The 2010-2011 Essay Contest Winners:
1st, 2nd, and 3rd Place

High School Division

First Place

Brian M. Wong
Grade 11
Alameda High School
Alameda, California

No More Am I a Puppet Pulled by Media Strings

The seven o'clock Chinese News was again blasting from the kitchen TV as my mom tried to catch up with the day's news while she was sautéing the Kung Pao chicken for dinner. This particular evening, like a few before it, I saw a screen shot of Steve Li, handcuffed, being escorted to somewhere, as I set the table for our one and only family meal of the day. My mother shook her head and said, "Why can't they leave him alone and let him come back to California? What crime has he committed?" Steve Li, a young man in his twenties was going to be deported to Peru in a few days. At the dinner table when the topic found its way into the conversation, I did not know what to say. I did not know what to think. I did not know enough to think. As a teenager, I was too immersed in my AP classes and video games to watch the news with interest. Ignorance made me an indifferent observer.

A little embarrassed about not being able to say something meaningful, after dinner I set out to wipe off the ignorance on my face. I "googled" Steve Li and eventually came across the DREAM Act. The images on the Internet and the news stories available online about Steve Li and the DREAM Act swayed my prejudices back and forth, mainly because of my ignorance on the issue. On one side were the angry opponents of the DREAM Act; on the opposite side were the pleading proponents. I was being pulled from one side to another until I finally became educated on the topic. Only then was I able to be objective about Steve Li's case.

Opponents of the DREAM Act think that it is unfair because the passing of the bill will mean taking funding away from U.S. citizens and permanent residents who are attending college and need financial aid. With anger on their faces and ethnic slurs on their placards, they yelled out, "Go back to where you came from." Filled with prejudice, they blame illegal immigrants like Steve Li for depleting funds that the United States cannot afford.

Opponents of the DREAM Act are blind to the fact that young immigrants like Steve Li, who is studying to be a nurse in the City College of San Francisco, will in time be helping the U.S. economy, which is in need of a boost of any kind. These angry people cannot see the truth because of their prejudice. Their adamant insistence made me wonder what good could ever come out of the DREAM Act. Watching them protest brings on nightmares for me. While I did not feel the hate, I began to feel a fear. I began to wonder how the United States would be able to fund such a bill. Undoubtedly, fear blinds reason, and the fear snowballs into an avalanche of hate. Some days I also felt that illegal aliens, no matter who they were, should not be granted any kind of amnesty.

On the other hand, proponents of the DREAM Act have humanitarian reasons to support Steve Li, who was brought into this country when he was eight. It was through no fault of his own that he became an illegal alien. He should not be deported to Peru, where he has no family or friends. The DREAM Act will give some qualifying young illegal aliens like Steve Li a chance for U.S. citizenship. It will encourage these young people to get a better education and give back to the community. The DREAM Act will also help to recruit people for the military. It will help the economy of the United States because more residents will be paying taxes. And the list goes on. When I read about the difficult plights of the young innocent illegal aliens, my heart would reach out to them, especially to Steve Li, who was still awaiting the help of Dianne Feinstein to block his deportation.

I was swayed to and fro by what I read in the newspapers, video clips I watched on the Internet and news stories that I saw on television, especially those on the San Francisco Chinese station. I recognized I needed to come to an opinion based on facts rather than emotions. I did not like being a puppet on a string, pulled by the media in every which way.

Thus, I set out to learn more about The DREAM Act, which was re-introduced in Congress in 2009. According to my research, this new DREAM Act is well thought out and aims at a group of young illegal aliens, giving them a chance to the American DREAM, which stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act.

This act gives a chance to the young illegal aliens who have arrived in the United States before the age of sixteen. Specifically, they need to be of "good moral character" and "must have graduated from a U.S. high school" or have obtained a GED (General Education Diploma). Those who qualify will "be able to apply for student loans and work study but would not be eligible for PELL grants." Aha! There is the clause that clears my doubts. These young people who wish to go to college will not be competing against citizens and legal residents for financial aid. Also, if they commit crimes, they will lose their chances of the good life as American citizens.

I now support the DREAM Act, not because of the influence of popular media, but because I am educated about the issue. I have learned that ignorance is not bliss; instead knowledge can make me a better citizen, and perhaps even a better person. I now write blogs for East Villagers News to share my insights with others so that they, too, can understand that inquiry and knowledge can make us wiser.

