March 4, 2016
The winner of this year’s Democracyworks essay competition is Salwa Meghjee, a student at Seminole (Florida) High School, Troupe 3266. First runner up is Alexandra Rivers, Hatboro-Horsham (Pennsylvania) High School, Troupe 2267, and second runner up is Lance Junck, Branson (Missouri) High School, Troupe 3482.
The annual award, sponsored by the Educational Theatre Association, is an opportunity for Thespians to address important advocacy issues that impact theatre and other arts education. The winner earns $250 cash and a trip to Arts Advocacy Day, the yearly Washington, D.C., gathering of arts advocates from throughout the country. The runners up also receive cash awards and certificates of recognition. As the winner, Meghjee and a chaperone will participate in one day of advocacy training and another visiting the offices of their Congressional representatives, asking for support on a wide range of arts and arts education initiatives and legislation. Watch Meghjee present her winning essay to the 2016 Arts Advocacy Day delegation here.
This year’s essay topic was inspired a panel on diversity at the 2015 EdTA National Conference. Panelists noted that, high quality arts programs are available to some students, many more have little or no access to theatre and other arts opportunities, particularly in high poverty schools. The panel also discussed the need for a range of plays to be produced in high schools that more broadly reflect the cultural backgrounds and ethnicity of students.
To address these diversity issues, this year’s prompt was, “Why is it important for all students to have arts education opportunities?”
Salwa Meghjee, a member of the Muslim faith, began her essay by stating that in five years as a Thespian, she had met only one other student who looked like her: “…another hijabi at a state competition who I chased through the convention center to tell her I loved her scarf.”
In her winning essay, Meghjee detailed her love of theatre, her frustration at never seeing Muslims on television who weren’t stereotyped, and the resistance she experienced from her own community. She wrote that someone close to her said, “You don’t want to be a part of drama. We aren’t those kind of people.” But she persisted and rose to become president of her Thespian troupe and created theatre opportunities for herself by writing her own plays, explaining that she wants to “create those stories for the little Muslim girls who come after me, so they won’t feel quite so alone in their experience, and can be welcomed into this community with open arms.”
Alexandra Rivers wrote of her experience encountering West Side Story as a seventh grader and “feeling a sense of familiarity in the characters….They’re Puerto Rican. Like me. I could be in this.” She went on to say, “That day, I felt like maybe there was a place for me, someone of Hispanic origin, in theatre. Not every work is about people who are black or white; I realized there was theatre made for me too.”
Lance Junck described theatre as the embodiment of the cultural values that serve as the foundation of our country. Quoting Lin-Manuel Miranda's comment that Hamilton is a “a story about America then, told by America now,” Junck wrote, “Miranda showed me, an aspiring director, a new perspective: that a non-traditional cast gives opportunity and can provide greater depth to a story’s meaning.” He went on to note that there needs to be more ethnic representation in theatre, particularly in school theatre productions.
In a short interview, Meghjee explained that her path through theatre began in middle school. “People in my community are somewhat resistant to such things because there is a concern that if we adopt Western culture it will be at the expense of our own.” But Meghjee enjoyed singing in the chorus, and after hearing about the Junior Thespians through some older girls from her community, she joined in the seventh grade. She points out that there is a great deal of diversity in her troupe, but added that frustration sometimes exists regarding the plays chosen for production.
“The plays that we do don’t often include people of color or diverse religions. That’s hard because theatre is supposed to be all-inclusive, but some of us don’t see ourselves portrayed positively on stage or in other media. I know people care about this, but they don’t seem to know how to fix it. I’m hoping one way is for me to write plays that I could see a young woman like myself in. I think I could make a difference.”
This story was updated on March 7, 2016, to reference video of Meghjee presenting her essay at Arts Advocacy Day.