Last night the outstanding work of 12 social justice heroes, including First Lady Michelle Obama and the Know Your Rights Campaign, founded by professional quarterback and racial and social justice advocate Colin Kaepernick, were honored at the 51st annual Human and Civil Rights Awards Ceremony.
Since 1967, the National Education Association has recognized and honored those who have fought — and continue to fight — for human and civil rights. The theme of this year’s celebration, held Sunday, July 1, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was Many Dreams, One Voice.
“Tonight is more than a reminder about where we came from, it’s about where we need to go,” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. “This celebration is about our path forward. It’s a celebration of heroes, of people who stand up with courage in dangerous times, who protect the dreams and rights and futures of communities who still face discrimination and injustice.
She spoke about her recent trip to the Texas border where she stood with heroes who refused to be silent and who protested the policy of separating children from their mothers and fathers as a way to send a message to others fleeing for their lives.
“I am stunned beyond words at what we’re seeing….I have felt so angry and so down and deflated when I think of the injustice I see around me in these dark days, but tonight is not about what’s wrong,” she said. “It’s about what we intend to do to make it right. There are heroes all around us. This is about the stories that lift us up, that remind us of who we are supposed to be. Tonight we’ll understand why there’s still great reason to hope, and not because of wealth and political power, but because of the love for justice.”
Advancing Opportunities for Women and Girls
Michelle Obama was honored for transforming and redefining the role of First Lady of the United States by intentionally focusing her attention on advancing opportunities for women and girls with the Mary Hatwood Futrell Human and Civil Rights Award.
As First Lady, Obama led initiatives like Let’s Move to address childhood obesity; Reach Higher, which encouraged students to complete education past high school; and Joining Forces, a nationwide effort calling on all Americans to rally around service members, veterans, and their families and support them through wellness education and employment opportunities. But the greatest contribution to women and girls globally was her collaboration with the President Barack Obama on the Let Girls Learn Initiative.
Using the platform she had as First Lady, Michelle Obama launched the Let Girls Learn Initiative, which invested in new efforts to expand educational opportunities for girls globally — including in areas of conflict and crisis. The initiative expanded collaborations with experts and placed particular emphasis on community-led solutions to help adolescent girls complete their education.
Standing Against Oppression By Taking a Knee
Colin Kaepernick sparked a nationwide movement when he sat during the National Anthem at a San Francisco 49ers pre-season football game in 2016. He made a profound non-violent statement about the treatment of black people in this country. Kaepernick took a seat, and then a knee, in order to advance the racial and social justice agenda. He is the motivation for the #TakeAKnee campaign that has spread throughout the National Football League (NFL) forcing the conversation about the treatment of African Americans by law enforcement to another level.
Kaepernick, winner of the NEA President’s Award, continues the fight for justice through The Colin Kaepernick Foundation, which mission is to fight oppression globally, through education and social activism. The foundation launched the Know Your Rights Campaign as a grassroots effort to raise awareness and provide resources to black, brown, and poor youth to ensure that they know about their rights as human beings. Kaepernick also donated one million dollars, plus all of the proceeds of his jersey sales from the 2016 season, to organizations working in oppressed communities.
Immigrant and Worker Rights
NEA recognized the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, AFL-CIO, for removing barriers and inspiring communities as they fight for worker rights, human rights, educational equity, and advanced labor and Asian community partnerships, with the Ellison S. Onizuka Memorial Award.
Over its 25-year history, APALA, the first and only national organization of Asian and Pacific Islander (API) workers, was one of the first organizations within the American labor movement to advocate for immigrant rights and advance the organizing of immigrant workers. APALA has been at the forefront of supporting undocumented immigrant students, demanding access to higher education and lifting up the leadership of API undocumented youth.
APALA has brought together over a dozen API ethnic communities under one umbrella organization. Chinese garment workers, Japanese teachers, Filipino nurses, Vietnamese home care workers, Pacific Island construction workers, and South Asian government workers have all have worked together in APALA to collaborate and fight for civil rights and economic justice. Together, they resist, organize, and fight.
