA and Slovenia are rapidly progressing, while nations like Kenya and Turkmenistan continue to be ridden with political and social conflict. Opposition parties and the media serve as a constant check to the policies of the Government. When there is a single party dominance, voters have no real choice in electing their leaders and the party leader continues his dictator-like stronghold over the country.

The media also plays an important role during the election campaigns. The candidate portrayed favorably by the media is perceived to be popular Hence, most power-hungry leaders seek to control the media, so that they can continue their dictatorial rule. Similar to the situation in erstwhile Nazi Germany and present Turkmenistan, the absence of free press results in no control over the dictator's decisions. Much later, the international community "wakes up" and supports the revolutionary factions of the country to change the hands of power. But this is too-little too-late, because by then the dictator has taken unilateral decisions that prove to be extremely detrimental to the country's long-term interests.

My country, India, is a free democracy with sufficient freedom of press and free and fair elections. While there are numerous reports of booth-capturing and election rigging, most are rumors generated by disgruntled oppositions. However, with a paltry literacy level of 65% and pathetic living conditions, elections are fought more with minority-appeasement policies, distribution of free clothes in campaign rallies and outright purchase of votes rather than live debate. Being a nation with huge diversities, candidates often resort to mud­slinging by accusing the opposition of being minority appeasers, or using the most minor issues to target religious and social sentiments. Moreover, the head of State in India is elected indirectly by the elected representatives of the people, hence obviating a direct media impact on his election.

As explained, the absence of a free media leads to deterioration of a country's well-being in the long-run. In several countries including mine, even with the presence of free media, the focus is given more to the religion, race and gender of a candidate. There is lack of live debate and voters are unaware of what policies the candidates stand for. The media must be responsible enough not to play sides, but to portray fairly each candidate along with the policies they represent, so that voters can choose what viewpoint they support.

It is said, "The printing press did to the mind, what gunpowder did to warfare." A free media coupled with a free mind will do to the election process, what Michelangelo did to architecture, NASA to space exploration and Einstein to physics.

Read the High School Honorable Mention Essays

Middle School Division

First Place

Morgan Sweere
Ruth Doyle Intermediate School
Grade: 6

Ruby Bridges

"Why don't they like me?" This quote by the character Ruby Bridges in the movie titled by the same name is a question that most people who have been discriminated against, ask. Why don't people like them? It is usually because of their differences in race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, or a disability of some kind. People who are unsure of themselves discriminate against others.

The movie, Ruby Bridges, is a story about a little girl in Louisiana. She is African American and is in first grade. She is very smart. The NAACP talked to her mother and asked if she would be one of five students who scored high, and would enter the all-white school in her city. Her mother, wanting something better for Ruby, said yes. This little girl went to school and was alienated from the start. She was schooled by herself until her teacher, a Caucasian lady from Boston, insisted that other children join them for at least part of the day. People called her names daily. They threatened to kill her. Ruby's father lost his job. Even the local grocery store refused to serve them because of Ruby going to the school. The movie is a Disney movie and is suitable for the family.

I think this movie would impact anyone who watched it, because of the main character, Ruby. I was amazed at how the character, Ruby, reacted throughout the movie. This little girl was raised in a religious household. She was told daily to "pray for those that persecute you." She actually "walked the walk" and even prayed for her tormentors on the steps of the school as they were hurling insults at her. She knew love from her family and only wanted friends. Because of her smile and her forgiveness, people gradually came to accept her. Many of the students in her school were following in their parents' footsteps, but, because children are more accepting of others than adults, many of the children came to become her friends. Her lessons in the movie would teach people who watched the movie to respond to hate with love. Not tolerating hate, but loving the person, and hating the act. She was a good example of this throughout the story.

Students would change their behavior upon seeing this movie. They would realize how each person discriminates against others in certain ways, some of them subtle. One thing that stood out to me in the movie was when the local grocery store owner told Ruby's father to stop coming to the store. The owner was Jewish and had been discriminated against herself. Ruby's family had been supportive of her when she had been discriminated against, and were her first customers. She responded to the "society pressure" and asked him not to come to her store. I think this would make each person realize how pressure by others sometimes cause each person to act in ways they know is not right. Hopefully, it would give them strength to make their own individual choices.

