2022 Writing Contest: Read the Winning Entries!

We received over 100 fascinating and beautifully written entries from children of our members in the Union’s Annual Writing Contest. Every year we are more delighted by the incredible creativity and thoughtfulness of the young adults in our Union family.

This marks the 20th anniversary of the Writing Contest, which was initially made possible by a donation from the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation. Laurel Rubin, the daughter of Donald Rubin and granddaughter of the first president of the Hotel Trades Council Jay Rubin, generously donated the money for this year’s contest. Winners were awarded prizes ranging from $1,000 to $3,000.

Here are the full entries from our six 2022 winners:

Tenzin Choezom, Overall Winner

Parent: Sonam Choesang, Hyatt Centric Times Square

"How I plan to change the world" 

I skim through the book, its pages dull and text faded, looking for words and phrases- a source of energy- that will give me the motivation I need to start the 314-page novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, for my sophomore year European Literature class. After minutes of leafing around, my fingers wind up at the very third page, where Kundera discusses the lightness vs. weight opposition. He argues that it “is the most ambiguous of all”, and furthers, “if eternal return is the heaviest of burdens, then our lives can stand out against it in all their splendid lightness. But is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid?” Lips slightly parted and eyebrows furrowed in concentration, I read and reread those lines. My eyes carve into the page as the words carve themselves into my mind and I am bemused.

Of course, lightness is splendid. Lightness is a feather- it’s the ability to soar and soaring is certainly splendid.

However, I lean back in my bed, staring blankly ahead, trying to make sense of the question and arrive at a logical answer. Eventually, my eyes rest on a toy plane, not bigger than my palm, sitting on the bookshelf in my room. Picking it up, I am taken aback by how light it is and how much heavier it appeared when I first held it in my hand that May of 2010. My father had gifted it to me, after stepping foot on American soil, and I remember marveling at it for months, tracing my fingers across its figure: the same model as the plane my mother and I fled India in, Continental Airlines.

Flying away from poverty, political crises, inadequate education systems, and poor living conditions allowed a burden to be lifted from my family’s back. Our new one-bedroom apartment in Queens was as grand as the ocean I flew over in comparison with the run-down corridors of our neglected apartment complex that was housing far more people than it should have been. I was amazed by the new school I attended along with its stationeries and supplies I had never laid my eyes on before, facilities I could only dream of in my poorly funded school in India.

Yet, instead of feeling relieved, or free and light, I have come to realize that the transition has left an even heavier weight on my conscience. As Tibetans living in exile, my parents had so little, but they always bought fresh pomegranates, which were quite the delicacy in our provincial village, for me. I still listen to my father’s stories about our life in the third-world country- recollections of strolls on the dusty streets, stopping every once in a while to greet a friend, and eating pizza with a breathtaking view of the clouds on the Dharmshala landscape. Furthermore, my parents both held stable jobs: my father was a teacher and my mother was a secretary, so despite the poor income, they had relatively small workloads. In stark contrast, they both currently work as manual laborers, coming home fatigued and aching at the end of each day and my heart shatters watching them every single time.

I bear the additional weight of longing for the familiar scent of my grandmother’s embrace, the mountainous terrain of our Ghangkyi home, and the rich spiciness of laphing, a Tibetan noodle dish, from street vendors lining the city, is a load that I carry with me to every tennis match,

piano recital, and karaoke night with my friends. It is a reminder that lingers in the back of my mind during every 2 A.M. study session and mathematics lesson I tutor.

The new lavish accommodations of America have instilled within me gratitude for the opportunity to come to America unlike so many suffering Tibetans back in Tibet, India, and Nepal, a responsibility to stay true to my Tibetan identity, as well as earnest, to make sure my parents’ sacrifices were not in vain.

Alas, I continue to come back to the toy airplane and the question that Kundera puts forth, “Is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid”, to this day. The palm-sized memento is almost as old as I am. Its paint has chipped off, the wheels have fallen, and its miniature beacon light no longer flashes, but the weight and importance that it carries have only become heavier as I continue to tread forward; it now serves as a guiding light as I aspire to save others’ lives in the future, just as mine was saved.

Now, what seemed apparent at first no longer feels right. Lightness means soaring, but it also implies insignificance, and although weight is a load I must carry, it stands for all that is who I am- it keeps me standing, grounded, and ready- and there is nothing more splendid than that.

Likewise, changing the world does not always mean that I will invariably make big and powerful decisions. At times, I will tread carefully, with steps as light as a feather. However, where it matters most, I will make sure that my steps are beneficial to others, confident, and heavy.

