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NEA honors America’s human and civil rights activists

Annual event highlights work of those with a passion for social justice

WASHINGTON - June 20, 2014 -

The National Education Association (NEA) will thank and honor the outstanding work of a dozen of America’s human and civil rights heroes at its annual Human and Civil Rights Awards Dinner on July 2 in Denver. This year’s theme, “Tonight We Celebrate, Tomorrow We Organize,” will recognize those who fought—and continue to fight—for social justice. Award recipients include former U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, (D-Hawaii), Pakistani youth activist Malala Yousafzai and iconic civil rights leader Coretta Scott King.

“Sixty years after the Brown v. Board of Education landmark decision, we still see dramatic inequities and disparities in resources, programs, and opportunities for students across America,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “The work of our HCR Award recipients is even more important each year those inequities persist. We must continue to shed a light on their work as they guide and inspire us all.”

Dr. Rodolfo F. Acuña, California

NEA’s César Chávez Acción y Compromiso Human and Civil Rights Award will be presented to Dr. Rodolfo F. Acuña, author and co-founder of the nation’s first Department of Chicano Studies. Currently a professor at California State University-Northridge, Acuña has authored 15 books, with his most recent, Corridors of Migration: The Odyssey of Mexican Laborers, 1600-1933, highlighting the history of Mexican workers and their families from 17th century Chihuahua to 20th century California, and their labor activism. His landmark book, Occupied America, A History of Chicanos, was first published in 1972, is currently on its seventh edition, and is the standard text on Chicano Studies. In the 1960s, he was involved in the Latin American Civic Association, a grassroots Los Angeles organization of Mexican-American parents, students, and educators concerned with improving educational opportunities for their children. His favorite saying is, “I am proud of being a radical. I’m very proud of my age. I’m very proud of being a Mexican.”

U.S. Senator Daniel K. Akaka, Hawaii

This year the Ellison S. Onizuka Memorial Award will be given to Daniel Kahikina Akaka who represented Hawaii for 36 years in the U.S. Congress, and in 1990 became the first U.S. Senator of Native Hawaiian ancestry. Before taking office, he was a teacher and principal, and championed culturally competent education in Hawaii. He advocated for bringing the Hawaiian language and culture back into the classroom, and was able to create some of the first Head Start programs in the state, serving many of Hawaii’s Asian and Pacific Islander students. He also supported the establishment of the Ke Kula Kaiapuni O Anuenue Hawaiian Language Immersion School, K-12. The positive work for his culture continued into his political career, including sponsoring legislation that would become the Native Hawaiian Education Act, enacted in 1988. It creates innovative education programs to enhance the education of Native Hawaiians.

Mr. Daniel Rodriguez, Arizona

Daniel Rodriguez will be awarded the George I. Sánchez Memorial Award for his work helping the undocumented immigrant community with the chance to go to college and have the same opportunities afforded to those born here. Born in Monterrey, Mexico, he came to Arizona when he was seven years old with his mother as an undocumented immigrant. In high school a counselor told him that he would be unable to go to college because of his status. Undeterred, he worked hard and attended Arizona State University and graduated Magna Cum Laude with a B.A. in political science and English literature. At ASU he became an activist and in 2008 founded what would become the Arizona Dream Act Coalition (ADAC). In 2009, as anti-immigrant policies and tactics by the likes of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio terrorized the undocumented community, he organized “Coming Out of the Shadows” events as a space for undocumented youth to share their stories publicly. He continued to fight and in 2010 led immigrant youth in a camp outside U.S. Sen. John McCain’s office in Phoenix asking him to support the Dream Act. Today he is in his third year at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, and is the only undocumented student in the law school.

Mr. Edward White, Kentucky

Edward White shares his passion for drums with inner city youth of Louisville. With his late wife Zambia Nkrumah, he created the River City Drum Corps in 1990, a positive alternative to the despair that is part of life for those urban youth. White’s goal was to give the youth hope and purpose by exposing them to their rich cultural roots. He will be awarded the H. Councill Trenholm Memorial Award for his work with the Corps, which proudly boasts a 90 percent college completion rate. The Corps has received grants from non-profit organizations over the years, but White, a carpenter by trade, often dips into his own pockets to feed and pay for the transportation of his young members. White and his late wife launched “The House of Dreams Arts Enrichment Center,” which sponsors programs for computer literacy, math, science, career exploration, and multimedia production.

