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Press Release

NEA announces eleven recipients of its highest and most prestigious award

NEA Human and Civil Rights Awards to include inaugural award dedicated to the legacy of Wilma Mankiller
Published: 06/02/2021

WASHINGTON—The National Education Association will honor eleven exemplary individuals and organizations with its highest and most prestigious award, the NEA Human and Civil Rights (HCR) Awards, during a virtual ceremony scheduled for 8:00 p.m. EST on Tuesday, June 29. The theme of this year’s 2021 NEA HCR Awards ceremony is “Out of Struggle Comes Progress: Grounded in our History; Igniting our Future” — and will include an inaugural award dedicated to the lasting legacy of Wilma Mankiller, the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.

“In the middle of a global pandemic, an economic crisis, and racial and social upheaval, across race and space, native and newcomer, in schools and neighborhoods across America, there are unsung heroes who continually bend the arc of the moral universe more closely towards justice every day,” said NEA President Becky Pringle. “No matter what we look like or where we come from, they hold politicians accountable for their actions, call out efforts to divide us, and rewrite the rules so the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share. They help us come together around shared challenges and develop collective solutions to ensure our schools, neighborhoods, and communities are strong, healthy, and safe. These champions of noble actions and righteous causes are inspirational examples of the courage enshrined in the NEA Human and Civil Rights Awards.”   

Here are the recipients of the 2021 NEA HCR Awards:

Nebraska’s Children of Smithfield

Last March, meatpacking companies became hotspots for cases of coronavirus. Maira Mendez Rodriguez, an educator and member of the Nebraska State Education Association, feared for her parents, who worked at Smithfield Foods, which had failed to provide adequate safety measures. After establishing the Children of Smithfield, a Facebook Group comprised of other parents who worked at the plant, Mendez organized workers and other families to take to the streets to demand safe working conditions. Today, Smithfield Foods mandates six-feet social distancing, provides face shields, and disinfects workspaces, among other safety measures. NEA awarded Children of Smithfield with the César Chávez Acción y Compromiso HCR Award. Click here to learn more about Children of Smithfield.

New Mexico’s Wilhelmina Yazzie

The inaugural Wilma Mankiller Memorial Award is named for the pioneering Native American community activist, social justice warrior, and first woman elected as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. The first recipient of this award goes to Wilhelmina Yazzie, a freedom fighter who waged a brave battle for Indigenous children to have the right to a quality education resulting in a 16% increase to state public education funding (roughly $450 million dollars). Yazzie describes herself as just a mom who wanted to make things right for her kids. History will now see her as an American hero, who like Wilma Mankiller, helped to create equal opportunity for all. Click here to learn more about her.

Wisconsin’s Scholar Reggie Jackson

Reggie Jackson of Milwaukee, Wisconsin is a nationally heralded independent scholar and much sought-after speaker, researcher, writer, and consultant to the media on race relations. Associated with America’s Black Holocaust Museum, Jackson helps institutions and individuals understand how the country’s racial hierarchy developed historically, its impact on lives today, and how to realize America’s promise for all its citizens. NEA recognized Reggie Jackson with its Carter G. Woodson Memorial Award. Click here to read more about him.  

Wisconsin’s Hmong Language and Cultural Enrichment Program

The Hmong Language and Culture Enrichment Program (HLCEP) started when a few Hmong parents in Madison, Wisconsin learned that the lack of cultural support at schools and low self-esteem were key barriers to their children’s academic success. Established in 2013, the program gives flight to the dreams of diverse Asian communities, powered by education and pride in their identity. HLCEP received national recognition from the Center for Resilient Cities for being one of only two programs in the United States working to increase students’ Hmong language skills and appreciation for their culture. NEA awarded HLCEP with its Ellison S. Onizuka Memorial Award. To learn more about HLCEP, click here.

Unidos MN

Unidos MN is an immigrant-led collective of activists who work to ensure racial, gender and economic equality for the Latinx diaspora. In partnership with Education Minnesota, Unidos MN works toward a more inclusive society, and their efforts include requiring ethnic studies courses for every graduating public school student, encouraging participation in the U.S. Census, and organizing online fundraisers for immigrant families in need and forums so that LGBTQ+ youth are always included in conversations. NEA awarded Unidos MN with its George I. Sánchez Memorial Award. Click here to learn more about Unidos MN.

