Ava Paulsen, student journalist and editor-in-chief of Castaic High School’s student newspaper, will be presented with two national awards for journalism by Scholastic’s Art & Writing Awards.
The two awards, a gold medal in journalism and a Civic Expression award and scholarship, will be presented to Paulsen at Carnegie Hall in New York City this June. She said that although she was surprised to get the awards, she’s happy she and her colleagues are receiving recognition for their work.
“I was so surprised and really, really proud that people were hearing issues that were going on in our community,” said Paulsen. “That’s activism, that’s civic expression and for me to be able to write about that and to promote what they’re doing was just a super amazing opportunity for me, and I think it was great for [my colleagues] too, to get that recognition, and then the gold medal for journalism.”
Paulsen’s article, titled “Retiring Hart High’s Race-Based Mascot: What Culture Will We Allow?” was written amidst a heated debate regarding Hart High School’s mascot and team name, the Indians.
A nationwide discussion was renewed about the names of various sports teams and whether they had racist connotations amidst the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. The debate had actually been in conversation for decades, with the National Congress of American Indians questioning negative stereotypes in sports team names as far back as the 1940s.
In 2020, the Washington Redskins temporarily changed their name to the “Washington Football Club” following years of criticism. The team has since been renamed the Commanders. In 2021 the Cleveland Indians announced a change to their logo and name, now going by “The Guardians.”
In February 2021, William S. Hart Union High School District officials announced plans to hold study sessions and community conversations on whether to change the Hart High School mascot.
In the 1990s, Hart High began to take away imagery associated with stereotypes, but still kept the name “Indians.” Although a lot of the imagery was removed, students could still be seen wearing headdresses and calling out stereotypical “chants.”
“This is not the first time this concern has been raised in the long history of our high school,” Hart High Principal Jason d’Autremont wrote in a letter addressed to school families. ”As you are likely aware, this recent concern coincides with a national conversation about race-based mascots that has resulted in (among other things) several high-profile professional sports franchises acting to eliminate mascots that reference Native Americans.”
In early 2021, Paulsen decided to write her op-ed after hearing about an online petition to change Hart’s mascot that had garnered more than 18,000 signatures.
“I had a lot of friends who attend Hart and so I was seeing different things posting on social media. I got wind of the petition and learned that it was started by Grace Gooneratne, who graduated from Hart,” said Paulsen.
Paulsen said that she knew Gooneratne’s sister and decided to contact a mutual friend of theirs so she could learn more about the activism that was happening at Hart.
“I think I was really inspired by the like, the activism that they had at their school and their willingness to start the petition and to see it through even after they graduated,” said Paulsen. “I think me and the whole editorial board were for getting the mascot changed, especially because our high school was so new. And we went through a whole process of picking the mascot for our high school, and never once did anyone consider picking Indian as a mascot or anything racially motivated like that. It was always just animals like dolphins or the coyote, that eventually was our mascot. So I think the whole editorial board was really supportive of me writing this editorial.”
Paulsen began to have conversations and started researching her piece in February and spent weeks writing it.
“I think it took me like pretty much all of March to write it out. And to kind of get a handle on this, this big issue in the community,” said Paulsen. “I remember drafting it and redrafting it and reading out loud to my mom and having her read it, just to make sure that I did the issue justice.”
On July 14, 2021, four months after Paulsen’s editorial was published, the Hart district governing board voted to phase the Indian mascot out and have it completely removed by June 2025. The move came after months of tense meetings that often involved sheriff’s deputies being present in case tensions boiled over. There was still intense opposition from some community members to having the mascot removed, but Paulsen says she hopes the article played a part in the board’s decision.
“Dr. (Cherise) Moore, the board president, she and I ran into each other at an event and she had told me that she read the article, and that she really loved…the reporting and [that] she shared that with her other board members,” said Paulsen. “That was definitely an amazing moment for me to hear that the reporting was reaching such a large amount of people.”
Paulsen said that one of the most gratifying things about being a reporter is the conversation or debate that stems from a story that you’ve published, especially on the topic of Hart’s mascot.
“That’s always cool to just know that the reporting impacts people either in a positive way, or influences them to be like, ‘Oh, I want to share my opinion on this issue.’ It just starts a conversation and to be able to supply the necessary information for people to be educated, and then have their opinion on the matter. I think that’s super cool.”
To read Paulsen’s award-winning editorial, visit https://bit.ly/3rbF1Om.