B’nai B’rith’s 22nd Enlighten America Essay Contest
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B’nai B’rith’s 22nd Enlighten America Essay Contest

The annual contest, which was founded in 2000 by the Achim/Gate City Lodge of B’nai B’rith International, aims to encourage respect and tolerance of religious beliefs and racial, cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

Clockwise from top left: Francis Clark; Arun Piyasena; George Sloan; Skylar Robinson; Santoshi Puttagunta; Kyle Tie.
Clockwise from top left: Francis Clark; Arun Piyasena; George Sloan; Skylar Robinson; Santoshi Puttagunta; Kyle Tie.

On June 13, a panel of four judges announced the six student-winners of this year’s Enlighten America Essay Contest, awarding them a total of $1,400: $350 for first place, $250 for second and $100 for third.

The annual contest, which was founded in 2000 by the Achim/Gate City Lodge of B’nai B’rith International, aims to encourage respect and tolerance of religious beliefs and racial, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Participants were asked to write about issues of prejudice and bigotry and how those issues are or aren’t being addressed, to focus on a quote by a global or community leader, or to discuss an important historic event.

Marcus Brodzki, the 2022 essay contest coordinator, explained the importance of exploring these topics, especially right now.

Arun Piyasena of Sandy Springs tied for third place in the 7th grade category with his essay, “A United Society.”

“As we have seen time and again, there is a great need for mutual understanding,” Brodzki said. “We are seeing hyperpolarization among adults and this contest has been a breath of fresh air and continues to illuminate the need for continued work with our youth.”

Over the past four years, the competition has had over 200 submissions. Although the number of submissions was somewhat lower this year, the quality was no less excellent.

“This year’s essays were strong,” said Ruth E. Levy, owner of And Thou Shalt Read Bookstore and one of the four judges. “They shared a variety of concerns and a depth of thought that young people are experiencing, even at this early age. I was very impressed. And it was hard to choose the winners because there were many good entries!”

The winning essays covered a range of subject areas. Skylar Robinson, the 7th grade first-place winner, chose to focus on two civil rights activists and an additional civil rights movement.

Skylar Robinson of Fayetteville won first place in the 7th grade category for her essay, “Harmony and Equality.”

“I always liked Gandhi and he was very inspirational to many other activists in the world, for example, Nelson Mandela,” she said, “and I learned about Title IX this year through my PE class and I thought that that was very moving, so I decided to include women’s rights as well.”

Robinson, who attends Woodward Academy, wanted to thank her teacher, Ms. Williams, who encouraged her to enter the competition.

“Violence and prejudice are global issues affecting humanity,” Robinson wrote in her essay, “but if we reflect on our history we have seen that civic harmony, love and equality always win. With this, we can and we will change the future.”

Kyle Tie, the first-place winner for the 8th grade category, focused on the prevention of hate and racism, including the issue of the “bystander effect,” especially as it related to a recent issue.

Kyle Tie from Johns Creek won first place in the 8th grade category for his essay, “Stop the Hate.”

“Around the time that I heard about the contest, I read many news articles about Asian hate,” he said, “and decided to write about it in the contest.” The judges complimented Tie’s analysis on microaggressions and the origin of stereotyping.

“By educating ourselves better, acknowledging our surroundings, understanding more about different races, accepting others as who they are, bravely standing up and offering a helping hand when needed, hate crimes will be stopped,” Tie wrote, in the essay.

“People, regardless of their races, their ages, their gender will no longer feel afraid to enjoy their daily activities no matter where they are.” Tie is also a student at Woodward and wanted to thank his English teacher, Ms. Anderson.

Seventh grade second-place winner Francis Clark, a Chamblee Middle School student, was encouraged by his grandmother to enter the competition.

Francis Clark of Brookhaven won second place in the 7th grade category for his essay, “Unity in Diversity.”

“I don’t like writing about broad general topics that need super vague writing,” said Clark, “so I decided to focus on one thing. I chose a quote by Gandhi. ‘Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and test of our civilization.’”

He broke down the quote piece by piece, pointing out various themes and was complimented by the judges on how he “took a complicated idea and made it understandable.”

Clark came to a conclusion that highlighted the importance of both concepts.

“What we as a whole community need to do,” he wrote, “is let our similarities bring us together and let our differences make us who we are as a person.” He wanted to thank both his grandmother and his ELA teacher, Ms. Cheffen.

Eighth grade second-place winner Santoshi Puttagunta admitted having a much harder time narrowing the focus of her essay. She made a comparison between the lynching of Emmett Till and recent deaths related to police brutality and looked into recent issues related to LGBTQ+ rights and disabled individuals.

George Sloan of Alpharetta tied for third place in the 7th grade category with his essay, “Hope for Harmony.”

“I would like to have added historical examples involving individuals of the LGBTQ+ community and individuals with disabilities,” she said. “I think historical examples involving people would motivate individuals and give them a better perspective of the issue(s).”

She mentioned being inspired by two books she had read for class the previous year, “Ghostboys” and “Good Enough,” and wanted to thank her teacher, Ms. Jackson, who also helped her when she struggled with Shakespeare early in the semester. “She has not only helped me with this contest but has helped me grow as a writer throughout the year,” Puttagunta said.

While there were no third-place winners in the 8th grade category, two 7th-graders tied for the position. Arun Piyasena focused on the importance of the No Place For Hate pledge, but also broached a number of subjects including violence against Asian Americans and his own personal experiences with racism. He noted that the solution to such problems comes from individuals.

“Society can stunt racism if the persons inside of it become aware of their biases and work to change them,” he wrote.

George Sloan, the other third-place winner, focused on three specific points. Praised by the judges for using specific evidence to make his point, Sloan wrote, “While the American dream is still strong, and hope remains for civic harmony, much work is needed. We must redouble our efforts to end the gender pay gap, solve the racial education gap and quell wealth inequality. Only then can we truly achieve the American dream of civic harmony, equality and equal opportunity.”

Santoshi Puttagunta of Johns Creek won second place in the 8th grade category for her essay, “Love Conquers All.”

All of the winners expressed how surprised, excited and thankful they were for being selected. A few mentioned how the contest has helped inspire their futures.

“This contest really made me want to write more, and I’m very glad that I entered,” Clark said. Robinson mentioned a dream she’d already been looking forward to. “I also want to work at the United Nations, be affiliated with them,” she said, “I’ve always wanted to voice my opinions on injustice and help the world, so I really feel that that is important as well.”

The essays are available at enlightenamerica.weebly.com.

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