Wow what a week!  This was possibly the best week of my life with the best send off anyone could possibly imagine.  So many people have inspired me in my life but this week I felt like I was at the feet of some of the giants in human and civil rights history.

This week I was lucky enough to participate in the National Education Association Human and Civil Rights Awards.  Through a nomination by Ardeen Harris and the Illinois Education Association, I was lucky enough to be awarded the Applegate-Dorros Peace and International Understanding Award.  This award was named after NEA President Irmavae Applegate who was a member of the Executive committee of Educational International and is given to a teacher whose activities in education contribute to international understanding and encouragement of students to work for world peace.  This was a great honor for me and will be a highlight of my life.

After the phone call I received in April stating I was going to receive this award I really had no idea how large a deal it really was.  Any award from anyone is a large deal but I just wasn’t sure what I had stumbled into.  When I arrived to downtown Chicago at the hotel the NEA had me staying in I started to fully grasp the enormity of this great honor.  I was given my room and presented with a beautiful welcome package that contained wine, chocolates, cheese and crackers, nuts, and candy.  I have never been a person to stay in fancy hotels or receive fancy gifts like this so I was amazed. 

The first event was a luncheon for awardees to meet their NEA escorts and to get to know each other.  It was also a time to practice.  My escort was Jim Young from Iowa, an amazing teacher and great person.  As I sat down to have lunch he explained to me who everyone was.  He explained each of the Human Rights Committee members and how they selected the award recipients and he explained the different people earning awards.  This is where I started to feel what it was like to be at the feet of giants.  The awardees were made up of:

·      Reverend Joseph Lowery, one of Martin Luther King’s closest advisors and the man who gave the benediction at President Obama’s Inauguration.

·      Jeffrey Steinberg, a man who founded SoJourn, an organization that takes students on trips through the civil rights movement to meet people who led and participated in it

·      Shirley Sherrod, who after being wrongly accused of being a racist by Fox news and conservative bloggers was asked to resign from her job with the US Department of Agriculture.  She did but went on to talk about her story and how we need to have open discussions about racism that still does exist.  Fox news and the White House later apologized for the misunderstanding.

·      Timothy Hogan, who is a lawyer who has been fighting for civil and human rights for Hispanic families and students and the right to equal and appropriate education for all.

·      Joseph Starita, a journalist who worked to bring to light injustices with migrant workers, and drug trafficking.  As a professor in the University of Nebraska he also worked to help Native Americans and created a documentary called
Native Daughters that brings to light the amazing woman in Native American history.

·      Willie Worsley, a NCAA basketball player who played on the first ever all black starting line up for the NCAA in 1966.  He went on to play for the NJ Nets and now works to help keep kids in school as a coach and hall monitor in New Jersey.  Many of his students refer to him as “Dad” and he has been instrumental in increasing the graduation rate for his players.

·      Kerry Kennedy, president of The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights she continues to fight her father’s war on inequality and injustice.  Her influential book,
Speak the Truth to Power, was used to create a curriculum used within the New York Schools to fight bullying and develop character.  

·      Senator Henry Marsh, a senator of Virginia who grew up during segregation and now is an active fighter for equal education.  Prior to becoming a senator he was a lawyer who helped litigate major education cases that fought for equal opportunities for students of all races, backgrounds, and ethnicities.

·      Lillian Curlett, a woman who left her fortune 500 company to help the underprivileged children of St. Louis.  She helped found the Jamieson Memorial Human Resource and Development Agency, an organization that teaches local children about their culture and history but also helps them develop skills they are struggling with in schools. 

·      Senator Majority Whip Mary Jane Garcia, a woman who has fought to help border town residents in her home state of New Mexico to rise out of poverty.  Dona Ana Country, which she serves, is the poorest county in the U.S.  Senator Garcia has fought to make major changes to that statistic and has helped the area in many ways.

·      Diet Eman, a holocaust survivor who helped organize the Dutch Underground Railroad, which helped save the lives of many Jews.  Since then she can continued to fight for human rights as a registered nurse who became fluent in Spanish she has helped people all over the world working with the Red Cross and volunteering her time to translate in clinics in her hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

·      The Solutions Class from Rapid City South Dakota, a group made up of students who were instructed to find a problem within their school and develop a way to fix it.  This amazing group of girls conducted surveys and interviews and determined too many Native Americans were dropping out of school.  Their solution included public service announcements about staying in school targeted at Native American students on billboards, television, and radio.  They also created a hotline for students to call if they feel like dropping out or did and want to come back to school.  They  presented their solutions to state representatives and their announcements were adopted by the entire state of South Dakota.

·      Ferial Pearson, a teacher who fought end bullying and harassment of others and was named GLSENS Educator of the Year for her work in forming a Gay Straight Alliance in Omaha, Nebraska.  She has worked hard to teach students and others to accept and appreciate diversity.

As you can see, GIANTS of Human and Civil Rights!

So it is suffice to say that this luncheon/rehearsal made me feel so nervous about getting up on stage and so in awe about who I was surrounded by.  I could not believe it and although I know that the stuff I have done as a teacher has made a huge impact on others, I felt as if this amazing group of people where GIANTS in comparison.

When it was finally time for the event I was still so nervous and amazed at the huge room the awards were being held.  Set up like a beautiful awards show we were all escorted in and able to listen to introductions.  The Key Note speaker was Dr. Reverend Joseph Lawery, who talked about what it was like to fight for rights during the Civil Rights Movement and how people need to continue fighting for rights today.  He discussed the need to fight against those that want to take away collective bargaining rights and the need to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves.  It was one of the most inspiring speeches I had ever heard live and up close.  Luckily Jillian was able to come with me to also share the moment.

After Rev. Lawery’s speech we had dinner and then the awards started.  Each award started with a short video about what the awardees had done and then a one-minute speech by the individual.  The videos moved people to tears and the speeches lead to invigorating applause. 

The energy in the room was incredible and everyone was in great spirits.  I left that room feeling uplifted with a newfound pride and sense of service to keep doing what we have started with EdPowerment and work to help build it to new heights. 

On the way out I was asked by the Illinois Education Association President to come answer questions and talk to the Illinois delegation the next morning at 7am.  So after celebrating a bit with the awardees and friends, Jillian and I woke up at 6am and walked across downtown Chicago to another hotel where the IEA was located.  We thought that this was going to be a meet and greet session with some IEA members but when we got to hotel we saw 700 IEA members.  It is suffice to say I was not prepared for this and did not have a speech prepared.  Ken Swanson, the IEA president announced my presence and I delivered a similar thank you speech and encouraged IEA members to get involved in cross cultural programs with Edpowerment.  I was surprised that I could put together clear thoughts so early in the morning with no preparation but it went well.  As I was walking out I was then asked to do an interview with the IEA press director where I talked on video about EdPowerment and it’s desire to bridge cultural gaps and help develop a thicker understanding of global education and tolerance (Check out the Interview here).  For 8 am I was quiet amazed at how much we had been able to spread the message of Edpowerment and were happy to finally have a cup of coffee and some breakfast.

All in all an amazing two days!

So as I set off Tuesday on my big adventure I know I have a lot I still plan to accomplish and I hope that this year will be a great year for EdPowerment.  Please let me know if you are interested in any cultural exchange projects over the next year.  I thank all of you for your support and confidence in me and the next blog you will read will be from across the ocean in New Zealand. (:

Kwaheri Merikani (Goodbye America)

Here is a rough video of the event- The Professional Video will be posted when it is complete next month.

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