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Democracyworks Winner and Runners-Up Chosen

Thespians singing on stage at the International Thespian Festival

 The winner of the 2020 Democracyworks essay competition is Lena Dougherty, Troupe 8938, Wildwood Catholic High School, North Wildwood, New Jersey. Her winning essay was one of 45 submitted by members of the International Thespian Society (ITS) for this year’s competition. First runner up is Gaby Alezard, Troupe 2267, Hatboro-Horsham High School, Horsham, Pennsylvania. Second runner up is Barrett Edwards, Troupe 4274, Grinnell High School, Iowa.

Lena Dougherty

The winner earns $250 cash and a trip to the National Arts Action Summit (formerly known as Arts Advocacy Day) the annual Washington, D.C. gathering of arts advocates from throughout the country, which unfortunately has been cancelled. The runners up also receive cash awards and certificates of recognition.

The goal of the Democracyworks essay competition is to honor and showcase the voices of student advocates. The competition, sponsored by Concord Publishing, was founded in 2008 by EdTA Director of Educational Policy James Palmarini to inspire more students to become involved in advocacy on behalf of theatre and other arts education. According to Palmarini, he created Democracyworks after witnessing Arts Advocacy Day student advocates “make the case” for theatre and other arts education on Capitol Hill. “There are no more powerful spokespersons for theatre and other arts education than students,” he said. “Thespians have great communication skills, are poised, and passionate about how theatre has shaped their life choices.”

This year’s prompt was inspired by 2019 EdTA National Conference keynote speaker Jane Chu, former chairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts, who spoke about how theatre helps create a culture where students can feel like they belong to a community that honors different perspectives and while bringing people together at the same time.

Said Chu: “Students want to feel like they belong. They are looking for meaning, and they want something to touch their hearts. And the quickest avenue to feeling like they belong is through a community that recognizes and respects their identities. That’s something theatre does.”

Bearing in mind Chu’s remarks, students were asked to respond to this question: “How does theatre help bring diverse communities together?

Dougherty wrote about how, as a hard-of-hearing actor, she has gained a better understanding of the importance of community diversity and how theatre promotes tolerance and understanding of those who are different. She wrote, “In my tenth year working as a hard-of-hearing actor, I recognize how lucky I am to belong to something so special. Every person from every corner of the world deserves to have a sense of belonging. I want all people of all abilities, creeds, colors, sexes, and sexual orientations to find a place where they feel safe to be exactly who they are.”

Gaby Alezard
Gaby Alezard

First runner up Gaby Alezard detailed her experience at Harmony Theatre, a center for adults with disabilities. She made a passionate pitch for theatre education opportunities for
 all students with disabilities, as well as a general plea for more diversity and inclusion. She wrote, “I know so many young kids with disabilities who would love to do theatre and they aren’t involved because of the harshness of casting and the competitive environment you normally see in high school departments. Theatre is the perfect setting to let everyone be who they are and express themselves to the fullest.”

Second runner up Barrett Edwards wrote about how theatre has broken down barriers between different groups in his rural community. He noted that, besides the goodwill and understanding that such diversity nurtures, it also prompts creativity. He wrote, “I have met and collaborated with people of all ages, identities, and roles within the community. Working with people who otherwise would be unknown to me has had a great impact on me. By putting on all different kinds of theatrical performances, we pitch a big tent in terms of our audiences, allowing space for everyone to appreciate the arts in different ways.”

Barrett Edwards 2
Barrett Edwards

In a short interview, essay winner Dougherty talked her efforts to create more theatre opportunities for people with special needs in her community. “I want other students who are hard of hearing to have the same experiences that I have had. I’ve started what I’m calling Project Stage Hands to create a list of sign interpreters who are available for different kinds of education and performances where there are students or audiences that are deaf or hard of hearing. I’m just starting locally but it would be great to expand it nationwide.”

Read all three essays on


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