Second Place

Imani Banks
Grade 12
Cleveland Heights High School
Cleveland Heights, Ohio

Reading, Watching, and Lessons Learned

As a small child, I'd never really thought about ethnicities, or nationalities. I'd always figured that people are different colors, with different hair and facial features just...because; a person's "race" was never more than an appearance. I'd never experienced any unfriendly behavior because of my own race, either. I was like any other little girl, making up games with her sister and brother, going to the zoo, telling jokes, and playing in my mom's high heeled shoes.

However, things changed a little for me when I started school, sometime between the ages of six and seven: I learned about slavery. As an African American person, I was shocked and broken-hearted by the realization. As I said before, to me, diversity was something that didn't need explanation. To realize that my ancestors had gone through something so terrible, and that that was how I came to be an American, was devastating. I couldn't believe that it was true. When I got home from school that day, I went and asked my mom and dad if it was true. They both seemed saddened that I had heard about it. In response, they gave me hugs, and explained that yes, slavery was real, but that some good people had stood up to it and that things were better now.

I believed my parents, but found that I was now curious about this terrible, terrible institution. Being the natural reader that I am, even at that young age, I devoured all types of literature on the issue. Over the next few years, I read slave narratives, historical fiction, history books, and anything else I could get my hands on. The more that I read, the more racism I became exposed to, and the worse I felt about myself. The things that I was learning simultaneously made me angry that such things had occurred, and deeply, deeply injured my self-esteem. I began to feel that sense of paranoia, that insecurity, and that wounded-ness. And I began to project my feelings onto other people.

At the same time I was researching slavery, I also learned about other instances of human tragedy caused by bigotry. I learned about the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, the Trail of Tears, and the Japanese internment camps. That last one I found very, very interesting. Being quite recent in American history, and taking place on American soil, it immediately caught my attention. I felt the same sympathy for that group of people that I felt for any other, until I became aware of one fact: the people that had suffered the camps, or their heirs, had received reparations from the government, as well as an apology.

That fact planted a seed of jealousy inside of me. While I didn't hate Japanese Americans, I came to resent that the government acknowledged the injustices it had committed against them through the apology, and attempted to rectify the situation, while my own race was still without a dime, plot of land, or farm animal, and, until 2009, without a formal apology from the collective national government. It just didn't seem fair to me how even though what Africans had gone through with slavery was "worse" than what the Japanese Americans had with the internment camps, their people received "more" in terms of solvency.

And then one day I unknowingly stumbled across the film Grave of the Fireflies. It's an animated film by the Japanese filmmaker Isao Takahata, and revolves around a young boy and his young sister surviving in WW2 era Japan. I watched the movie expecting it to be, like many of Takahata's other films, playful and lightly entertaining. Instead, it was intense and hugely emotional. Over the course of Grave of the Fireflies, the two protagonists lose their already sick mother to the bombs, see their community burn to the ground, watch helplessly as the people that they knew and loved are killed slowly by the injuries they got from the bombs and starve. The most wrenching part of the movie comes at the end, when the young girl dies, and her emaciated brother is forced to bury her before dying soon after. His death is caused in equal parts by his starvation and broken heart.

Even as I quietly cried, I could tell that Takahata had made this film for young people, in the hopes of educating us about the evils that can be caused by mercilessness and a lack of sympathy for our fellow man. By condensing the immensity of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to two painfully relatable children, he strips away the political and economic aspects of war, leaving room only for the toll that it has on individual humans.

Seeing the film, I almost immediately felt my own prejudice against Japanese Americans, and the possibility of feeling it toward any other group, disappear. It occurred to me that it is impossible to compare one form of suffering to another. Over the course of our lives, we are all hurt by the societies that we live in, oftentimes because of the many, many things that are beyond our control. In this common bond, our hurt, we are all much more alike that we are different. Moreover, because of this same hurt, we all have the obligation to do our best not to inflict any harm on anyone else.

Each and every day, I remind myself to refrain from judging and evaluating other people, and make an effort to remind others to do the same. Carrying my historical insight and sensitivity into the future, I would love to travel internationally, making myself into an example of kindness and tolerance. In this, I will hopefully spread my message to the world over: that despite it being easier to embrace hostility and bitterness as opposed to sympathy and acceptance, but only in refusing to be swallowed by hatred can one become victorious over it.

Third Place

Houda Abdelrahman
Grade 12
Fargo South High School
Fargo, North Dakota

The Media's Prejudice toward Africans and Its Effects

In a CNN report about African immigrants' struggle to find a place in the American society, immigrants describe the alarming questions asked by misinformed Americans. One young woman said she had been asked whether she kept wild animals as pets, resided in a tree, and wandered naked before coming to the United States. Although the majority of Americans have not personally traveled to Africa, they have a portrait of the African individual as painted by the American media. By fixating on Africa's less fortunate sphere and rarely mentioning achievements, American newsrooms have sculpted an incorrect, stereotypical African image for many bewildered Americans, including myself.