Christina Anto, 1st Place in Fiction/Non-Fiction

Parent: Johnson Anto, InterContinental New York Barclay

"The Beauty Within You" 

“You’re pretty for a black girl,” he said. The words that followed me like a shadow. This simple yet complex compliment sat in my head for days. Why was I pretty “for a black girl?” Why wasn’t it just “you are pretty?” At a young age, I understood and realized the differentiation of my pigment from others. Kate (the girl who sat next to me in class) was way lighter than me. She was white, eyes like the ocean, and her hair was shiny and silky. Kate’s hair reminded me of the barbie dolls at Target. I could run my hands through it like water. My hair wasn’t like Kate’s hair. My hair would get caught in tangled curls that twirled in loops like the spiral springs you find in notebooks. Every time I shook hands with my teacher, principal, and others, I saw the differentiation. Sometimes, I felt that they can interact better with those who weren’t like me. After all, they shared more similarities with the rest of the white students. As I look at each and one individual, I notice the biggest difference, my skin was darker.

My family says “Black is beautiful from head to toe.” I remember Momma making me rehearse a poem every day in the mirror:

Brown skin, cocoa butter, makes my skin smooth. 

Nice colored lips I can pucker them too.

Hair so curly, it bounces when I dance.

Look in the mirror, see the beauty in you!

Black doesn’t crack, and yes it’s true! 

But sometimes I didn’t like my curly hair and being black. I wanted to have silky, straight hair and skin like Kate. Later on that day, during lunch, I dreamed about the way I would look with straight hair and lighter skin. Questions out of curiosity started flowing in my head. What if I just asked momma to perm my hair like the other girls? What if I could change my skin color? Maybe if I can then I’ll be able to experience what it’s like being Kate. I suddenly came back to reality as I heard my name from a distance being called. “Ebony, Ebony,” was repeated consecutively by my teacher Ms. Jackie. She was tall, had blonde hair, wore skirts and flats a lot, and had noticed my disappearance from reality and into my own world. Just as she was about to ask me a question, the bell rang as hard as the one down the road from my home. School had ended.

I waited for my older sister at the school courtyard like I always do. My mother and father said I have to wait for her every day so we can walk home together, till I am in middle school. My big sister Mary Jane (we call her Mary for short) spotted me in the corner, clinging to the arms of my backpack, and rocking back and forth on my feet from heel to toes. She grinned as she got closer and asked me how my day at school went as we walked home.

As my sister puts the key in, I swing the door open with a powerful air coming along. A pleasing smell leads me to my mother, who is in the kitchen. She is putting mittens on to open the oven. I sniff a little more to identify the aroma. Honey cornbread, it is. My sister and I watch her take it out and settle it on the island table to cool. She comes around to give Mary and me a huge big hug.

“I miss my two favorite humans on this planet,” she says in a soothing voice. Her voice always feels like a warm blanket. She tells us to go change and come help her with dinner so that once dad is home, we can all enjoy the cornbread and the meal she was preparing for us.

I head down to the kitchen wearing my favorite pink set, a Hannah Montana shirt and sweatpants. Momma calls our names to hurry just in time. I step into the kitchen and she smiles. “How about you prepare the salad and set the table, my love.” I nod with a smile back and start working. Words race in my head, trying to figure out a way to ask momma to straighten my hair. My palms feel sweaty and I am nervous at what she might say.

I blurt out the inquiry, “Momma, can..... I please...... get my hair permed?”

She looks at me with her eyebrows raised. I look away, nervous to hear her answer. And then she speaks, “Ebony Ashanti Jackson, why do you want to perm your hair?”

I blurt out again, “I want my hair to be straight like Kate’s.”

“Well, sweetheart, I want you to be original. I don’t want you to ever feel you need to be a copy of this girl, Kate. But I guess a new hairstyle won’t hurt. We will go to the beauty supply store to pick up some items over the weekend.” At this very moment, I feel like a can of soda that’s just been shaken. A burst of excitement and a very hard smile leaves me with my cheeks hurting. “But no perm. I don’t want your beautiful curls to become damaged. Maybe you can decide if you want a perm later in the future when you’re older,” she says, reassuring that it is a promise.

