When it comes to fighting for the human and civil rights of children living in poverty, immigrants, LGBTQ students, and others who are sometimes unable to fend for themselves, the 13 winners of NEA’s 2016 Human and Civil Rights Awards are unmatched in their pursuit of social justice for all.
During a Sunday gala dinner held in the Grand Ballroom of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., rising high school senior Michael Chavarria of California was honored for establishing a lecture series and resource program that educates young students about LGBTQ issues.
“I want to keep speaking out so everyone can feel safe and loved,” Chavarria told the crowd of more than 1,000 educators attending the event as part of the NEA Annual Meeting and Representative Assembly being held at the convention center through Thursday.
The theme for this year’s dinner was Two Legacies, One Dream: Our Journey Continues.
“I went from a disgrace to amazing grace,” said Dr. George Moorman, in reference to kicking a 25-year drug habit before establishing an education program in Lexington, KY, that provides school supplies, adult workshops and other services. “I have worked to make the world a better place … through education.”
In addition to individuals, several organizations were honored for their work in defense of human rights, including Education Austin in Texas and El Centro de la Raza located in Seattle, Wash.
“There is a belief that our public schools will teach every child,” said Estela Ortega, the center’s executive director. “Yet, in Washington state, 1.5 million children are still waiting (for legislators) to meet their constitutional duty to fund education.”
Every year, since 1967, NEA has honored human and civil rights leaders at this awards dinner. The event is linked to NEA’s 1966 merger with the American Teachers Association (ATA). ATA represented Black teachers in segregated schools, and for many years, it held a human and civil rights awards dinner. After the merger, NEA continued the tradition.
“This dinner reminds us that there are heroes who walk among us,” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia. “The merger gave us the courage to continue the legacy.”
An exhibit documenting the NEA-ATA merger, on display for the gala event outside the ballroom, will be a featured attraction at the NEA Expo.
“I’m a proud product of public education,” said Dr. Lawrence Hamm, a self-described “lifelong activist” from New Jersey and founder of The People’s Organization for Progress. “I’m sure Dr. King would be proud that NEA is embracing a social justice agenda. If Dr. King were here, he’d be on the picket line with teachers.”
NEA Executive Director John Stocks presented the NEA President’s Award to attorney Morris Dees, who co-founded the Southern Poverty Law Center in 1971 in Alabama. Dees and the center are credited with devising innovative ways to cripple and bankrupt hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.
Videos of the awardees can be found here.
Last week, NEA’s Human and Civil Rights Department hosted its 2016 Joint Conference on Concerns of Minorities and Women at the Washington Hilton Hotel. More than 1,000 educators and others attended the event.