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Social Justice Warriors

They shatter glass ceilings. They stand up for those who have been knocked down. They make sure DROWNED-OUT voices are heard. They confront the most pressing issues facing our communities. They offer a beacon of light to those left behind.
Published: February 16, 2018 Last Updated: June 18, 2020

Since 1967, NEA has honored those who have fought—and continue to fight—for human and civil rights. Last year, the Association recognized the outstanding work of 12 social justice heroes during a black-tie event that is inextricably linked to NEA’s 1966 merger with the American Teachers Association (ATA). The organization represented African American teachers working in segregated schools, and for many years held a human and civil rights awards dinner. After the merger, NEA proudly carried on the tradition. To read the full bios of the awardees, and to view videos from the event, check out the NEA Today app!


Michael Joseph Franklin


A Spanish language teacher at Franklin County High School (FCHS) in Winchester, Tenn., Michael Joseph Franklin has been an active supporter of the FCHS Gay Straight Alliance and a faculty sponsor of the women’s studies club at his school. He also serves as an ally to a women’s empowerment group at the University of the South. His advocacy for women has led him to spend more than half of his life volunteering in Honduras, working to empower thousands of women and girls. Franklin is the domestic coordinator for the Alabama Honduras Medical Education Network, which partners with Water With Blessings to help women adapt to a clean water culture and learn to use and maintain their own household water filter. In the six years Franklin has promoted water filtration, he estimates that the group has helped approximately 4,000 individuals access clean water.

Delbert Richardson


The founder and curator of The Unspoken Truths, Delbert Richardson helps bring to life the tragedies of slavery and racial discrimination. The traveling African American museum includes storytelling and chilling artifacts, such as slave shackles, branding irons, and photographs of lynchings. A 40-foot display of everyday items created by Black inventors, helps to educate viewers about the many contributions Black Americans have made in S.T.E.M. fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).

Migrant Justice


This Vermont-based, worker-led organization fights for the rights and dignity of dairy workers. The group’s achievements include the Milk with Dignity Campaign, which was founded in the wake of the inhumane working conditions that were endured by farm workers, including Victor Diaz who worked on a farm in the Ben & Jerry’s supply chain. Diaz had long been denied his full wages, and along with their allies, Farm workers and allies protested, and won back $1,800 in stolen wages for Diaz. All told, the campaign organized 17 different actions at Ben & Jerry’s scoop shops across the nation, putting the heat on the ice cream giant. In October, Vermont farm workers won a victory with a historic agreement with Ben & Jerry’s. The big ice-cream maker will require its milk suppliers to provide dairy farm workers with humane working conditions and housing conditions, as well as a living wage.

Kent Wong


An attorney, accomplished teacher, and labor activist, Kent Wong has dedicated his life to the labor movement and has created opportunities for Asian American Pacific Islanders. For 25 years, Wong directed the UCLA Labor Center—a resource for workers’ rights and economic justice. The organization provides 300 internships each year, and actively recruits and places young activists, especially young activists of color, in the labor movement. Under Wong’s leadership, the Center launched “Dream Summer,” the first national fellowship and scholarship program for young, undocumented immigrants. Wong has also been at the forefront of the immigrant rights movement, and is the author of three books on the topic.

Latino Police Officers Association


At a time in U.S. history when tension between communities of color and law enforcement have returned to an all-time high, Omaha, Neb., is traveling a different road—thanks, in part, to the efforts of the Latino Peace Officers Association (LPOA). Founded 15 years ago in South Omaha, the LPOA’s positive influence has spread throughout the city, via school visits, athletic programs, and events. LPOA created free baseball and soccer leagues for students from low-income families, and officers volunteer as coaches and mentors. The association’s racially diverse leagues include an impressive 13,600 soccer players and 1,050 baseball players. The group also hosts annual holiday parties in December, and an Easter egg hunt in the spring. Thousands of children attend both events. Best of all, since the creation of LPOA, South Omaha’s gang recruitment has diminished more than 70 percent, and violent, gang-related crimes have decreased by 85 percent.