I sit in excitement and daydream of having straight hair for the next couple of hours. Later, Father finally arrives home and soon we are all seated in the dining area. I examine the delicious meal placed at the head of the dining table. Lasagna, a pitch of water, salad, and the honey cornbread all sit perfectly, waiting to be devoured. Every night at dinner, Father tells us to bow

our heads, and each week a rotation of Momma, Father, Mary, and I have to lead prayer. This week is my turn. I start off the prayer and everything goes according to plan until I state my second wish from God, “... and I pray that Lord you bless me with lighter skin like Kate’s.” At that moment, a bit of regret formed in my heart. Not because I said it, but because I had learned from a young age that, black is beautiful from head to toe. I felt I had just stripped this truth away from my family.

Mary’s jaw drops, Father accidentally opens his eyes, and then Momma says quickly, “Amen, let us eat.” Momma says amen before I do. I know she isn’t happy with my wish, but Father and her show no sign of anger or disappointment. Mary just stares so much I can’t keep count anymore. As I look down on my plate, not a single spot is left uncovered. I clean my plate, leaving no crumbs. While Mary, Momma, and Father talk about their day, I sit quietly listening. I think about how my day consisted only of daydreaming of having lighter skin and silkier hair, and how Father and Momma wouldn’t be too happy to know about that.

As I get ready for bedtime, I try to find my bonnet. Small footsteps get louder towards my bedroom door. It must be Momma and Father. They always make a quick trip to our rooms to say one last goodnight. Momma says, out of curiosity to hear more of my reasoning, “What about Kate makes you want to be like her?” I grab my bonnet and plop it on my head making sure it’s secured for the night. My back sits straight and my legs are crossed on my bed.

I respond, “I want to know how it feels to be white, with straight, silky hair that doesn’t get stuck in combs. I want to look in the mirror and see how I could look.” That’s when I see her shake her head and Father looks at me with a concerned face.

“Sweet-heart never feel you are not enough within your own skin. Your melanin is stronger than medicine. Your curls hold the roots of generational stories passed down.” She pulls two

strands down my face. I look up as she says, “See how the pattern is different? All of us are different because it makes us unique.” Father pulls out an old black box. As he opens it, a particular photo catches my eye. Was my father secretly Steve Urkel? As he looks through the photos, he realizes he’s caught my attention, so he shows me.

“Oh, I see one has caught your eye. This picture is so old. That was me at 14 years old. I differed from a lot of my classmates. I hated wearing glasses. I wanted to be like the other boys who didn’t need glasses and caught all the girls’ attention. But then I discovered how to love myself for who I am and realized that my Steve Urkel glasses didn’t make me an outlier.”

“You wouldn’t believe the look on your father’s face the day I told him I love his glasses,” Momma adds on. We all giggle quietly, trying to not wake up Mary in the other room. Father asks me to recite my poem for the night.

And as I recite, Momma tucks me in bed, leaving me with the last words, “look in the mirror, see the beauty in you! Black doesn’t crack and...” The room goes black as Momma and Father close the door. My eyes close and everything becomes silent.

Years later, as a mother of two, I have grown to appreciate myself for who I am. Both of my daughters read the poem day and night, never forgetting to remember the beauty within them because self-love is the best love. And you're probably wondering, Ebony, did you ever get to perm your hair? Well, the answer is no. As I got older, I accepted my big, kinky afro, and I wore it more often and found new ways to style it. I have a message to all the beautiful girls out there who feel insecure about their body, complexion, hair, and anything else. Your worth isn’t determined by any aspect of your appearance. Your beauty exists because you do. So rejoice and remember “look in the mirror, see the beauty in you!”

Taskin Arisha, 2nd Place in Fiction/Non-Fiction

Parent: Kamruzaman Bhuiyan, InterContinental Times Square

"What My New York Is"

With sweat glistening on our foreheads, we tug on our shirts repeatedly to let in the stale, humid air. As our breathing slowly mingles to become a gentle, rhythmic tune, we hear the whirring noise of the wheel come to a halt. The letter F blares onto my friend’s cracked screen. We rush up the steep, treacherous steps as we hear the monotone, yet authoritative, garbled voice of the train announcements. Within a few stops, the persistent instinct of getting off resonates within us. "Should we get off here?" one of my friends asks. Brief nods are exchanged in response to the question. We all proceed to exit the train and walk mindlessly to the northeastern exit of 74th Street and Roosevelt Ave. We never forget to exclaim our never-ending surprise at how we manage to always end up in our second home. Even with the various ways of digitally viewing maps or directions, our feet seemingly know every detail of an intricately detailed map, hidden from every outsider to this place.