The media's fondness of focusing on Africa's various problems, including war, poverty, crime, hunger, disease, and corruption, ruins the image of Africans worldwide, ultimately resulting in racism toward Africans immigrants, especially those who have not yet assimilated into American culture. The opinion of the public concerning these immigrants simmers down to the disdainful stereotypes encouraged by the news. While cultural appreciation and equality is taught in schools, the media's influence does not spare students. As a middle-school student watching the news and unconsciously applying what it informs about immigrants, the media's pressure became evident a few years ago when I befriended a vibrant and sweet African immigrant who had recently arrived in the United States. Because she still had strong ties to her traditions, she came to school proudly donning long cotton dresses with African prints and packed a cold African lunch instead of buying a hot American school lunch. When the vicious North Dakota winter arrived, her sandals and flip-flops still snapped in the hallways while other students stomped their heavy boots. Various students teased her about her odd-looking lunch and her colorful, un-American clothing. They snickered about her footwear, assuming she wore sandals in the snow out of stupidity, not realizing she probably could not afford warm, expensive boots.

Instead of standing up for my friend, I slowly stopped sitting with her at lunch and tried to find a friend that my peers would welcome more. The media had influenced me that my African friend was odd, desperate, and most of all, unacceptable. My peers, who were also influenced by the media to hold that opinion, approved my change. However, as the daughter of Middle Eastern immigrants, I know firsthand how the media's prejudices can sadly influence the decisions of others. When I was seven years old, a classmate un-invited me to her birthday party after her father discovered I was Middle Eastern. Reflecting on my experience and imagining what the African girl faces daily, I have learned that although the media's influence is deep, it should never penetrate our sensibility and respect toward others. Simply, the golden rule still shines: treat others as you would like to be treated. I failed to learn from my personal experience and stand up for my African friend. Now, I would have stood up for her, despite risking the disapproval of my other friends. I would have encouraged my other friends to get to know her better. Although that situation has ended, opportunities to improve prejudice pop up every day.

As immigrants continue to spill into America, we must find solutions to welcome these newcomers and establish positive bonds, especially with the younger generations. Although a good place to start is the newsroom, heeding Mahatma Gandhi's to "be the change you want to see in the world" is just as sufficient. School students can invite shy immigrant students into their study groups or ask them to participate in school activities. Establishing international clubs in every high school allows students and immigrants with similar interests to connect. Starting with the basic classroom setting, educators can also help by ensuring that the future generations learn to effectively communicate with other cultures.

The most disturbing effect of the media is that a normal person with little or no experience may be pressured to absentmindedly hold these discriminatory views about immigrants. The media's inclination of focusing on the tragic sphere of Africa has created an incorrect image that clings to many African immigrants. Reflecting on my personal experience and the way I treated the African girl, I realized that the way the media portrays Africans had established prejudices in me. Although we might be unwilling to admit it, we all hold a prejudice of some sort but we cannot let it block our eyes from seeing the world. As Abraham Heschel once said, "Racism is man's gravest threat to man - the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason."

Read the High School Honorable Mention Essays

Middle School Division

First Place

Alexis Locsin
Grade 7
International School of Minnesota
Eden Prairie, Minnesota

Saving Sampson High

Prejudice is a widespread and seemingly unstoppable phenomenon. It is an unfair or biased attitude towards certain groups of people, which, interestingly enough, spans almost all of the world. These biased viewpoints are displayed in many ways: actions, words, and even in the media. Some television programs or movies only popularize and heighten prejudiced viewpoints. However, there is a brighter side: many popular shows and movies are taking steps to teach people about the evils of discrimination.

