By Keith Whitcomb Jr. Staff Writer 

PITTSFORD — Police, climate change and LGBTQ issues were the topics that the winners of the first Brandon Writes contest chose to focus their essays on.

Brandon Writes is a contest put on by Michael Shank, of Brandon, who was behind the Brandon Environmental Film Competition. Both are similar in concept. Students in the Brandon area submit films, or in this case pieces of writing, and their work is judged locally with cash prizes awarded by Shank.

Taking the $500 first prize was Jazmin Rivera, an eighth-grader at Otter Valley Middle School, who wrote “Inequality of Police Brutality.”

Rivera, of Pittsford, won her first essay contest last year after being told about it by her English teacher, Cameron Perta, who makes a habit of informing his students about contest opportunities.

“I feel like I chose this topic because I’m very passionate about equality and I believe everyone should be treated equally no matter their sexuality, the color of their skin, or where they come from,” she said. “And during the pandemic, I feel like a lot of people’s eyes have been opened to the inequality of police brutality and the systemic racism that’s buried deep inside our justice system. Some people don’t realize it’s there, and I wanted to shed some light on the situation.”

Her opening paragraph invokes the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Atatiana Jefferson, people of color who died at the hands of police and whose stories have helped fuel the Black Lives Matter movement through the pandemic.

She closes with, “If police officers receive more training — and we require that all police officers on duty wear body cams — then we can stem the tide of police brutality. To be clear: these steps are not solutions; they are merely a starting point for more substantive changes. We’re not asking for more; we’re asking for the bare minimum. We need to be protected, not scared. We want to be understood, and we need a solution.”

Rivera said she hopes anyone who reads her essay will become more aware of issues surrounding the police and race.

“(B)ecause there are a lot of people who don’t believe in white supremacy, or they believe that America and the justice system are perfect and people are just overreacting, but I just want people to know that for Black people and people of color, it’s scary for them to even be pulled over by a police officer, and I just want them to understand the struggle that they go through so maybe they can either help or at least be aware of what’s happening.”

Taking the second prize for $250 was Melody Falker, a senior at the Stafford Technical Center. Her essay “Defunding the Police: Will it Solve America’s Mental Health Crisis?” argues that some funding should be shifted from traditional policing and put toward mental health services.

She said she learned about the idea to “defund the police” through her interest in the Black Lives Matter movement. The concept interested her, as she’s looking ahead to a career in mental health services.

“This is a pretty heavy year for different political topics to choose from,” she said. “I was raised in a pretty political household. My mom, since I was born, has worked on various political campaigns so I’ve been raised on ‘find the facts and create your opinion from it.’”

The third-place prize was for $100 and was won by Brendan McLoughlin, an eighth-grader at Otter Valley Middle School, who wrote about climate change. The $50 honorable mention was won by Natalia Grenier, a fifth-grader at Neshobe Elementary School who wrote a poem about supporting the LGBTQ community.

Visit online to read the students’ writing.

Shank said Tuesday he was pleased with how the contest turned out. Like with the film contest, the first run of Brandon Writes was aimed at students around Brandon, but for the next round he’s looking at Rutland Writes, a county-wide contest.

“I was very pleased with both the topics covered and the writing content in terms of form, as were the judges,” Shank said.

Judging the contest were Shank; Lee Kahrs, managing editor of the Brandon Reporter; Molly Kennedy, director of Brandon Free Library; Edna Sutton, head of the Compass Music and Arts Center; and Kerrie Quinn, of the Brandon Area Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s interesting, the topics, because it shows you what kids are thinking about and what they’re mindful of,” said Shank.