BURLINGAME – Eight inspiring and dedicated educators from across the state are this year’s winners of the annual California Teachers Association’s Human Rights Awards for their outstanding dedication to social justice, and for promoting and protecting human and civil rights.
“These awards honor the social justice and other community work that these educators do that really reverberates far beyond their classrooms,” said Eric Heins, president of the 325,000-member CTA. “Their activism is an inspiration to all educators.”
Presented on March 3 at the CTA Equity and Human Rights Conference in Torrance, the CTA Human Rights Awards this year went to these exemplary educators:
SANTA ROSA: For her work helping victims of the Sonoma County wildfires last fall, Piner-Olivet Educators Association Vice President Julie Zeman-Brady is the winner of the CTA Member Human Rights Award. She helped families in need in the aftermath of the wildfires, gathering donations, and even worked with a nonprofit group to give each primary grade student at the most devastated local school a stuffed animal. She’s also a mentor to high school students interested in becoming teachers, and many are now working toward receiving their teaching credentials.
LOS ANGELES: Cecily Myart-Cruz, the UTLA/NEA Vice President with the United Teachers Los Angeles union that represents educators in Los Angeles Unified School District, is the winner of the Human Rights Award in Honor of Lois Tinson, a former CTA president. She has spearheaded racial justice work within UTLA at the local, state and national levels for many years. She has fought against the privatization of public schools in brown and black communities, against random searches that disproportionately hurt black youth, and called out legislators to support fully funded community schools. Myart-Cruz is clearly a social justice warrior.
UPLAND: Mary Levi is the winner of the American Indian/Alaska Native Human Rights Award in Honor of Jim Clark. An educator in the Upland Unified School District in San Bernardino County, her passion is educating people on Native American culture, language and society’s effects on Native students. She chairs CTA’s American Indian/Alaska Native Caucus at the union’s State Council, inspiring other states to develop their own caucus using CTA’s as a model. Her connections with other Native communities, such as the Chumash Tribe, were made in order to mobilize support for legislative efforts to secure native language credentials to tribal members who could teach their language. On the national level, Levi also chairs the National Education Association American Indian/Alaska Native Caucus.
LAWNDALE: Estella Owoimaha-Church, a teacher in the Centinella Valley Union High School District, is the winner of the Peace and Justice Human Rights Award. She is honored for designing and implementing human rights curriculum and social justice-centered projects in her high school classroom and for bringing community groups onto her campus to implement it all, and for providing opportunities for her students to practice peace, justice and empathy in their lives. A member of the Centinella Valley Secondary Teachers Association, her work led to students on campus building organizations that promote inclusion and tolerance. In addition, she has helped lead students on many collaborative projects with other students in more than 70 countries, and is a local ambassador and representative to several causes working towards peace, justice and international understanding.
THOUSAND OAKS: Lucia Lemieux, an educator in the Conejo Valley Unified School District, is the winner of the Leadership in Lesbian and Gay Human Rights Award in Honor of Nancy Bailey. Starting in 2011 by making her Newbury Park High School a safe place for all students and faculty, she went on to establish Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) chapters at all high schools in her district and helped change its culture. A longtime activist in the local LGBTQ community, she had her GSA program partner with the Conejo Park District to create and stage the annual “Under the Rainbow” dance that drew students from surrounding school districts. Her CTA grants from the Guy De Rosa Scholarships funded bus trips for students and a literary and art magazine featuring LGBTQ students and their allies. She created a workshop for her high school about the differences between the LGBTQ labels and serves as GLBT Issues Chair for her union, the Unified Association of Conejo Teachers.
SACRAMENTO: For her tireless work helping the undocumented students in her Sacramento City Unified School District, teacher Elizabeth Villanueva is the winner of the Cesar Chavez “Sí Se Puede” Human Rights Award. She created a support program targeting high school Dreamer students in the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program and helps educate families about their rights. She has inspired students to work with elementary and middle school Dreamers and plans to grow her support program by creating a Dreamers Resource Center, training more teachers, and ultimately expanding the program district-wide. A member of the Sacramento City Teachers Association, Villanueva has also held “Know Your Rights” workshops with guest speakers talking about community support, immigration law and college planning.
SAN DIMAS: For her devotion to all students with special needs, Special Education teacher Ann Betz is the winner of the Physically/Mentally Challenged Students’ Issues Human Rights Award. As she inspires and motivates her students to achieve their full potential, she ensures they have the same access and opportunities as their general education peers. Her students become more confident and build their self-esteem with accomplishments such as part-time jobs, training for certifications and getting involved in school activities, athletics and clubs. Betz is working with her department to create a much-needed “sensory room” to help students transition to high school by reducing anxiety levels.
SACRAMENTO: The Sacramento City Teachers Association (SCTA) is the winner of the CTA Chapter Human Rights Award for its ongoing work to ensure that undocumented students in the Sacramento City Unified School District have the resources and information they need to protect themselves from removal and deportation. The union worked with the district to create a safe haven district. The chapter created policy for how to interact with agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and developed teacher resources and a tool kit, along with a website that educates students, families, school staff and the community. Accepting the award were SCTA President David Fisher and Human Rights Chair Melanie Bean.