If I were to create one such movie, it would be called Saving Sampson High. The movie starts in a stereotypical high school with its stereotypical cliques: jocks, nerds, cheerleaders and the like. One uneventful Monday in December, it is announced the state government will shut down the school at the end of the year due to budget cuts. Hearing this, students who previously had taken going to school for granted realize that they actually love their school and decide to stop its shutdown immediately. The movie explores the individual stories of various students, one such student being Kathy, an introverted, but smart girl with a mild form of autism which had previously kept her from having many friends. (She was often classified as a "nerd".) Other characters include Angela, a relatively wealthy teenager recently initiated into the "popular" clique, and Cheng, an exchange student, who has trouble making friends due to linguistic differences. Another student, Steve, a popular kid, is a 'jock' and a bully; yet another student, Julian, is an effeminate male, who is often made fun of by the others. Through collective efforts as well as their own individual attempts, they manage to raise enough money to save the school, as well as improve it. Out of necessity, Kathy and Angela reluctantly band together and obtain grants from various companies. The two bond quickly. Angela sees that cliques or "popularity" don't make you a better person, and Kathy lets go of her negative attitude towards people in cliques and makes an unexpected friend in the process. Although unwilling to help at first, Steve uses his popularity to help convince many people to sign a petition to stop the shutdown of Sampson High. At an assembly held for this very purpose, he recognizes Julian's eloquence and asks him to give a speech. His speech stirs many people to action, procures hundreds of signatures, and even manages to raise a substantial amount of money. While, at first, Steve was biased against Julian and only asked him to speak because of his way with words, he comes to the realization that Julian is, in fact, in defiance of many of the stereotypes surrounding him, being much like any other "normal" teen. Finally, for a long time, Cheng feels like he is useless because he is barely able to speak English. One day, however, he has the idea of having an art sale, and with the help of his artistic brother and a few friends, starts an art fair. The profits go towards saving the school. Miraculously enough, the students' joint efforts raise money sufficient to stop the school from being closed, which fills everyone with considerable joy. In this process, the students learn various lessons of equality, such as not to judge a book by its cover.

Of course, there are many other interesting movies or television programs that could have been written. The important thing is that they fight prejudice by teaching viewers fairness and equality. One way to help end biased attitudes using the media is to show the full magnitude of the suffering they can cause, and tell stories about people overcoming these attitudes.

While prejudice is still very much alive, there have been increasingly fervent attempts to stop it. Whereas some television shows seem to exacerbate prejudice, there are many excellent shows or movies which have taught important lessons about its evils and are slowly but surely bringing us that much closer to our goal: a total end to all prejudice.

Second Place

Johanna Kopecky
Grade 6
Carl Traeger Middle School
Oshkosh, Wisconsin

Hayzelle's Historic Journey

It happened like this... back when I was in fifth grade, going to Birchwood Elementary. I treated some of my other classmates badly.

I pushed Holly, who was from China. My best friend Tara slammed Ivory, the Hmong girl, into a wall. Alejandra, the Spanish one, stood up for her friends. "Hey!" she shouted, "What's your problem?"

"You!" snapped my other friend Melissa. We laughed. They cried.

I will never forget that. Especially because of what happened that night. I was in bed, when mother called, "Hayzelle, time for bed!" I turned out my bedroom light, but before I could get back in bed, my door slammed and a breeze filled the room. I looked behind me and saw a figure walking toward me. She looked at me. "Who are you?" I demanded.

"I'm Melody, and I was sent to teach you a lesson," she explained. I rolled my eyes. More school....perfect!

"I'm sending three spirits tonight," she told me "to help you learn to accept others." "Get lost!" I snapped and shut my eyes. When I opened them, Melody was gone. What a crazy dream. I crawled back in bed and fell asleep.

But then, I started to hear laughter. I opened my eyes and staring back at me looked like a ghost. "I'm Emma, I'll tell you about your mom's past. Didn't Melody tell you I was coming?" She asked.

I was shocked. Maybe Melody wasn't a dream, or maybe I'm dreaming now. "Alright then, ready to go to Germany, where your ancestors are from?" she asked me.

Away we went. We learned about everything; foods, dress styles and the history of the country. It was nothing I ever experienced.

After we visited Ludwig's Castle, Emma pulled out a pocket watch. "It's time to get you back home!"

"But...." I replied. Emma just blew me a kiss, snapped her fingers and in a swirl of colors, I was back in my bed.

I must be going crazy, I thought to myself. I went back to sleep but was awakened again later. This time by a voice saying, "Hurry, hurry, get up. We've got lots to do. I'm Patrick by the way!"

"Let me guess," I said. "You're here to tell me about my father."

"You're no fun!" Patrick exclaimed. "Well, off to Ireland!"

We arrived in Ireland. I got to see how difficult it was during the potato famine. The people in Ireland are so different from the people in Germany, but it's all normal to them.

I knew the adventure had to end and it did after I learned about the Blarney Stone. "Time to go", Patrick announced. In a flash, I was alone in my room.

It was not a surprise when I was awakened by a third spirit. This one was black. She cut right to the chase. "I'm Lateefah, and I'll be showing you your cousin Taiwo's past." Taiwo is my adopted cousin from Ethiopia.

