This year’s winners of the NEA Human and Civil Rights Awards are making a difference
“Twelve years ago, I was a high school student who had just come out as transgender,” Colorado teacher Sam Long told a Human Rights Campaign audience in 2020. “Without the support of my family or my school, everything became a struggle, even my favorite subject, which is science. People tried to tell me that trans identities are not compatible with biology, that men have XY chromosomes, women are XX, end of story.
“That oversimplified impression of biology has been taught in many schools, and it’s also been weaponized by lawmakers to justify harmful legislation,” Long continued. “But, today, I’m the one who is teaching biology.”
‘We Need More Trans Educators’
As a high school science teacher in the Denver area, Long makes sure his students learn that gender identity is different from sex; that chromosomes are just one of many factors affecting people’s physical development; and that same-sex sexual behavior is ubiquitous in the animal kingdom. Furthermore, as co-founder of the Gender Inclusive Biology website, Long is helping other educators adapt their curricula and find resources for gender-sensitive learning.
“Even if my students don’t remember any of the science I taught them, I know they will remember this: Trans people can be happy, healthy, normal, extraordinary, complex individuals. That’s what young people learn when they see adults like me, every day, in positive roles around them,” Long said. “That’s why we need more trans educators in schools, and we need to support their choice to be out,” added Long, who also runs a Colorado-based organization aimed at promoting and protecting the employment rights of trans educators.
For all this work, and more, Long was honored with the Virginia Uribe Memorial Award for Creative Leadership in Human Rights, during this year’s virtual NEA Human and Civil Rights (HCR) Award ceremony. These awards are given annually to educators and other allied organizations that advance racial and social justice in our schools and communities.
“Every child deserves to have teachers who share their experiences and identities because these adults provide hope and proof that a fulfilling life is possible,” Long shared in a video message. “For our growing number of trans…nonbinary, and questioning students, I get to be that proof.”
Connecting the Past to the Present
Nebraska teacher Maira Mendez-Rodriguez also earned an HCR Award, the César Chávez Acción y Compromiso award. Her organization, Children of Smithfield, united the children of workers at a Smithfield Foods processing plant, giving them a powerful voice during the COVID-19 pandemic. In partnership with state Sen. Tony Vargas, the organization successfully mandated that the plant disinfect work spaces and provide six feet of physical distance between employees. The company was also required to supply workers with face shields and offer medical leave to workers who tested positive for the virus.
“When we began this endeavor, in no way did we envision or want any recognition,” said Mendez-Rodriguez in her video remarks. “We all feel that as children of immigrants, it is our responsibility…to be a voice for parents or uncles, aunts, and our neighbors. Advocating was the very least we could do for our family who were considered essential workers during the pandemic of 2020.”
Another award winner, Louisiana high school teacher Chris Dier, says he runs his history class like a “social laboratory,” empowering students to confront preconceived notions of race and identity. Dier incorporates literature from overlooked voices, building empathy among students and enabling underrepresented voices to be part of the historical record. He links the past to the present, from Jim Crow to modern policing; from Stonewall-era LGBTQ+ activism to today’s Black Lives Matter movement.
Dier was honored with the H. Councill Trenholm Memorial Award.
“I firmly believe that teachers should not be on the sidelines when people are facing harm,” said Dier in video remarks during the virtual HCR Awards ceremony. “Our care for our students and for others should not be confined to the classroom, but we should advocate outside of the school building—whether it’s marching for Black Lives Matter protests, against the rise of Asian American hate, protecting immigrant students, or standing with LGBTQ students—we should be fierce advocates for our students.”
For more about HCR winners, visit neahcrawards.org.