By Rachel Chasin
Seven high school students became published authors this year, earning a collective $20,000 to help pay for college through the B’nai B’rith Diverse Minds Writing Challenge.
Since 2006 B’nai B’rith International has been promoting tolerance and diversity through this program, which asks high school students to create children’s books that educate young people on the importance of accepting other people’s differences, cultures and ideals.
The student author/illustrators tackle tough topics that resonate with them and hopefully will encourage younger students to be more open-minded, tolerant and accepting.
At the Washington, D.C., award ceremony, on June 7, illustrator Shadra Strickland addressed the finalists and spoke about her professional journey and how perseverance is the only way to achieve one’s goals.
“The dream doesn’t always look the way it does in your head, but trust your gut, believe in yourselves, and keep living the dream,” said Strickland. “Live the most inclusive life that you can. As hard and painful as it is to create, it is also one of the greatest and rarest joys that most people never experience.”
The contest, with the help from outside sponsors, was held this year in four areas along the East Coast: Washington, D.C., New York, South Jersey and the Delmarva Peninsula. First place winners in each city received a $5,000 college scholarship and had their book professionally published.
B’nai B’rith prints thousands of copies of each winning book and donates them to local schools, libraries and places such as Boys and Girls clubs. Winning books are also accessible on iTunes and Amazon as a free download. The books can also be found at the B’nai B’rith website: bnaibrith.org/diverse-minds.
Winners are chosen by a panel of judges from the worlds of education, business, the arts and government, in addition to B’nai B’rith International leaders.
“For the last nearly 30 years, I have traveled the world on behalf of B’nai B’rith, and I have met with world leaders, peoples of all cultures, backgrounds and beliefs, and the worst of what I have seen always stems from a foundation of intolerance, bigotry and narrow-mindedness,” said B’nai B’rith International CEO Daniel S. Mariaschin. “So, it is always heartening to see the idealism, hope and conviction of this next generation and the young people who participate in the Diverse Minds Writing Challenge. It is needed now more than ever, and it is why we at B’nai B’rith are so committed to this program and the substance that it conveys.”
The winning students’ teachers each received $1,000 to use for classroom or organizational materials, and the schools received $500.
Second-place winners received $2,000 college scholarships, and those who placed third received $1,000.
“Since its inception, the Diverse Minds Writing Challenge has given talented students a unique opportunity to spread the message of diversity and inclusion through their own personal lenses and has allowed them to capture the subject in a way that can inspire the younger generations that follow,” said Donna Cooper, region president of Pepco, the electric utility, a subsidiary of Exelon, which sponsored the Washington, D.C., contest.
Ariya Feng, a student at Thomas Wootton High School in Rockville, Md., won the Washington, D.C.-area competition. Her book, “What Makes Me Beautiful,” chronicles a class of children assigned to find a trait that celebrates their unique identities. One child speaks of her dark curly hair. Another talks about his Asperger’s syndrome. A student named Bill tells his classmates that he’s proud that his mom is Mexican and that his dad is Chinese. In the end, the children learn that everyone shines in their own way, and that it’s great to be unique.
“I want to promote tolerance [and] diversity to influence the younger generations, especially because they are going to be our future,” Feng said. “I just really hope that my book shows that race, religion [and gender] shouldn’t be an issue, and everyone should be treated the same. I hope that when people read this they feel like they belong wherever they are.”
Yingchao He and Trinh Nguyen, who wrote and illustrated “I’m Going to Be Me,” were honored with the top prize in the New York contest on June 21 at an award ceremony at the Actors Temple Theatre in Manhattan. In their book, a student named Ralph must make the brave decision to be himself, despite one of his peers teasing him for wanting to dress up as a ballerina for Halloween. Soon, all the children in Ralph’s class learn that they can be whatever they want to be, as long as they are staying true to themselves.
The New York ceremony included a panel discussion. “These Diverse Minds: Tolerance & Inclusion Practices for the Next Generation” focused on equal rights, inclusion and justice and ways to promote these ideas in schools, homes and communities. The panel was sponsored by First Data, a payment technology company; the New York City-area contest was funded by an anonymous donor.
For the Delmarva contest, Carly Palkon and Alexa Scotto, students from Ursuline Academy in Wilmington, Del., were recognized at the Delmarva Conference Center on June 5 for their book “Cami’s Secret Talent.” Delmarva Power, a subsidiary of Exelon, sponsored this leg of the contest.
In Palkon and Scotto’s book, a lion named Cami excels at climbing, jumping and swimming, but she is mediocre at running. Cami becomes anxious when she discovers she will have to take a skills test at school that includes running. Eventually, Cami, with the help of her friends, realizes that it’s okay not to be good at something, as long as you try your best.
“Neat and Orderly,” written and illustrated by Naomi Amadoro and Brianna Groch, won the South Jersey contest, which was sponsored by Atlantic City Electric, a subsidiary of Exelon. The authors, who attend Clearview Regional High School in Mullica Hill, N.J., were honored on June 6 at Atlantic City Electric’s regional headquarters.
In their story, classmates Avery and Noah can’t seem to get along. Avery finds Noah annoying and doesn’t understand why he has to have things a certain way. One day, Avery accidentally knocks Noah’s pens onto the floor, which upsets Noah deeply, and Avery doesn’t understand why. Their teacher intervenes and asks Noah to explain to Avery why he needs to have his pens placed perfectly on his desk. Avery soon understands that her classmate has obsessive compulsive disorder, and she becomes more accepting of other people’s differences.
“We believe that it’s very important to accept everyone, both with outward appearances, and also any unseen characteristics such as mental facility,” the authors said.
“With this story, we hope to raise the awareness of mental disorders and help children to understand and accept others for all that they are.”
Since the 2006-2007 school year, B’nai B’rith has published 37 original children’s books (including one in Spanish), awarded more than $300,000 in college scholarships and grants and donated 42,000 books to public schools, libraries and community organizations across the country, including to the TODAY Show’s holiday toy drive.
Submission details and deadlines for next year’s contest will be posted this fall at www.bnaibrith.org/diverse-minds.