Second Place (tie)

Alessandra Early
West Bloomfield, MI
Grade 8


About seven months ago I watched a movie called Pride, which was about Philadelphia's first African-American swim team. In 1973, college-educated Jim Ellis could not find a job as a math teacher. Motivated by his compassion for competitive swimming, Mr. Ellis and a janitor converted an abandoned, recreational pool hall in a Philadelphia slum into a pool. Even when city officials marked the recreational building for demolition, Mr. Ellis fought back and created the swim team. He recruited troubled teens off the street and struggled to change the novice swimmers into capable, first class swimmers just in time for the upcoming state championship swim meets. As racism, violence, and a heartless city threatened to tear the team apart, Mr. Ellis had to convince his swimmers that victory, both inside and outside of the pool, was within their reach.

The Pride swimmers were kids who did not have a lot of money and had less opportunities than the kids they swam against. The Pride teenagers started out thinking that they would never amount to anything, but in the end, they were part of history—Philadelphia's first African-American swim team. After they listened to the words of wisdom from Mr. Ellis, they trained hard. Even though the team was subjected to all sorts of trials and tribulations, they trained hard enough to beat other so-called "better" teams and made it to the championship. Their hard work even helped stop the demolition of the recreational building and they learned many lessons along the way to their success.

Pride reminds me of two of many quotes I have collected in a book. Robert F. Kennedy said, "Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly." Robert Henri said, "Do whatever you do intensely." If Mr. Ellis and the janitor had not created the swim team and if the swimmers had not dared to train intensely, then they would not have won or learned that if you try very hard then you will succeed in the end.

I recommend that students watch Pride, which was rated PG because of racial remarks, mild language, and mild violence, because it will have a great impact on the students. Pride teaches that you should follow your dreams and not let people and things get in your way. It teaches that if you are willing to take the plunge into the unknown, you are more likely to succeed than the people who are not willing to persevere. Pride shows that you can do anything you want to do no matter who you are, where you came from, and how much money you do not have. If you put your mind to it and work hard, you can accomplish anything you want.

I think that if students watch Pride their behavior and attitudes would change. They would accept the differences in people and be more open to less discrimination. Unlike Pride, lots of movies and television programs that kids watch show that racism and discrimination are okay and funny. Since more kids all over the world have television, video games and radios, this makes them succumb to racism and discrimination even when they sometimes do not know it. Even toys like baby dolls sometimes suggest racism or discrimination. Kids that are no less than eight years old are already having racial quarrels or making racial comments to each other; one time I heard an African-American, second-grade girl and a Caucasian, second-grade boy meanly refer to each other as dark and white chocolate. In one of my elementary classes, a Caucasian boy told me that I could eat myself since I was a brownie; he was not taking about my being a Girl Scout but was talking about my skin color.

Maybe if the boy who called me a brownie sees Pride he would start to understand that making a silly joke about skin color is wrong, hurtful, and does not value people, like Martin Luther King said, for the "content of their character." He might be more accepting, appreciative, and respectful of others who are different. If he has any problems in life, he also might remember the swimmers in Pride, how strong they were, and how they fought back by working intensely.

Second Place (tie)

Naomi True
Lake Washington Girls Middle School
Seattle, Washington
Grade 6

Akeelah and the Bee

Akeelah and the Bee is a great film to help raise awareness of racism and to break down prejudices. Akeelah and the Bee is about an eleven-year-old African-American girl who grows up in a ghetto neighborhood and ends up winning a spelling bee. This movie will work against prejudices because many people might believe that a poor African- American girl cannot be smart or win a spelling bee. Akeelah shows that anyone can be smart, no matter his/her race or class.

The film also raises issues about what kind of people live in Akeelah's neighborhood. For example, Akeelah meets a teacher who lives nearby, and he turns out to be a great mentor. Dr. Larabee teaches her spelling, discipline, manners, grammar, determination, and serves as an example of an accomplished, educated, middle-class man living in a poor neighborhood.

This film reminds us that everyone can be trustworthy, generous, and committed to his or her family, community, and work. For instance, Akeelah's teenage brother has a group of friends (a gang) that is involved in selling drugs. The leader of the "gang" turns out to be a man who loves poetry. He encourages Akeelah when she is studying for the spelling bee. Sometimes we don't realize that "people in trouble with the law" really have hearts. The most important way to dissolve stereotypes and prejudices is to remember that every person has feelings, values, and some kind of family.

Watching Akeelah and the Bee and discussing it in the classroom would help students learn to judge someone by how they behave rather than by their race or class. After viewing the film, teachers should ask the class to point out the different stereotypes and prejudices that Akeelah and the Bee counters. Students could also share how they feel when they see a young African-American man walking down the street with his pants hanging below his waist. Since Akeelah's brother's gang included some compassionate, hard working members, students may realize that their assumptions may not always be true. When people see Akeelah and the Bee they will start learning to treat others with respect and the importance of getting to know a stranger before judging him or her.

Read the Middle School Honorable Mention Essays