After we quickly exit, my friends and I discuss where to get food. Usually, my stomach would be filled with the flaky texture of the peppery paratha (South Asian flatbread) dipped into the Chana Masala‘s (chickpea) citrusy, buttery taste. My mother’s kitchen would fill with the aromatic smell of garam masala (hot spices). However, during this trip, I have decided to endure the slight pangs of hunger in hopes of indulging in one of the many restaurants within Jackson Heights. As we walk into Haat Bazaar Restaurant, I remember how two of us believed the samosas were unappetizing, discouraging us from ever eating here again. However, as we pass by the intensive selections of the rich, piquant food, the chicken biryani, with its beautifully sprinkled array of saffron and dried onion, stands out the most. As we wait for our food, I peer towards the back of the shabby, high-ceilinged area. I see men with trays filled to the brim with the oily, red tint of beef curry. After a long wait, our biryani is finally here. The taste of the tender chicken mixed with the nutty flavor of the basmati rice brings about a moment of nostalgia. The rice explodes with the earthy flavors of the cumin that are balanced out with the fiery flavor of the black peppercorns. It transports me back to my mother’s spice cabinets that are labeled in Bengali with powdery chalk. Not long after, the biryani is being scraped clean off the plates. We leave the restaurant, leaving behind the bitter aroma of freshly fried methi (fenugreek).

As we enter the radiant, glaring rays of the fierce sun, we pass by Khaabar Baari. It brings back the memories of sitting towards the vacant end of the restaurant in the worn seats that have their leather skin scraping off to reveal the clothy white underneath them. The LED bulbs emit a luminous, intense white glare down towards the steep entryway, heading towards the red door with flimsy plastic as its window. My mom takes a bite out of the Kacha Morich (green Thai chili peppers), a staple ingredient for Bengali cuisine, as the single crunch silently echoes throughout the vacant restaurant. I can’t tell if the squeeze of her eyes and wrinkles that flare out on the corners of her eyes were from how hard she bit down into the Kacha Morich or of the long wait for the food. As we walk out, my parents critiquing the restaurant, we pass by Patel Brothers. The block words saying, "Patel Brothers. Celebrating Our Food...Our Culture" are a shamrock green shade. From the bustling sidewalk, a lady with a lilac, crocheted sweater accuses one of the store clerks of his failure in putting her groceries in the proper way. We enter the store, ignoring the commotion of the rickety sounds of the shopping carts. My eyes follow the lime-colored walls as I rack through the shelves filled with South Asian and Middle Eastern treats and groceries. I rush over to aisle 6, where I find the Pran Frooto Mango Juice in stacks in the styrofoam boxes. I grab one as the tangerine-colored liquid inside swooshes around, hoping I can savor the tropical, sweet taste of it once I get home. I head over to aisle 1, where I stumble upon my mother, who is intensively peering into the open display case fridge filled with frozen foods. My mom grabs the Deep Cocktail Potato Samosa package that is lightly coated in a frost of ice as my dad rushes her to hurry.

My mother proceeds to take us on an adventure up and down the lively 74th Street. As Eid-ul-Fitr approaches, we find ourselves at the busy intersection of 34th Avenue and 74th Street. We walk into Wow Designs and Jewelry with its colorful array of orange, white, and red garlands of flowers used for the Baraat portion (one of the many South Asian wedding parts) of weddings hanging from a hook. Walking in, I’m amazed at the magnificent glow from the imitation jewelry. A warm, gold luminosity shines upon the entirety of the room, with display cases glistening with sparkling gold glitter flakes. Neck models adorn Kundan jewelry sets (a specific design of Desi jewelry) with ruby, topaz, and jade gemstones set within matching earrings and chokers. Pairs of jhumkas (specific design of Desi earrings) with precise designs of tiny hanging beads are pierced into the brown wall towards the right. I pass by the narrow hallway as my arms scratch against the bangles hooked on the cylinder holding pieces. I hear the whirr of the overhead fan blades as they move in a rapid circular motion, swaying the tiny beads of the shiny jewelry. I finish paying the store clerk a crumbled 5 dollar bill for the red and gold hoop jhumkas for my chiffon salwar kameez Eid outfit.

As we climb up the crumbly stairs leading underground towards the Lipi Fashion, the one near the law office of Mahipal Singh, we head to Mita Jewelers. A buzz, similar to a door entrance buzz, rings through our eardrums as we climb the stairs lined in dirty, mustard carpet. As we’re granted access to the jewelry store, my mother starts peering into the glass-encased gold jewelry. I head over towards the window, as I press my nose onto the counter glass, peering at the golden jewelry. I see the Aum symbol in slightly cursive Sanskrit.The circular strokes have a golden glint reflected from the streaming sunlight from the nearby window. Nearby, I see a woman with light brown streaks and burgundy painted lips, have her turquoise Georgette dupatta (specific type of scarf) , embroidered with heavy gold lace, draped from shoulder to shoulder. She’s on the other side of the glass-encased countertops exchanging Hindi with an old, frail woman with a dirty-orange sari (specific type of South Asian clothing) draped over one shoulder. The woman with the sari throws prices at the other woman. With every suggestion of bargaining, she slightly shakes her head and takes out the small, stainless steel weighing machine underneath the worn out painting of Kurma (one of the incarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu) to further prove why she can’t lower the price.