We arrived in Ethiopia. Everyone looked different than what I had seen previously, but they were still people. I thought of how I treated the girls at school. I never gave them a chance. Just because they look different and come from different places doesn't make them any different than anyone else. I turned to Lateefah.

"I would love to stay and learn about this area, but I think I got the message." Lateefah smiled and, just like that, I was home again.

"Hayzelle Olivia Eden! You're late!" my mom screamed. A very rushed fifteen minutes later I was at school.

Before Melissa and Tam could find me, I walked across the blacktop to the girls I treated badly. I stood in front of them.

"I would just like you to know that I'm so.....sorry." These words were coming from my heart. "I was so mean. I treated you badly just because you were different than me and I see now what a horrible thing that was. I can't imagine that you could ever forgive me, but please know that how I treated you will always be my greatest mistake." Then, I started to cry.

I couldn't believe what happened next. They hugged me. They forgave me. And to this day we are still friends. I will never judge someone by what they look like, how they talk or where they came from because we all live on one earth and if you give each other a chance we will all get along together.

Third Place

Sabree Elaine Harris
Grade 8
Trickum Middle School
Lilburn, Georgia

For Rainbow Girls

The media has played a phenomenal role in a crisis that many teenagers face daily. With the promotion of promiscuous sex, many teens are not sure how to handle such brutal situations. The recent film, For Colored Girls by Tyler Perry, featured eight women all with personal journeys of their own. However, one of the young ladies named Nyla was faced with a frightening dilemma: Teenage Pregnancy. Nyla was from a poor area in the projects of Chicago. Fortunately, she had beaten most statistics for girls of color by completing high school. Nyla's mother was a member of a religious cult, and her older sister engaged in everyday intercourse. Nyla wanted to make a difference with her life. She was awarded a dance scholarship to attend college, but after celebrating her high school graduation with a friend in an intimate manner, she became pregnant. It was her first time taking part in sexual activity. Unfortunately, we see this same consequence fall on many teenagers today. The pressure to abstain from sex becomes harder and harder with peer pressure, society, and the media as a whole. Like many girls, Nyla was embarrassed, and she felt as if all of her dreams were shattered. Her conclusion to end her pregnancy in an unsafe environment resulted in devastating life- long consequences. Ironically, Mr. Perry's title of his movie seemingly is limited to girls of color; my title would be, For Rainbow Girls. I have learned that teen pregnancy comes in all colors, and appears in affluent communities.

Frequently, we believe teen pregnancy is confined to one area, poor, uneducated and poverty stricken communities. However, this common belief is completely false. In For Rainbow Girls, four ethnicities would be represented: Caucasians, African Americans, Asians, and Hispanics. My storyline would model how differently pregnancy is looked upon depending on where each of the girls is from. In certain environments, teen pregnancy is condoned. Unfortunately, teen pregnancy should not be accepted, and because you are from a different background, you should not be viewed or treated differently. In my story, girls from upper class societies would also be a part of the storyline because there is no certain criterion attached to becoming pregnant. In my conclusion, all the girls would overcome their obstacles even though they were from different "sides of the track." They would all go on to becoming very successful women and develop organized support groups within their communities to help educate not only girls about teenage pregnancy but all individuals. After all, there is not a better example than to hear from someone who has actually gone through a similar experience.

Realistically, I have always tried to encourage my friends to know who they are, to honor their values, and always do what they know is right even if it means standing alone. If I found myself in this situation, I would first of all go to my parents, unlike Nyla in the movie. Yes, I would typically be filled with trepidation, but I wouldn't want to make a decision that could harm me both physically and mentally. Nyla was scarred for life. She endured emotional stress, and she was never able to become pregnant again. I believe each of us should have our own personal agenda filled with plans for our future. I know what my plans are, and I don't want anyone or anything to stop me from achieving my goals. However, it is possible to be successful after birthing a child as a teenager, but the journey to success will be difficult.

Finally, we've all made mistakes, but some of our mistakes result in worse consequences than others. The movie, For Colored Girls, taught me a valuable lesson to never desert a friend if she became pregnant. My movie, For Rainbow Girls, would teach a valuable lesson that teenage pregnancy is present in all cultures, and there is not a particular group or race that is excluded from the issue. All teenagers must be educated and informed about the risk of becoming pregnant during their teenage years. I saw how Nyla felt when she really had no friend or relative to turn to for help. Let us decrease our discrimination against teen pregnancy by learning to embrace each other in times of crisis. By no means am I condoning teen pregnancy, but never forget that you should always strive to achieve your dreams. It is my wish that young mothers continue to strive for excellence because all things are possible.

Read the Middle School Honorable Mention Essays