Dedicated North Carolina Activist Honored Posthumously
North Carolina educator Rodney Ellis, Sr., believed that a great education opens doors for students. Throughout his life, he worked tirelessly to ensure that students and educators across North Carolina, especially in underserved communities, received the resources they needed to provide an excellent education no matter their ZIP code. As a teacher, union leader and champion for students and educators, Ellis embodied the César Chávez Acción y Compromiso Human and Civil Rights Awards, which this year NEA recognized posthumously.
Rodney Ellis served in many leadership roles in the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), and it was his undeniable love for and appreciation of public education that helped him guide NCAE through some of its most challenging times as members endured politically motivated attacks on public education and their union, which are all too familiar to educators in North Carolina and around the country today.
Philo Middle School in Winston-Salem, where he returned to teach after completing his tenure as NCAE president, renamed a classroom in honor of his life and legacy. His daughter, Gabrielle, now occupies that room as a teacher. “It’s unique that I’m able to be right in his classroom, doing something that was important to him,” she said. “I know he’d be proud.”
Honoree Led Hunger Strike to Open a School
As a highly respected national community activist, Jitu Brown has exemplified what it is to be a social justice hero. In his role as Director of Journey for Justice, he has demanded accountability from public officials, sought community-based alternatives to privatization and disinvestment from public education, and put his body on the line for a better quality of life within communities of color across the country.
That is why NEA honored Brown with the NEA Rosa Parks Memorial Award.
Brown is a proud product of Chicago’s public school system. He knows first-hand the need for direct action and non-violent civil disobedience in protecting public schools. He has been arrested in non-violent protests to bring attention to the fight for the quality of life within communities of color. He organized a 34-day hunger strike to keep Dyett High School open as the South Side of Chicago’s last open enrollment public high school. A year after the hunger strike, Dyett High School reopened its doors.
In Newark, New Jersey, he works with families who have fought to end the state control of their schools, and he continues to work with Detroit parents in the fight to win back their public schools. Brown has organized marches, rallies, gatherings, and critical conversations across America in the fight for equity and equality. He has been a fierce critic of U.S. Secretary of Education Besty DeVos, calling for her resignation because of her efforts to impose on the nation’s public schools her vision to privatize the system.
“We are living in increasing challenging times,” said Jitu Brown, Director of Journey for Justice. “The NEA has a partner it can trust in the Journey for Justice Alliance. Let’s commit ourselves to strengthening community and labor relationships with work rooted in racial and economic justice.”
Celebrating the African-American Story
As the founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African History and Culture (NMAAHC), Dr. L.G. Bunch, III has transformed the understanding of African-American history for generations to come. Dr. Bunch has not only created a place for America to honor and celebrate the African-American story, but a place that encourages reflection, dialogue, and understanding. NEA honored Dr. Bunch with the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Award.
As the Founding Director, Dr. Bunch was given the mandate to conceptualize, build, and lead the NMAAHC. Dr. Bunch’s fearlessness, optimism, and infectious enthusiasm have led to the creation of the largest collection of African-American artifacts ever gathered in one place. The Museum brings together the shackles of an enslaved child, Harriett Tubman’s hymnal, the dress Lena Horne wore in Stormy Weather, Chuck Berry’s Cadillac, and even the Parliament-Funkadelic Mothership.
Dr. Bunch took the challenge of creating the NMAAHC with an understanding that he was creating a view of America through the lens of the African-American experience. The museum would give people the opportunity to realize that we are more alike than we are different. The museum is a shared history of truth about black Americans, and more importantly about America.
Dr. Bunch brought this vision of history – of remembrance – to life in the National Museum of African American History and Culture, where he first collected, then transformed an extraordinary group of artifacts into an urgent, powerful, and profound illumination of the American story.
Affirmative Action Advocate
The lone voice calling for the creation of an Affirmative Action Committee to address race, ethnic, disability, and LGBTQ inequities in the California Faculty Association, Dr. Cecil Canton developed and leveraged committees within the system to transform the union into a powerful engine for racial and social justice. He successfully organized the creation of the committee and then worked to elevate it to a council, putting it on par structurally with the presidents and lecturers councils.