After exiting the store, I am arriving in front of the Fuska House Truck as my friends tap me on the shoulder, pulling me out of my daydream session. I am met with a street filled with stands of various hijab scarf colors and details. Black crates are filled with velvety, plush Islamic prayer mats. As I am looking for a hijab scarf through the assortment of colors, the man urges me to go downstairs to the Lavanya Store to view other colors as well. Instead, reluctant to actually go downstairs, I decide to take a picture of the mannequins dressed in a sage lehenga (a specific type of South Asian clothing). The lehenga consists of a complex sliver pattern adorning the embroidery of the skirt. There is a net dupatta that is a sheer gray color with floral patches clustered over it.

Heading towards the side entrance at the northeast corner of Roosevelt Avenue and 74th Street to get on the next train home, I recall how I will always be intrigued by how a single place could bring so many Desis together. Growing up, the air was always tense with the everlasting bitter legacy left by the British colonization and the partitioning that has bled through generations. However, at the age of 2, I saw people surrounded by their shopping carts while briskly walking away from my sight to unload the plastic, medallion bags inside their vehicles. The bright screens of their smartphones glowed against their cheeks as the slight buzz of their phones rang together with the chattering of the jovial crowd of shoppers in front of Apna Bazar Farmer’s Market. There was a soft, translucent glint of yellow that illuminated the grainy concrete. As I shift to place the heel of my foot on the very center of the orb of light, my dad lifts me up into the air. A strong gust of cool wind whips strands of hair across my face, obscuring the view ahead. The rattle of the rusted shopping carts pierces my ears. I see to my right the glistening, soft yellow hue of the headlights belonging to a black Honda car. As it pulls onto a slightly leveled paved road, a hand peaks out of the 3⁄4, opaque, opened glass window. My dad raises his hand to wave as we hear the crunch of the small pebbles beneath the massive wheels. I pick up occasional murmurs of the word "Gorom" to describe the warmth of the moist summer night air as I peer towards the eternal, moonlit sky. Within the tranquility of the serene heavens, it was the joy of the young, hearty laughter of the Bengalis, Indians, Pakistanis, Nepalese, and Punjabis mixed together in harmony.

Ivy Gomes, 1st Place in Essay

Parent: David Gomes, W Union Square

"The Land of Opportunities and Sacrifice"

Dear fellow Immigrant,

Welcome to the United States! I know that is a very enthusiastic greeting

considering you are realistically terrified. Stepping into a new life and leaving behind everything you know is no small feat. While it is exciting to start anew, I know firsthand that it can be quite a daunting experience. However, that is what binds us together: the shared experience of having to build ourselves up. You may have a family with you. You may be all alone. Either way, there are just some things that only we immigrants will understand. And that is okay.

While it is easy to dabble in the joys of having opportunities you never thought were possible, I will also tell you about some of the harsh realities of immigrating here. There are many romanticizations of the immigrant experience. They say America is the “land of opportunities,” but they do not tell you about the lesser glorified side of it. Being an immigrant is not easy.

Some days, you may look to your left and then to your right, to your front, and to your back. Yet, you may not find yourself in any of the passing faces. Finding a community to belong to can be difficult when you are in a melting pot of people from many backgrounds. Sometimes you may find yourself overwhelmed with the conquest to find somewhere you feel wanted, somewhere you can say you truly belong. My parents and I lived in a predominantly white neighborhood for most of my life. Immigrating from Bangladesh, there were not many Bengali people here with who we could bond and share our culture. I remember watching my parents spend their days reminiscing on pictures of their friends back home. I could see the feelings of alienation and isolation in their eyes and how they spoke fondly of Bangladesh; there was always an undertone of sadness. They would never admit that to me because all they wanted was for me to fit in and belong. But I also struggled in my own ways growing up. Looking at the faces of my fellow students, I rarely found my big nose, poofy curls, or henna tattoos on any of them. My brown eyes stood out in a line of blue. There are many layers of loneliness in being an immigrant, and how I looked was no exception.

