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Roger & Ann Worthington Essay Prize in Plan II

2016 Essay Prize Winners

George Walters - Grand Prize, $5000
Alexis Allen - Second Prize, $2500
Jay Anand  - First-Year Prize $3500 (for an incoming student not winning the grand prize)

2016 Prompt

You are a city council member in Elroy, Alabama, an ethnically and racially diverse community of a little over 90,000 residents. In the center of town, surrounded by the municipal courthouse and local businesses, is Zane Park, a 16-acre green space used for all sorts of public events. Recently, students in a history class at Elroy Community College did a research project on Alfred Zane, after whom the park was named. Zane was a local hero, credited with saving several people during a hotel fire in 1909. But the history students also discovered that he had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and likely participated in some lynchings of black men at the turn of the century. The Elroy Gazette picked up the story, and also pointed out that other members of the Zane family had been outspoken segregationists in the 1950s and 60s. A petition to rename the park has collected more than 25,000 signatures, and continues to grow.

The Mayor has promised that the council will take up the issue soon, and she has asked all council members to start thinking about how to respond to the petition.

There are several complicating factors:

The Zane family still lives in town, and recent generations have no known ties to racist groups. (Not all of the current Zanes are white—Arpana Zane, a local pharmacist, married into the family several years ago. Her children are of mixed ethnic and racial heritage. Arpana was born in Canada to parents who both emigrated from northern India.)

The streets bordering Zane Park are named “Zane Avenue East” “Zane Avenue South,” etc.—changing the street names would be expensive and would have repercussions for the businesses with those addresses.

A branch library in town is also named after Alfred Zane and funded in part by the Zane family endowment. There are several other landmarks, streets, buildings, and parks in the area that are named after other individuals or families with troubling history. The town itself is named after Ulysses Elroy, a slave owner.

Elroy has ongoing struggles with diversity and inclusion. While the town is demographically diverse, people of color are underrepresented on the city council, the college faculty, and in other leadership positions. Some of the large employers in town have made efforts to recruit executives that would bring more diversity to their senior staff, but many highly-qualified applicants of color have declined job offers in Elroy, choosing instead to pursue options elsewhere. (Their stated reasons have varied, but one applicant said explicitly that he was accepting a different job offer in another town, because that other community seemed more inclusive.)

In no more than 2000 words, explain what action you think the city council should take in response to the petition. Share your reasons and any precedents you might draw upon. 

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