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe, Idaho

The Leo Reano Memorial Award will be presented to the Coeur d’Alene Tribe for its contributions to the education of Indian and non-Indian youth in northern Idaho and eastern Washington. In 1992, the tribe signed a compact to have gaming on its reservation, but required at least 5 percent of the net gaming revenues to go to financial support of education. This has resulted in almost $20 million invested in education programs from pre-K to college. These programs include Head Start, child care, dual enrollment programs that count college courses for both high school and college credit, and tutoring in early grades for children who fall behind. The district’s Superintendent Judi Sharrett credits the tribe. The tribe doesn’t just stop at donating resources and funds, but tracks all children from kindergarten through graduate school to ensure no one falls through the cracks.

Reverend Fred Lee Shuttlesworth (1922-2011), Alabama

NEA will present the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Award to civil rights hero Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth. Shuttlesworth was fearless and relentless in promoting non-violent action to confront racism, especially in his town of Birmingham, Ala.—which is synonymous with the civil rights era. His home was bombed, and he was jailed and physically injured but he never gave up, and in 1963 he persuaded Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to bring the civil rights movement to Birmingham. His never-back-down spirit and use of non-violence to combat brutal violence and oppression, including having Birmingham’s Police Commissioner Bull Conner say, “I wished they’d carried him away in a hearse,” opened the rest of the country’s eyes to the horrendous events in Birmingham. President John F. Kennedy took notice and declared the struggle for civil rights a moral issue, and ordered his aides to draft a civil rights law. What became the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 was forged in the streets of Birmingham in 1963. He later moved to Cincinnati but continued to travel to Birmingham to lead demonstrations. When Richard Arrington became the first African-American mayor of Birmingham in 1979, Shuttlesworth helped establish the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and Museum. One of Shuttlesworth’s last public appearances was at the celebration of President Barack Obama’s inauguration.

Miss Malala Yousafzai, Pakistan

The Mary Hatwood Futrell Award will be awarded to 16-year-old Malala Yousafzai who at the young age of 12 was advocating for the right of education for girls in the Taliban-controlled Swat Valley region of Pakistan, where girls at times were banned from school. In early 2009, using a pseudonym, Yousafzai began writing a blog for BBC about her life under Taliban rule and promoting education for all. This led to the New York Times documentary “Class Dismissed” about her life, and subsequent interviews and global recognition. On Oct. 9, 2012, a Taliban gunman boarded the bus she was on in Pakistan and shot at her when she answered to, “Which one of you is Malala? Speak up, otherwise I will shoot you all.” Malala was shot in the head once. After the shooting she was airlifted to a military hospital where doctors worked hard to relieve the swelling on her brain and save her life—she was given a 70 percent chance of survival. Her fighting spirit never died, and on Jan. 3, 2013, she was discharged from the hospital and continued her rehabilitation from her family’s temporary home in England. After months of rehabilitation, on her 16th birthday on July 12, 2013, she addressed the United Nations. She said, “I speak—not for myself, but for all girls and boys. I raise up my voice—not so that I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard.” She has become an inspiration for all; she’s been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and featured on the cover of Time Magazine’s “The 100 Most Influential People in The World.” In October 2013, her memoir I Am Malala, co-written with British journalist Christina Lamb, was released.

Mr. Evan Robbins, New Jersey

The Reg Weaver Human and Civil Rights Award will be given to Evan Robbins, a teacher from New Jersey who took action to free enslaved children half way around the world. Robbins read an article about a six-year-old boy who was the victim of child slave trafficking and forced to work in the fishing industry in the Lake Volta Region of Ghana. A father of a six-year-old himself, Robbins knew he had to do something and with the help of his students at Metuchen High School he raised money to rescue and rehabilitate the enslaved children, who work long hours and perform dangerous tasks. He formed the non-profit organization Breaking the Chain Through Education (BTCTE), and, working with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), raised enough money to rescue 10 children. In 2010, he travelled to Ghana and realized more needed to be done. The villages in the area didn’t have schools, so he had an idea; he offered the village of Awate Tornu a new school in exchange for freeing 19 trafficked children. They accepted and Robbins organized the funding and building of a school for 240 students. Robbins wasn’t done. He saw that the children needed assistance being reintegrated into their communities and BTCTE hired a social worker to take on that task. BTCTE also funded the building of a teachers’ residence to help retain teachers in the area. Robbins hopes to rescue 20 enslaved children a year for the next three years.