As an immigrant, you probably are no stranger to making sacrifices. It can feel like a gamble almost. You never really know what the future holds until you get here. “Living uncomfortably” is the best way I can describe it. There are so many little sacrifices you have to make as an immigrant. Sometimes it can feel like an endless cycle. As I got older and met people with more privileged childhoods, I realized how many little sacrifices my parents and I made. Some of the realizations astounded me because, for me, they were normalized. I was used to it. I can recall talking to a friend of mine about getting mail. She brought up having separate mailboxes for her tenants, so she would not have to sort through the mail to find the letters addressed to her as I did. Such small things like having to separate mail went over my head. The disconnect had been worse than I thought. My friends did not have to use buckets at every corner of their houses to catch the water dripping from the ceiling. They did not have to save up their lunch money from the very beginning of the school year in hopes of having enough to buy a book like everyone else at the annual Scholastic Book Fair.

I was fortunate enough to have learned English from going to school here. Unfortunately for my parents, this was not the case. I had to grow up watching them struggle to say words that came so easy to my mouth. Part of being an immigrant in America is experiencing the looks of impatience and smug remarks for not knowing how to speak English fluently. It may not always be direct, but the feeling of inferiority for not comprehending the language to the fullest extent is ingrained in all of us in some way, shape, or form. My parents always said knowing how to speak English was a privilege, and watching them struggle to communicate with the cashier at Key Food, I understood the anxiety it caused them. My father always told me how hard it was for him to find work. I would watch my uncles and aunts take on jobs for meager salaries because they had no choice.

I know all of this has been quite depressing to read. I do not mean to discourage you, but it is important that you know. Being an immigrant, in a nutshell, can be described in one word: difficult. There will be many downs, but if you keep at it consistently, you can also see the beautiful opportunities that this country has to offer. I wish you nothing but the best and all the luck in the world as you begin your journey here. Remember, no matter how lonely it gets, you are never alone.

Your fellow Immigrant, Ivy

David Davitt, 2nd Place in Essay

Parent: David Davitt, Thompson Central Park

"Why my parents’ union membership is important to me"

The goal of any worker is to achieve stability and lead a comfortable way of life for themselves and their families. An organization that promotes this and makes these large goals achievable is the worker’s union. Living in a household with a union worker, I have become more aware of the benefits that a union member reaps, as well as the history behind being granted these benefits. Though it may seem cliched, many individuals desire to live the American Dream, as America is deemed the land of opportunity. The opportunity to lead a stable way of life and comfortably work a fair, flexible, and well-paid job was not always present in this country. Many people are unaware of this. Individuals of my generation come across as unappreciative of these benefits, as they do not know the immense effort that went into forming labor unions, nor do they understand the importance of them. The worker’s union brings about substantial opportunities and benefits, but the youth of today seems to be unaware of how these measures came to be.

Being fortunate enough to live in a union household as well as come from a family of union workers, I have learned to appreciate the importance of labor unions as a whole. However, this appreciation became more profound when I was educated on the history of labor unions in the United States. Understanding the dark points in the history of labor unions is vital and contributes to an overall appreciation for the status of labor unions currently. More blood, sweat, and tears went into creating a stable and fair union than people know of.

The first trade union organized in the U.S. was in 1794 in Philadelphia a few decades after the first strike in protest to a wage reduction for shoemakers. With this being the first mark of labor unions in the country, many years later followed the first nationwide labor union federation known as the National Labor Union in 1866. This organization rose from a convention in Baltimore which called all workers into a coalition with the goal of pressuring Congress to pass a law restricting the typical work day to eight hours instead of ten. This labor union disbanded less than a decade after its founding. What followed was the Knights of Labor, founded by Uriah Stevens. Stevens was a Quaker who was inspired to initiate massive changes in society after losing everything in an economic crisis. Large numbers of workers, both men and women, came together, and the Knights of Labor reached a membership count of 700,000 at its very high point.

The beginning of dark times for labor unions came about, as prejudice towards immigrant workers emerged. American workers saw them as a threat to steal their jobs; however it should be noted that the contribution of immigrants to organize labor in the unions’ infancy was incredibly important as it is today. Higher-paid workers who had the funds to organize strikes were hesitant to organize work for Irish and Italian immigrants, as well as African-Americans and Women. The Knights of Labor began to fall apart because of corruption and prejudice towards Chinese workers. Following the Great Southwest Strike, a riot ensued where ten people were killed for protesting wage reduction for railroad workers of the Union Pacific Railroad Company. This was when the country began to experience early clashes between management and organized labor. The Haymarket Square Riot caused deaths of policemen and protesting workers after a protestor threw a bomb at police. Soon the Knights of Labor were blamed for unjust and violent actions concerning strikes nationwide. This soon caused the downfall of the organization. Being the first somewhat successful labor union, the Knights of Labor set the tone for the changes that needed to be made in society, and demonstrated a common goal that could be achieved. People gave up their lives for a greater good that future generations should not let go unnoticed.