Dr. Canton was also instrumental in creating and institutionalizing the Bi-Annual Equity Conference, a space where race, ethnicity, and other social justice issues are at the forefront, and faculty have a voice to express their concerns in a safe and supportive environment, which is why he was honored with the H. Councill Trenholm Memorial Award.
Breaking Barriers Across Borders
On a trip to El Salvador, English teacher Lynnette Jimenez, from R.B. Chamberlin Middle School in Twinsburg, Ohio, saw firsthand the country’s obstacles and lack of educational opportunities for the economically disadvantaged. She committed to developing an adult and child literacy program to provide the training skills necessary to break the cycle of poverty. Working with local charity and religious organizations in Ohio, she established Colegio Catòlico Misioneros De Cleveland in Teopaque, El Salvador.
Jimenez, honored with the George I. Sanchez Award. raised money for the school through writing grants, hosting fundraisers, collecting donations, and buying supplies out of her own pocket. She wanted to ensure the school had the resources to focus on the holistic role of the teacher practitioner, learn what students and their teachers need, how to motivate them, and most importantly, how to build a support system to address the emotional and social issues like malnutrition and gang violence. From curriculum planning to continuing education, Jimenez plays a vital role and continues to support the principal and her staff at the elementary school.
Muslim Girls Making Waves and Change
Four brave Muslin girls are combatting bigotry, racism, and prejudice in today’s hyper-charged political climate with their powerful voices and slam poetry. For that, NEA is honoring Muslim Girls Making Change (MGMC) with the Rosena J. Willis Memorial Award.
Wearing a hijab attracts attention, and students often are confronted with racism, discrimination, and micro aggression in school, but rather than shrinking away or responding to hostility with hostility, these four girls from Burlington High School in Vermont formed the slam poetry quartet Muslim Girls Making Change (MGMC). They proudly wear the hijab and use slam poetry as their medium to convey a message to other students of color, or with different religious beliefs, that they deserve to be treated as any student in high school should be treated— with respect.
MGMC leads by example and performs for students of all ages. Their messages transcend their Muslim religion and demonstrates to young and old to open their eyes and hearts to change the world for the better. Their creative and articulate advocacy for accepting diversity boosts the self-esteem of other struggling students. Their contributions to the Champlain College Symposium on Women’s Empowerment, the Youth Build School, Spectrum Family and Youth Services, and UVM’s Black Student Union are just some of the groups and organizations they have influenced building the self-esteem of other youth of color.
Fighting for LGBTQ Rights
Chris Sgro has long been a champion for equal rights for the LGBTQ community. As the Executive Director of Equality North Carolina, he fiercely led the opposition to HB 2, once known as the most anti-LGBTQ legislation in the country. Through his leadership in Equality North Carolina, and later, in his capacity as an appointed member of the General Assembly, he built a powerful coalition that included civil rights leaders, corporate leaders, and the NBA to successfully repeal some of the worst provisions of HB 2. More to the point, he drafted a number of critical, real non-discrimination pieces of legislation.
NEA honored Chris Sgro for his dedication and work to expand the rights for the LGBTQ community with its 2018 Virginia Uribe Award for Creative Leadership in Human Rights.
Unions in Wisconsin weathered some of the most relentless political attacks in the country. In spite of these unprovoked efforts to silence the voices of workers and educators, the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association persisted in its commitment to make sure students thrive. For this, the NEA bestowed upon MTEA the Rosena J. Willis Memorial Award.
With MTEA educators at the helm, collaborating with students, allies, and community members, they won important victories for all Milwaukee students. When the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) sought to cut 120 frontline staff positions, MTEA led the fight with parents, students, and educators for a resolution that guarantees smaller class sizes in grades K-3. When students were not getting the opportunity to engage in developmentally appropriate physical activity, MTEA members fought for and won an additional recess time for all MPS grades K-5 students. And when Wisconsin legislators proposed anti-immigrant legislation, MTEA joined together with students at rallies and daylong general strikes to fight back. In collaboration with MTEA, the student group Youth Empowered in the Struggle (affiliated with Voces de la Frontera) members successfully organized and won a Sanctuary District resolution for MPS, which passed the school board with unanimous support.
Watch the stories of this year’s awardees: