The medium, the message and perhaps most importantly the meaning behind both resonated with Zac Bates from the start --- even though it would require extending himself out of his comfort zone.
"I got involved because of my love of writing and the message the contest is exemplifying, which is very important in a time where everybody feels so far apart from each other," says Bates, a Grade 11 student at St. Michael's College School (SMCS).
The messenger in this story is SMCS' Student Wellness Officer Liat Benzacar, who also serves as the staff lead of the school's Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Student Engagement group.
Conceived at the start of the current school year, "the group hopes to empower and elevate student voices, creating space where students feel confident and comfortable to use it,” Benzacar says. “This is the space where we believe students will also be able to best understand, with tools and background, racial inequity, privilege, and allyship."
Against that backdrop, Benzacar set about putting theory into practice.
"I was looking for opportunities for students to get involved with meaningful projects that allowed students to not only win prizes and add ‘published author’ to their resumes, but also create space for creative and meaningful reflection," says Benzacar. "This contest seemed like a wonderful way to embrace them all!"
So, during what would traditionally be March Break, Bates confirmed his intention.
"It was important for me to participate because first of all, I love to write," he says. "Second of all, I've never had a chance before to have something I wrote and its message be spread so far, so I wanted to take advantage of such a rare opportunity."
The goal of The Diverse Minds Creative Writing Competition is to, "write and illustrate a children’s book that tells a story of diversity and inclusion."
The contest is organized by B'Nai Brith Canada which, according to its website, is the country’s oldest independent Jewish Human Rights organization, dedicated to eradicating racism, antisemitism and hatred in all its forms, championing the rights of the marginalized, while providing basic human needs for members of our community.
"A writing contest like this is a perfect opportunity for SMCS students to share with the world, skills learned in the classroom," says Caroline Freibauer, Head Librarian at SMCS, who co-leads the school's Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Book Club.
For Bates --- the writing was on the wall --- to ensure success.
"I started to brainstorm for my book about three weeks before the deadline," he says. "The easier part was probably coming up with the plot and scenes from the book, since I’m more used to the writing process than drawing."
That meant reflecting on the book's key themes as they continue to unfold in real-time around him.
"I define diversity as using our differences as a strength to better ourselves and the community," continues Bates. He summarizes his view of inclusion as, "creating an environment where everybody can reach their true potential, no matter who they are."
The task then involved distilling these messages into bite-sized chunks of relatable words for a young audience.
Then came a harder part. Bringing the message and meaning to life.
Having never hand-drawn an image to accompany a piece of writing, nor having had his work entered into or evaluated in a formal competition, Bates accepted multiple challenges head-on.
"For the drawing, I had to spend hours sketching and properly colouring the pages and cover art," he says. "The biggest challenge was balancing this book and my school life. Around the time I started the illustrations, I had several assignments and tests coming up, so I had to manage my time."
The result --- a three-week-long effort yielding an 18-page storybook entitled, "We All Rise Together."
"I read it with tears in my eyes, " says Benzacar. "It completely embodies the work and intent of this contest."
Adds Freibauer, "For me, the last two lines are really powerful – ‘And when we crest that hilltop, we’ll know we all rose together.’ He is telling us that together we can do anything."
Winners of the contest are expected to be announced in September 2021.
Bates, who is contemplating a career in engineering, was the only SMCS student to submit an entry.
"I enjoyed setting a larger goal for myself and accomplishing it," he says. "To finish such a big personal project was truly gratifying."
As for his personal book review? "I hope people take away the message that however far apart or different we may be, we all go through struggles and through struggling together rather than alone, we can --- not just overcome the obstacles, but thrive together as a community."
Read: "We All Rise Together" by Zac Bates, Grade 11 student at St. Michael's College School.