The shaky history of labor unions did not stop there. A secret Irish labor union, known as the Molly Maguires, existed in the Pennsylvania coal fields in the late 1870s. This organization had a problem with the lack of safety rules and regulations of the coal fields. For fighting back against these horrific working conditions, twenty of the Molly Maguires were hanged. This marked one of the largest and most horrific mass executions of any group by the U.S. federal government. At this juncture, it was clear that change was needed in society, and achieving that change became multi-faceted. In 1886, an alliance of craft unions, no longer affiliated with the Knights of Labor, founded the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in Columbus, Ohio. Samuel Gompers, an English immigrant and cigar maker was a key figure in the establishment of this organization and also served as its first president. The AFL became the largest and most influential union in the world, and this was immense as society was previously dominated by powerful employers who had little regard for the well-being of their employees. After the Great Depression the Wagner Act was passed in 1935 as a part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. This brought about the right for workers to organize into labor unions and collectively bargain contracts, which was key in increasing membership in the AFL. The AFL proved to be more durable than the Knights of Labor, and it soon merged with the Congress of Industrial Organizations(CIO) to form the AFL-CIO. By this time, union membership was at its highest in the U.S. after experiencing a long decline during the Great Depression era. Economic crises proved to cause damage to unions, however, in 2007 the first increase in membership since 1954 was recognized.

Through understanding the history of labor unions, the importance of them today should be fully recognized. The benefits that union members enjoy today should not be taken for granted. Membership of the Union is a huge deal, as it provides benefits such as improved working conditions, proper wages, an 8 hour work day, regulations on hiring, and job protection. Many people of my generation whose parents are union workers may not know of the turbulent history of organized labor unions in the U.S. Knowing the history of the Union has taught me to appreciate all benefits. Some of these benefits include my parents having access to affordable medical, dental, vision, and life insurance for my immediate family. Living comfortably seems to be taken for granted in this day and age. Realizing that a large portion of what I have in my life was paid for by union negotiated contracts makes my parents’ union membership mean a great deal more to me than it did before. Knowing that many people risked and gave up their lives so that people such as my parents could reap the benefits of the union means a lot to me as they may not be where they are today without those benefits. Coming together in unison and protesting for change in society may not have been rewarding for the people that sacrificed their lives, but today all Union members are rewarded with a large scale of benefits that can then open up opportunities for their children which I feel has occurred for me.

Union membership means a lot more than just the benefits of its members. The history of labor unions represents the strive for change throughout American history, as well as the banding together of individuals who are not afraid to advocate for social and labor reform regardless of the consequences. The past shows the perseverance and determination that our union forefathers had. Overcoming obstacles such as discrimination, violence, and various restrictions to improve the lives of all union workers in the country is not something to be overlooked. Economically, unions favor tariffs on imported goods to raise the demand for products manufactured in the United States, thus opening up more job opportunities and higher wages. As a whole, society benefits from stronger industries, as well as more productivity due to the fact that unions can invest in training and training equipment for their workers to get the highest value out of each worker. Aside from benefits that I am directly affected by, labor unions have positive effects on the economy and society, and this adds to the level on which I value my parents’ union membership greatly.

From an overall perspective, unions bring about benefits for employees such as better wages, access to health insurance, retirement benefits, better working conditions, job security, and a great deal of opportunities for their children. What do these work benefits mean to the youth of today? Perhaps nothing, as many people of my generation seem to be unaware of the direct benefits they experience from having a parent who is a union member. Union membership means a great deal to me, as my parents can lead the lives they have always wanted to, as well as retire comfortably. Living in America now is far from cheap, and coming from a family of immigrants who were used to a less expensive way of life, the union has brought about stability and great opportunities for me and my family. Labor unions not only benefit my generation, but they have shown me what is needed for the success of generations to come. My parents’ union membership has brought about a great deal of opportunities and benefits, and these are things that non-union workers do not have. Being a part of a union family shows how fortunate I really am, and I hope that more people of my generation will come to recognize that the everyday life we enjoy was earned through hard work and sacrifice of the people before us.

