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Pepper Pike freshman wins Princeton Prize in Race Relations
Demi Zhang uses art to improve racial harmony

Kabir Bhatia
Demi Zhang and her 21-string zither, which she plays in the Cleveland Chinese Music Ensemble. The Orange HS freshman is the winner of the second Cleveland Princeton Prize in Race Relations.
Courtesy of K. Bhatia
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The Princeton Prize in Race Relations recognizes high school students who are making efforts to improve racial harmony. WKSU’s Kabir Bhatia reports on a freshman who is using art to do just that.
Pepper Pike freshman wins Princeton Prize in Race Relations

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Bedecked in a colorful Asian frock, Demi Zhang was all smiles as she prepped for a zither performance at the Cleveland Asian Festival last week. The Orange High School freshman from Pepper Pike, and first generation Chinese-American, sees it as more than a chance to entertain. She says it’s a way to build bridges between her native and adopted cultures.

“I wanted to find a way to allow people to accept each other’s differences. Because if you argue with somebody politically or morally, then it’s a lot harder to come to understand that person. But something with art and music, that’s more a universal language, is a lot easier to communicate with.”

Princeton Prize comes to Ohio
The Princeton Prize was launched in 2003 in Boston and Washington D.C. Today, it’s awarded by alumni in two dozen U.S. cities, and Zhang is the second annual recipient from the Cleveland chapter, covering seven counties.

Civil Rights attorney Sandhya Gupta organized the Cleveland branch in 2010. She says Demi’s plethora of interests made her stand out among the competition.

Zhang a shoo-in
“The fact that she’s been performing in a professional Chinese ensemble for four years, and she’s only a freshman in high school, was something that struck us. Also the fact that she’s had pieces of art, all based in Chinese tradition, displayed in professional exhibitions… this is sort of a life’s work for her.”

Each regional winner receives $1000 along with an invitation to a race relations symposium at Princeton. Demi swims, takes ballet, ice skates and runs a Chinese culture club in her neighborhood, and she says the symposium has given her even more avenues to investigate.

“There were a lot of other people who also did vastly different projects. I personally like to write. But then I had this phase where I desperately wanted to be a teacher. And also I have a good friend who is a fantastic immigration lawyer. And she has gotten me very interested in that whole aspect. Because in court, there’s the court battle, but there’s also the battle of changing a person’s life in many cases.”

Racial dialogue still needed in Northeast Ohio
Zhang’s calling for social justice is not rooted in personal experience. She can’t recall much discrimination growing up. Neither can Sandhya Gupta, who also grew up in Pepper Pike. But she feels Northeast Ohio can still benefit from understanding between cultures.

“I don’t know that Cleveland is unique in that, but it’s definitely here in various communities. That’s an area... ripe for racial dialogue. I don’t think there’s anywhere in our state, our country, our world that does not need this.”

The Princeton Prize will be presented to Demi Zhang at an event this week in Cleveland, and the deadline for next year’s prize is January 31.

Related Links & Resources
National Princeton Prize website

2011 Cleveland Princeton Prize ceremony

Listener Comments:

I would like to learn to play the Guxin. Can you please recommend a teacher for me in the Cleveland area? Thanks so much! I loved listening to your video on you tube!

Posted by: dana mietus (HB) on January 30, 2014 8:01AM
I work for the City of Beachwood and we are having a Chinese Tea on December 27, 2012. We are looking for someone who could perform a Chinese Tea Ceremony for us. On the internet her name appears that she does perform the ceremony. Demi sounds adorable and I wonder if she would be interested in volunteering to do the tea ceremony and play the zither for 10 or 15 minutes for us.

Posted by: Esther Rutman (City of Beachwood) on October 25, 2012 3:10AM
Dear Demi,
I am proud to be your teacher. It is wonderful to use your talents to create social change. Congratulations!

Kathy Frazier (gifted education - Orange High School)

Posted by: Kathy Frazier (Orange High School) on May 26, 2012 3:05AM
Kabir, thank you for a lovely piece! One correction: the deadline for next year's prize is January 31.

Posted by: Sandhya Gupta (Cleveland Heights, OH) on May 23, 2012 3:05AM
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