Veronica C. García


For four decades, Veronica C. García has built an impressive career as an advocate for public education and children—especially children from low-income families. She was a teacher for the Albuquerque Public Schools—where she coordinated 55 special education programs and related services—an assistant director of special education, a school principal, and an assistant superintendent for the district. Today, García is the superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools—a role she also held from 1999 to 2002—where she’s taken deliberate steps to address the anxiety shared by many following the election of Donald Trump. She established a student support hotline so students and parents could report bullying and harassment. García also created the Superintendent’s Equity Advisory Council, which focuses on the concerns of immigrants, LGBT students, Native Americans, special education students, and other groups that feel under attack.

Marty Meeden


Thirty-three year educator Marty Meeden works to make sure Native Americans are appropriately represented in history. He understands stories are powerful, and what people learn about who they are and where they come from connects directly to how they see themselves. Meeden has been a leader in the fight to eliminate Native mascots, correct inaccurate curricula, and debunk other misrepresentations of Native Americans and Alaska Natives within academia. He is chair of the NEA American Indian/Alaska Native Caucus, where he advocated for equal educational opportunity for American Indian/Alaska Native children and serves on the California Teachers Association (CTA) board. He has also been co-chair of the CTA State Council of Education Ethnic Minority Affairs Committee, chair of the Council’s American Indian/Alaska Native Caucus, and chair of the CTA Early Ethnic Identification Minority Development Program.

Lenworth Alburn Gunther


As a Columbia University student in 1967, Lenworth Gunther helped to lead a demonstration that called attention to the poor wages and working conditions of the school’s cafeteria workers. As an educator, historian, author, and human and civil rights leader, Gunther advocated for a curriculum that mirrored the contributions of communities of color and the working poor. He also helped to prepare Columbia’s first African American studies curriculum. Gunther was an NJEA/NEA member for 38 years before he retired from the classroom. Today, he mentors educators and young activists, and is known as the “Godfather” to a generation of civil rights activists.

Tammy Baldwin


In 1998, Tammy Baldwin shattered a political glass ceiling by becoming the first woman from Wisconsin elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and the first-ever openly gay woman to win public office. Fourteen years later, she became the state’s first woman elected to U. S. Senate. A longtime champion of the success of women and girls, Baldwin has moved legislation such as the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the Violence Against Women Act, and the Healthy Media for Youth Act. She also sponsored reauthorization of the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Act. Baldwin’s signature piece of legislation, the In The Red Act of 2016, is a bold vision to address college affordability and put generations of Americans on the path toward debt-free college.

Wendy Marcec


When she was a music teacher and special education preschool aide, a student said to Wendy Marcec, “Oh, no, Ma’am, we don’t have Christmas toys.” Ever since, the now-retired educator has worked to alleviate the effects of poverty on students in Appalachian Kentucky. Marcec’s first initiative, the S.A.N.T.A. (Send A New Toy to Appalachia) Project, has provided thousands of toys to children in Appalachia since 2008. With her husband Jerry, Marcec created the 501©(3) organization, A Lasting World, Inc., which provides low-income children in Estill, County, Ken., with financial assistance, motivational support, and inspiration to protect the environment.

Illinois Education Association


Before they have reached the age of four, one in four students will witness or experience a traumatic event. By the age of 16, the number jumps to one in three. With these statistics serving as their ammunition, the Illinois Education Association (IEA) has put brain trauma on the front burner of public education. In partnership with the Illinois Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Association launched a program to inform school leaders, parents, communities, and educators about the way trauma affects students. IEA has also reached thousands of educators through trauma-informed trainings that provide guidance about ways to use empathy, flexibility and brain-based strategies to help create calm classroom environments. Three pilot programs developed by the Association helped educators in districts south of Chicago receive the professional development that helped them become prepared to teach all children. Today, IEA’s train-the-trainer program is extending trauma education across the state, and helping all members to become trauma-informed.

Jim Obergefell


Four years ago Jim Obergefell was a real estate broker from Ohio living with John Arthur, his partner of 20 years. When Arthur was diagnosed with the always-fatal disease ALS, the couple decided to marry. Shortly thereafter they realized that when Arthur died, Ohio state law would not allow Obergefell to be listed as Arthur’s spouse. Devastated, they sued the state for legal recognition as spouses. Obergefell continued the fight after Arthur died, and after a two-year court battle, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 26, 2015, that same-sex marriage is legal and protected under the U.S. Constitution. The legacy of Obergefell v. Hodges continues to grow with same-sex marriages up by 33 percent since the court’s ruling. Obergefell’s work has also impacted LGBTQ students—affirming their right to love themselves and others freely.

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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.