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NEA News

NEA Presents the 2024 Human and Civil Rights Award Winners

Educators gather at annual ceremony to honor individuals creating lasting change.
Group of people in formal attire stand near stage during awards ceremony.
Published: July 3, 2024

Key Takeaways

  1. NEA honored nine outstanding social justice champions at its Human and Civil Rights Awards ceremony on July 3, in Philadelphia.
  2. Since 1967, the awards program has acknowledged progress in the movement toward justice nationwide, and has uplifted the positive impacts on the education of students of color.

In recognition of their tireless efforts towards a more inclusive and just society, the NEA honored nine deserving individuals and organizations with its highest and most prestigious awards, the NEA Human and Civil Rights (HCR) Awards, on July 3, at the Philadelphia Convention Center, in Philadelphia, Pa. 

The theme of the 57th annual award dinner was “Freedom Rings: Celebrating the Legacy of Inspiring Power, Dreams, and Activism,” a perfect homage to the ways in which these remarkable recipients have amplified student voices and needs around the country. 

Since 1967, the black-tie awards dinner has occurred every year. In 1966, NEA merged with the American Teachers Association, which annually held a human and civil rights awards dinner representing Black teachers in segregated schools. NEA has proudly continued the tradition, recognizing the importance of honoring educators throughout the country. 

“The recipients of NEA’s Human and Civil Rights Awards embody the highest commitment to ensuring that every student, regardless of their ZIP code, gender identity, or racial background, receives the educational opportunities they deserve,” NEA President Becky Pringle said in a press statement. “These social justice advocates work diligently, and often without much fanfare, to bend the arc of history toward a more just and equitable society. We proudly honor their contributions, sacrifices, and accomplishments. By embodying what is right and just, they motivate us to purposeful and principled action, and create long-standing impact in our communities and schools.”

Breaking the Cycle

From a past stricken by poverty and criminal activity to a present committed to advocacy, Alejandro De La Peña is a perfect symbol of what it means to break a cycle. The special education teacher from El Paso, Texas was the first in his extended family to graduate high school and attend college. His humble beginnings paired with the tragic loss of a newborn led him to seek a career dedicated to making a difference for underprivileged youth.

Alejandro De La Peña looks straight into camera for a selfie pose.
Alejandro De La Peña, a special education teacher in El Paso, Texas.

“It’s not impossible to break that cycle,” De La Peña said in an NEA video honoring the awardees. “You just have to find your way.”

De La Peña teaches students with severe disabilities at Parkland Pre-Engineering Middle School. He has changed the lives of thousands of low-income students at the school by securing grants and donations—adding up to over $152,000. Besides his work in special education, he has also improved the lives of homeless families, students who risk failing classes or dropping out of school, and Special Olympians. 

“Hopefully the impact that I am making is to let our students know, let our parents know, let our community members know that you can go as far as you want to, and I’m here to help you along that path,” De La Peña said. 

De La Peña is the recipient of the George I. Sánchez Memorial Award for the impact he has made on the lives of Hispanic families, educators, and students. 

Lifting Up LGBTQ+ Students

Kate Okeson is grateful to be part of a union that not only gets LGBTQ+ voices a seat at the table but creates meaningful change with those voices. Her work centers around making spaces in which LGBTQ+ youth feel heard and celebrated. 

Kate Okeson poses in front of red and yellow back drop.
Kate Okeson, a high school art teacher in Rumson, N.J.

Okeson has been an art teacher for over 20 years, but her impact in New Jersey goes beyond the paint brushes. She is the president of the Rumson-Fair Haven Regional Education Association and founder of the Gender and Sexuality Alliance Club at Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School. She has served as the club’s advisor for more than 15 years. 

Okeson has worked to lobby for and implement a mandate by the state legislature that focused on LGBTQ+ related instruction in lesson plans for middle and high school students. After the mandate passed in 2019, she took on the role of leading the production of model curricula and delivered professional development on the topic, ensuring intentional implementation of the official order. 

“Sharing our potential is one of the great gifts we have as educators,” Okeson said.

She believes that educators can lead the country to change education for the better and support diverse learners. 

As co-founder and program director of Make It Better for Youth (MIB4Y), the Monmouth County Consortium for LGBTQ Youth in New Jersey, she and her students organize many social gatherings for young people. One of these gatherings, called GAYLA, is an annual inclusive prom for students from Monmouth County area and was first launched 13 years ago. 

The Virginia Uribe Memorial Award for Creative Leadership in Human Rights award has been given to Kate Okeson for her exceptional influence in how LGBTQ+ education and inclusion is being addressed across New Jersey in the classroom and beyond. 

Commitment to Advocacy

United Teachers Los Angeles, or UTLA, is an organization that promotes activism, advocacy, and social justice. In 1970, the diverse group was formed through a merger of two organizations. Today, it symbolizes the messages it promotes, as the organization’s diversity index is over 65 percent, and its board of directors is majority women. With the leadership of President Cecily Myart-Cruz, UTLA is committed to a vision for a more just and equitable education for every student. 

UTLA shows up for the community it serves through its work with various diverse and marginalized groups and initiatives like the Black Student Achievement Plan and the LGBTQIA+ Task Force. The group also actively participates in social justice movements like  Black Lives Matter and advocates for school funds to go into programs that support Black students. 

Because of its victories around inclusion and equity in public education, UTLA has received the Rosena J. Willis Memorial Award. Ultimately, its commitment to creating lasting change in its community, whether it is through collective bargaining or other advocacy efforts, UTLA is a perfect recipient of this award. 

Celebrating other Changemakers 

Al Alexander of Virginia is the recipient of the H. Councill Trenholm Memorial Award. As the chairman of the New Chesapeake Men for Progress Education Foundation, which provides over $197,000 in scholarships to high school graduates in the City of Chesapeake, he has empowered the next generation of leaders and shaped the future of education in Chesapeake. 

Black Leaders Acquiring Collective Knowledge La Crosse—or B.L.A.C.K. LAX—is an organization that is dedicated to supporting marginalized youth in La Crosse, Wis. Because of its commitment to addressing issues of identity, racial trauma, poverty, mental health, and more, the organization is the recipient of the Reg Weaver Human and Civil Rights Award

Cia Siab, Inc. is the recipient of the Rosa Parks Memorial Award. The non-profit organization is based out of La Crosse, Wis. and was established in 2016. Through its bilingual and bicultural advocacy services and group programming for young people and adults, the organization upholds its mission to serve Hmoob community members who have been victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. The Hmong are a tribal group originally from Mongolia who migrated to Laos where many still live today.

Eddie McAllister’s has created significant change to a community succumbed to racial tension and violent hate crimes. His four-decade career as an activist and mentor promoting civil rights, social justice, and better education in his hometown of Shasta County in Redding, Calif., makes him an exceptional recipient for NEA’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award

Fred Flores is the recipient of the Ellison S. Onizuka Memorial Award. As the Field Operations and Resource Manager for Mālama Hūel’ia in Kauai, Hawaii, he tirelessly works to revitalize the Alakoko Fishpond and sustain its cultural heritage. He has allowed numerous endangered indigenous species to repopulate and thrive because of his work in the community.   

Sreenidi Bala is the only junior to sit on the senior-led Social Justice Council at Farmington High School in Connecticut. As the President of the Multicultural Student Union, she is an advocate to racial equity. For her work in celebrating the identities of her peers, she is the recipient of the SuAnne Big Crow Memorial Award.

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National Education Association

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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.