Mrs. Coretta Scott King (1927-2006), Georgia

NEA will present the Rosa Parks Memorial Award to the late Coretta Scott King, the iconic civil rights activist and wife of the late Martin Luther King, Jr. During the civil rights movement Mrs. King played an important role. She conceived and performed a series of well-reviewed Freedom Concerts, which combined prose, poetry, and musical selections, helping to raise funds for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. After her husband was killed in 1968, she founded the Atlanta-based Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Changes as a living memorial to her husband’s life and dream. One of her greatest accomplishments came in 1983 when she finally succeeded in establishing Dr. King’s birthday as a national holiday, and was witness when President Reagan signed it into law. Mrs. King continued to carry the message of nonviolence throughout her life, led goodwill missions to many countries, and spoke at many of the century’s largest peace and justice rallies. She spoke out in favor of gay rights long before it was popular, and strongly opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Mrs. King said on her time as an activist, “I never thought of it as a sacrifice during the times I was involved. I thought of it as a life-affirming commitment to justice.”

El Paso Teachers Association, Texas

The Rosena J. Willis Memorial Award will be given to the El Paso Teachers Association (EPTA) for the work it has done to restore public confidence in the public school system after former superintendent Lorenzo Garcia was sentenced to more than three years in prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud in order to raise standardized test scores. To re-engage the public, the district sponsored a public forum called, “Social Justice in Public Education: A Call to Action from Ground Zero,” attended by more than 400 parents, students, educators, and concerned community members. NEA Vice President Lily Eskelsen-García was the keynote speaker and during the course of two days, difficult but necessary discussions were held on how to meet the needs of the most economically disadvantaged students, many who are English language learners. Since the forum, a Parent Task Force has gone door to door interviewing parents on what needs to change so that public schools can better serve their children. EPTA is an outstanding example of not only how to work proactively to change the narrative and image—but how to reconnect with parents and the community.

Mr. Jackson Hishmeh, Kansas

The SuAnne Big Crow Memorial Award will be awarded to Jackson Hishmeh. One day when he was a sophomore, Hishmeh noticed a group of special needs students at Topeka High School, and from that day forward, he worked to make a positive difference for those students. He worked to give those students a feeling of acceptance they didn’t have before. Hishmeh starting spending his lunches in their classroom and was soon joined by several of his friends. By the end of that spring semester they became the “Lunch Buddies.” Hishmeh and his friends paired up with the special needs students and took them to have lunch in the cafeteria—with everyone else. This was just the start. The following year, “Lunch Buddies” turned into “Special Opps” (Special Operations), and the group provided games and activities that were physically and mentally accessible for those students. They also took them to sporting events and school plays. The “Special Opps” story was picked up by the Topeka-Capitol Journal and students from around the country began to call Hishmeh asking how they could start “Special Opps” in their schools. The publicity even allowed Jack and his friends to take on the challenge of repainting and making over Room 116—which resembled a storage room—with the help from different community groups and local businesses.

Mr. Tim Gill, Colorado

NEA is awarding the Virginia Uribe Award for Creative Leadership in Human Rights to Tim Gill for his tireless work on marriage equality, nondiscrimination, and safe schools. In 1992, when Colorado voters passed Amendment 2 (later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court) which altered the state constitution to prohibit laws that protected gays and lesbians, Gill established the Gill Foundation—the nation’s first major LGBT foundation—with the mission of securing equal opportunity for all Americans, regardless of sexual orientation or gender expression. As of 2012, the Foundation had invested more than $243 million in LGBT equality in Colorado and across the nation. In 2004, the Foundation expanded its focus to include safe schools—and it was a Gill Foundation grant that enabled NEA to develop its Bullying Prevention Kit for educators. Even with all that he was able to accomplish, Gill realized that philanthropic work alone was not enough. In 2004, he began working toward unseating anti-gay incumbents. Thanks to his efforts, both chambers of the Colorado legislature changed hands for the first time in 20 years. This success fueled the establishment of the Gill Action Fund, a vehicle to engage LGBT donors in state and local elections, targeting, with considerable success, anti-gay candidates.

Interviews with honorees are available.
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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, and students preparing to become teachers.

CONTACT: Sara Robertson  (202) 822-7823,