Chris Dier – State of Louisiana 2020 Teacher of the Year

Chris Dier is the Louisiana 2020 Teacher of the Year and a finalist for the 2020 National Teacher of the Year. A veteran history teacher at Benjamin Franklin High School, in New Orleans, Dier runs his class as a “social laboratory,” challenging students to confront pre-conceived notions of race and identity, while pushing young people to redefine notions of themselves. He helps put a human face on this country’s glorious, yet often tragic history, by creating vivid pictures for an increasingly tech savvy—and at times cynical—generation. NEA awarded him with the H. Councill Trenholm Memorial Award. Read more about Chris Dier here.

Oakland, California’s Black Organizing Project

Through grassroots organizing and coalition building, the Black Organizing Project (BOP), an African American-led community collective, harnesses the energy of youth power to work towards racial, social, and economic justice in the Bay Area. BOP uses the power of social media to raise awareness about vital issues, including voter registration, U.S. Census participation, and youth-led rallies to protest police brutality. BOP believes that those most impacted by racism and poverty must put their own issues on the table and demand change. NEA awarded BOP with its Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Award. Click here to learn more.  

Wisconsin’s Project 16:49

Sixteen hours and forty-nine minutes is the time between the school day’s last bell and the next morning’s first bell. During this time, young people who live in underinvested communities can fall through the cracks. Thanks to Wisconsin’s Project 16:49, young people have a safety net beyond the classroom. Project 16:49 addresses the plight of homeless and disenfranchised teens in the state’s Rock County region by providing basic needs, such as food, clothing, and most importantly, safe housing options. The group gets results, too: Ninety-two percent of participants in the program graduate high school and leave with the skills to become self-sufficient adults. NEA recognized Project 16:49 with the Reg Weaver Human and Civil Rights Award. Learn more about Project 16:49 here.  

Education Minnesota

For almost a quarter century, Education Minnesota has been heralded as one of the nation’s strongest labor organizations, with a storied reputation as advocates for educators and public school students. Education Minnesota is much more than a union. It is a coalition of parents, teachers, administrators, and community leaders, who work together to improve the quality of life for young people and is leading from within the labor community to advance race equity, recruit and engage members of color into the union. NEA bestowed upon Education Minnesota its Rosena J. Willis Memorial Award (State Affiliate) Award. Learn more about Education Minnesota here.  

Colorado’s Sam Long – High School Science Teacher and LGBTQ champion

A STEM-wiz in Colorado’s St. Vrain Valley School District, Sam Long is an excellent educator, who has navigated the hardships of the past year: COVID-19, social upheaval, and increased reliance on technology. As a champion of the LGBTQ+ community, Long sponsors his school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance Network and dedicates a class to introduce his own gender identity. He’s the co-founder of the Colorado Trans/Nonbinary Education Network, noted for passing the 2020 “Right to be Out Rule”—landmark legislation that mandates safe spaces free from harassment of individuals for being open about their sexual orientation or gender identity in public schools. Long earns the Virginia Uribe Memorial Award for Creative Leadership in Human Rights. Learn more about Long here.

Dr. MLK’s speechwriter Dr. Clarence Jones

Dr. Clarence Jones helped advance Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of societal change with the power of the written word. As King’s speechwriter, confidant, and personal counsel, Jones was not only a witness to history, but he played a pivotal role in creating two of the most iconic documents in the fight for equality and justice. In addition to playing a key role in sharing King’s Letter from Birmingham with the media, he contributed to American history by co-authoring, on the eve of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the first draft of the legendary “I Have a Dream” speech. NEA bestowed upon Dr. Clarence Jones the NEA President’s Award. Learn more about him here.

About the NEA HCR Awards

The merger of the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Teachers Association (ATA) in 1966 produced the annual NEA Human and Civil Rights Awards. ATA, which represented Black teachers in segregated schools, traditionally honored leaders in the justice and civil rights movement annually. Since the merger, NEA has recognized and honored educators, individuals, community partners, and organizations that are advancing the mantle for human and civil rights.

Follow the conversation on Twitter: #EdJustice #NEAHCRAwards @NEAMedia


The National Education Association is the nation’s largest professional employee organization, representing more than 3 million elementary and secondary teachers, higher education faculty, education support professionals, school administrators, retired educators, students preparing to become teachers, healthcare workers, and public employees. Learn more at

National Education Association

Great public schools for every student

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.