Lauren Winston looked at the world around her and saw a lot of people who didn’t understand each other. The 16-year-old Shawnee Mission East senior decided that giving people more information was the way to help clear up bullying, hate speech and other problems.
Her work putting together a speaker series with her non-profit, Bridges KC, earned her The Princeton Prize in Race Relations in April. Only 26 other students in the country won $1,000 prize this year, and this is just the second year Kansas City-area students have been considered for it. Winston also made a trip to Princeton to meet and learn from the other winning students.
Winston started Bridges KC at the beginning of the school year and has brought two speakers to the East community so far: Dr. Sofia Khan of KC For Refugees, who discussed Muslim relations, and Samantha Ruggles of the Kansas City Center for Inclusion, who spoke about being a transgender woman. She estimates that between 25 and 50 people attended each event.
When she was 8, Winston moved from Washington, D.C., to Wichita when she was 8, then to Kansas City two years later. She said that living in these varied environments has made her more aware of how different individual experiences can be.
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Winston noticed that the lack of diversity was causing problems.
“There were still some misunderstandings, especially in this area that we live in now. My school demographics – there are 34 African-Americans out of a student body of 1,800, so we saw a lot of disconnects between cultures and people understanding how other people live,” Winston said.
She brought in Khan as her first speaker after noticing that Muslim students were having problems with bullying following the 2016 presidential election.
Winston goal was to get people to think about more than just a pop culture stereotype.
“People will often be judged off of those misconceptions and perceptions we’ll have from social media and outside influences without actually getting to know the culture itself or where it’s coming from. They just have these ideas already made up,” Winston said.
She hopes to expand the program into a video series on YouTube and also some field trips to various sites in the city to experience the different cultures students learn about through the speakers. Winston has also talked with people at St. Teresa’s Academy and The Barstow School about putting together some joint events.
“I want to make sure that people can have that exposure before they go out into the real world so they can understand each other better and collaborate with people from different backgrounds. I’ve kind of noticed that people haven’t really overcome having differences in ideas,” Winston said.
The initial program she established, combined with those bigger plans, is what put Winston’s application on the prize committee’s radar.
“We are looking for someone who has been a leader in recognizing a problem and is a leader in putting together a solution. We’re looking at the scope and breadth — the race relations component of the work, the young person’s role and the effect of the work,” said Debbie Williams, co-chair of the Greater Kansas City Committee for The Princeton Prize in Race Relations.
“What these young people do is limited only by their imagination. There’s no real template.”
Williams said that Shawnee Mission East principal John McKinney’s “wholehearted” endorsement of Winston’s work and its effect on the school was an important factor in deciding the prize.