Wisconsin has three winners of NEA Human and Civil Rights Awards

NEA has announced three Wisconsin winners of this year’s prestigious NEA Human and Civil Rights Awards. The Wisconsin winners are:

  • Bayfield educators and WEAC members Rick and Lorie Erickson.
  • Former State Senator Tim Cullen of Janesville.
  • GSAFE, a Madison-based advocacy organization devoted to creating safe educational environments for LGBTQ individuals.

They will be among 13 winners nationally honored at the annual NEA Human and Civil Rights Awards program July 3 in Houston, held during the NEA Representative Assembly.

Following are descriptions of the Wisconsin winners:

Rick and Lorie Erickson

Leo Reano Memorial Award

Veteran Bayfield, Wisconsin, educators Rick & Lorie Erickson have enriched the lives of children in the Native community they’ve become an integral part of.

In the district they serve, seventy-five percent of the student population is of the Anishinaabe Nation, indigenous to the Great Lakes region. As such, Rick and Lorie have developed a profound knowledge, respect and appreciation of the culture’s past and present, working diligently toward the goal of fostering an environment where Native youth can celebrate their identity for generations to come.

Working in concert with the Bayfield school system and the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Rick and Lorie have advocated for Native traditions and heritage to be incorporated into the curriculum. Rick and Lorie not only understand how vital it is for these children to express themselves, but that it’s equally important for those outside the culture to learn about those around them, and to advance understanding and appreciation.

Nourishing their bodies goes hand in hand with healing the soul; recognizing that much of the economic disparity stems from decades of historical trauma, they view their educational philosophy through the lens of cultural sensitivity. Their holistic approach has empowered and instilled a sense of pride in thousands of young people.

Rick and Lorie’s efforts to embed themselves in the community are always on display: both have taken courses in the Anishinaabemowin language. Lorie’s Early Childhood Special Education classrooms are consistently decorated with artwork that beautifully represents Anishinaabe life, and she creates activities for the children that include maple syruping, beading, and the rich tradition of storytelling, key to passing on lore, legacy, and history.

The Ericksons’ efforts have been recognized locally: Rick was awarded the 2003 Excellence in Science Education Award by the Wisconsin Society of Science Teachers, and was named the 2014 Wisconsin High School Teacher of the Year. Lorie’s forward-thinking concept of interfacing with tribal elders to guarantee culturally appropriate and effective programs for Native youth, garnered her recognition from the Wisconsin Indian Education Association.

Together, Rick and Lorie Erickson continue to make a better life for young people of all backgrounds in their community, so that no one ever forgets, to paraphrase the classic lyric, that “this land was made for you and me”.

Tim Cullen

NEA President’s Award

Senator Tim Cullen has been a champion of education for over 40 years. His body of work creating policy at the state and local level has continued to ensure that both students and teachers win at every level within the Wisconsin Public School System.

Initially, Senator Cullen wanted to be a high school social studies teacher, but once he started working for former Congressman Les Aspen, he found himself drawn to politics. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater, Senator Cullen was elected to the Wisconsin Senate in 1974, representing the 15th district. Combining his love for education and politics, as a state senator, Cullen served on the education committee and was Majority Leader 1981, 1983 and1985. A strong advocate for public schools, Senator Cullen was awarded The Friend of Education Award in 1983 from the Wisconsin Education Association Council, for the passage of a collective bargaining law.

Cullen would hold the Senate seat until 1987. Republican Governor Tommy Thompson appointed Cullen to head the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services where he served for one year before leaving public service for the private sector, and becoming the vice-president for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Wisconsin.

While working in the private sector Cullen continued his support and advocacy for public schools by serving on the Janesville School board, the same district where the Senator graduated high school.

In 2007, Senator Cullen, concerned with the lack of educators of color in the Janesville School District, met with then-Superintendent Karen Schulte to learn more about the ratio of students of color to teachers of color. The report showed students of color made up 14% of Janesville’s student population; however, only 1% of the 800+ teachers in the district identified as people of color. Senator Cullen quickly took action in developing the “Janesville Minority Teacher Scholarship” (JMTS). The proposal would provide a multi-year renewable college scholarship to a student of color for up to $5,000 per year for tuition, books, and fees to students of the Janesville Schools. In return, the student must pursue a degree in education, obtain a Wisconsin State Teacher Certification, and then apply for a position with the School District of Janesville when they have completed their degree.

Since its inception in 2008, The Janesville Minority Teacher Scholarship has had six graduates who are working in the Janesville Schools with a total of 17 years of experience among them. Four more students are currently taking advantage of the scholarship, with one recipient expected to graduate in the Spring of 2019.

Senator Cullen’s commitment to diversity in the classroom, his dedication to quality public education and his lifetime of public service have been instrumental in shaping the Wisconsin Public School system.


Virginia Uribe Award for Creative Leadership in Human Rights

From its start in 1991 as a volunteer-based grassroots organization operating out of private homes, under the name Gays and Lesbians Against Discrimination in Education (GLADE), GSAFE has successfully added “gender identity/expression” language to non-discrimination policies in the state of Wisconsin. The organization switched its focus from programs in South Central Wisconsin to serving the entire state, connecting with over 200 Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) networks across the states. GSAFE has aimed to work with Wisconsin students, educators, community members, and elected officials to create safe educational environments where LGBTQ individuals can learn and gain the confidence to become successful.

GSAFE ensures that students at hundreds of schools have access to reliable programs and spaces that increase feelings of belonging and safety. This organization has developed and provided programs that have helped other students learn to respect diversity and refrain from abusive behaviors such as bullying and stereotyping. This student club network works with numerous school districts and various professional education organizations every year in order to provide educators of all grade levels the tools to navigate the sensitivities of identity and sexual orientation in the day to day classroom setting and within their school communities.

More recently, GSAFE launched Foundations of Leadership (FOL), an innovative class for advanced learners in the area of leadership. FOL enhances the education of LGBTQ students, particularly students of color, whose experiences are at the center of the class. The course strives to reorient the community’s understanding of who is considered talented and gifted and lifts up the leadership of LGBTQ youth of color who are underrepresented and often absent from advanced learners courses. The project has expanded in unique ways to include providing one-on-one instruction for youth experiencing suspension and/or incarceration and has piloted classes inside the restrictive confines of the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center. FOL is an essential project particularly in the state of Wisconsin and the city of Madison, which has one of the country’s highest rates of school push out and incarceration of youth of color, particularly African-American youth.

GSAFE advocates for including milestones in LGBTQ history as part of public school curriculum, from the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany, to the Stonewall Uprising of 1969. Because of their advocacy and dedication, over half of Wisconsin school districts have gender-inclusive policies. In 2010,GSAFE heralded the first Lieutenant Governor’s Conference on LGBTQ Youth in Wisconsin and is planning their inaugural LGBTQA Students of Color Summit in Madison. GSAFE has continued to help districts pass and implement inclusive policy, and has continued to collaborate with statewide partners. GSAFE has become a “go-to” organization for the education and political community alike for creating safe and supportive environments for LGBTQ youth.

For more information, visit: http://www.nea.org/grants/HCRAwards.html.