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Branford High School (BHS) winning essayist Kelly Tiernan (center), together with second-place winner Samantha Esposito (right) and third-place winner Viktoria Sinani (left) were celebrated April 28 at BHS with support from (l-r) State Sen. Ted Kennedy Jr., Dr. Roger Lowlicht, Stephanie Donegan of BCF, Branford Schools Superintendent Hamlet Hernandez, Branford Fire Chief Tom Mahoney and BHS Principal Lee Panagoulias Jr. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
Student Essayist's Idea Heads to U.S. Geographic Names Review
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With a lot of research and respect for the opportunity in front of her, a Branford tenth-grader reached beyond the ugly history of an offensively-named nautical landmark to suggest a new one that honors the area's native people.
This morning at Branford High School (BHS), sophomore Kelly Tiernan braved flashing cameras and news video crews who came to town to get the scoop on her winning essay, which crafted a new name for a rocky outcropping in Branford waters. For nearly a century, the landmark has been listed on U.S. geographical maps as "Negro Heads."
Tiernan explained she selected the new name "Sowheag Rocks" based on her research showing the historical influence a 17th century native American chieftain, Sowheag, had on the town and region.
"I thought that he would be a great symbol of a positive name in Connecticut about history and our races and our diversity. So I really just thought it would be a good idea if we put all of the cultures together, to make a name that really respected everyone," said Tiernan, who also had to composure to spell the Native American name for the media, from memory.
The idea to change the offensive landmark's name was initiated by State Senator Ted Kennedy Jr. (D-District 12). Working with Branford Public Schools (BPS) through Superintendent Hamlet Hernandez, the idea of an essay contest was initiated for BHS students.
Now that a name has been selected, Kennedy will petition the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to permanently change the offensive name on all government maps. After the name is submitted to the federal board, the State Geographic Names Authority will review the submission on the way to finalizing the process.
"It is her name that will be submitted, on behalf of the town of Branford, to the state," said Kennedy, in congratulating Tiernan on April 28.
Kennedy said he was inspired to try bring about the name change after President Obama changed Mt. McKinley, the tallest peak in North America, back to its original Alaskan native name, Denali, in 2015.
"That's what got me curious about this process – how did he do that?" Kennedy told Zip06/The Sound. "Of course, he [was] president of the United States – but is it possible for ordinary citizens to recommended changes to different landmarks and locations on a map?"
Kennedy credits Margaret Thomas, Connecticut's State Geologist and Chair of the State Geographic Names Authority, with helping throughout the process.
Thomas also provided guidance on the U.S. Geographic's Names policy to the essay's review committee. Committee members were Superintendent of Schools Hamlet Hernandez, Town Historian Jane Bouley, Blackstone Library Director Karen Jensen, BHS Principal Lee Panagoulias, Branford Community Foundation (BCF) president Stephanie Farber and Branford Fire Chief Tom Mahoney.
In addition to selecting Tiernan's winning essay, the committee's second place choice was BHS freshman Samantha Esposito's essay for her name "Totokett Settlers' Rocks" (in a nod to Branford's first permanent settlement name) and third place winner BHS junior Victoria Sinani, who suggested "Robin's Nest" in recognition of the state bird and the rocky outcropping's physical formation.
Each student was celebrated during the April 28 gathering at BHS and given a moment to discuss their work.
"My English teacher told [the] whole class about this contest and how it was optional for us," said Esposito. "But when I saw the name, and I saw how offensive it was, I really wanted to change it to make it better and less offensive."
Sinani said she felt much the same, saying, "When I saw in the essay prompt that it had that name, I wanted to change that. I wanted to change it and make it more positive."
Hernandez congratulated the student winners and all of the students who participatedin the essay contest, saying it provided an "...authentic opportunity to engage in a meaningful civic action."
Kennedy and State Rep. Lonnie Reed (D- District 102) and Rep. Sean Scanlon (D- District 98), on behalf of the Connecticut General Assembly, provided a special citation of achievement for each of the essayists, presented to them on April 28. In addition, BCF and Branford resident Dr. Roger Lowlicht provided a $500 scholarship to Tiernan and additional $250 scholarships for Esposito and Sinani.
BCF board member Stephanie Donegan congratulated the winners and thanked the students for their efforts, saying, "...this is exactly what the Branford Community Foundation is for, to support efforts like this in the Branford Community -- and we couldn't be happier to do it."
Lowlicht thanked Kennedy for the opportunity to get involved in bringing about the name change.
"I've been on the water since I was a little boy, and this name always offended me," said Lowlicht. "I'd like to congratulate those students who participated in this project -- not just those students who actually won prizes -- and I want thank them all for their contributions. And I just wanted to say that I believe the seas are for everybody, and I believe that our biases on land should never affect our endeavors on the oceans."
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