Mahana Joseph, 3rd Place in Essay

Parent: Harry Joseph, Wyndham New Yorker

"Content 'Heroes'”

The concept of a hero is one that must be explored as times change. People regarded as heroes vary across a wide spectrum of character and accomplishments. It's not a secret that when Stacy gets in bed to go to sleep she is up on her phone in search of entertainment. Video after video she came across this viral recording of an American that was granted the chance to take part in a volunteer event along with others in the Democratic Republic of Congo to “help those who were in need of it”. As she scrolled through the comments, reactions were “what a hero!” “we need more people like you” and “what a beautiful message !” tracing throughout. While Stacy went to sleep that night, the content creator was restless thinking of a way to grab more viewers... “Stacy” is what we consider our fictitious onlooker. “Stacy” views hours of content varying from tiktok, Instagram, Facebook, and everything along those lines. What’s common in “Stacy” media is Hero Syndrome. A phenomenon affecting people who seek heroism or recognition, usually by creating a desperate situation that they can resolve and subsequently receive the accolades from. What exactly is a Modern day Hero in our society? Our so-called modern-day heroes sure don't wear capes. They feed and live off of those who are gullible. Just when we have enough how will we recognize those who are doing the right thing?

What needs to showcase more in the world are the actual true heroes. The healthcare workers that have been our backbone when it comes to the pandemic. The social justice workers who endlessly fight for equality and proper treatment of all people. The military's selfless devotion to their countries to keep us from harm's way. The everyday person who exudes tremendous bravery to run into burning buildings to save lives or disarm a school shooter. There are countless examples of genuine heroes. However, the content filling our devices are those who stage their nobility.

We are heading towards a stage where people are making content for the sole purpose of monetizing and thriving off of young audience attention to claim the title of being a Hero. A hero is someone who can help others without any interest that would benefit him/her behind their actions. A hero is selfless, a genuinely good person, and causes change. But, as we know this has become a blur to today’s generation. A spark of social media influencers is now seen to be called out for displaying these acts and it is not new to us. To those who are familiar, in 2017 a campaign was run by two groups that have shown to the media just how wrong common problematic photos taken by Western volunteers are. Emily Worrall, a co-founder of Barbie Savior, was created to share the stereotype of those who visit various undeveloped countries and the actions in which that make people of those regions look passive and helpless. As interviewed by writer Malaka Gharib, on journalist news coverage NPR (National Public Radio) , it stated “Worrall recalls her own experience a decade ago. When she was 17, she went on a volunteer trip to Uganda. She shared photos of herself and the orphans she was helping with her family and friends. They showered her with praise. "They told me, 'Wow, you're doing such amazing work.' They put me on a pedestal," she says.” Her work to raise awareness with these campaigns is to reinforce our behavior to align with our intentions for the sake that these can be geared toward young people. This signifies the indefinite times we live in where the media has become the way we communicate. Why isn’t the privacy of those individuals taken into consideration? That is to say, would they have no respect for informed consent if it was in the First World Countries these volunteers reside in?

My background is proudly Haitian. My country is also known to Americans as “The Western Hemisphere's poorest nation.” Haiti has been subjected to dismissed autonomy, dignity, and self-respect for years while they have been trying to fight off their oppressive system. There are more than 300 officially recognized non-governmental organizations that have been seen to undermine our independence. The intentions of affluent Westerners are driven by "voluntourism". The problem with voluntourism is that it’s oftentimes focused on the volunteer's quest for experience, as opposed to the third world community's actual needs. These can give their viewers the impression that these small acts and gestures can change a life when in reality it has no impact. A lot of these people make empty promises and never come back to the community and we see this happen often. My people have a voice and shouldn’t undergo pity or judgment. If we can help Haitians share their stories through social media, we will all see it from a different perspective. Could it be possible for people in developing countries to have the chance to speak instead of those who have enough to be gratified for every need and desire? To the few organizations that are doing the right thing, we must applaud the vital work that goes unnoticed. One that's notable for bringing up is Project Haiti Speaks. They provide communication platforms so people can share, document, and report on stories from their points of view. It’s a way for survivors, volunteers, and citizen journalists to engage with the world community by raising awareness and inciting activism.

In short, it’s a misjudgment to take things as we see them in modern society. Not all heroes have to be well known in the public eye. Whilst it may be true that those who follow the trends of this phenomenon may demonstrate to others to be influenced to do the same deeds as well... It is only in hopes to see in the best interest and not for a new uproar. We have all become a form of Stacy. She could represent you, even me.. just how much do we grasp this idea that it’s being taken place all around the globe? It is up to us to question as a society.