Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY – Thirteen Oklahomans were honored at the state Capitol on Saturday, December 9, for their work on behalf of human rights and dignity.
The event, hosted by the Oklahoma Universal Human Rights Alliance (OUHRA), was held in the state House of Representatives chamber. The program took place on the 70th anniversary of passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one of the early actions taken at the United Nations, established after the Second World War.
Bill Bryant of the United Nations Association of Oklahoma City launched the awards ceremony by reading the first clause of the declaration’s preamble: “Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”
Bryant reflected, “As the world has become smaller and more interconnected, the Declaration is, in a sense, our rule book. It is the guide to how we should treat each other.”
Accepting on behalf of the late Michael Barlow, was his son, Lou. He recalled that his father grew up in New York City and was taught to honor human rights. He lived out that recognition through his work as a union president and, in his appointment by former Governor Brad Henry to a civil rights position. Michael’s widow, Anita, was also present.
Another honoree was Mari Fagan. final chairman of the state Human Rights Commission before its abolition early in the Fallin administration. Fagin said she fought to save the commission but did not succeed. She learned in her family “to never do to anyone what we did not want done to ourselves.” Anticipating the other honorees, she said it was an honor to be recognized along with them.
The diminutive Rena Guay stood on a stool in order to be seen above the podium. Guay was formed in the anti-war movement, after having left an early childhood in the south. Growing up in an Alaskan village, she was shaped by multiculturalism “before it was called that.” Although members of her family could not understand her views, she cleaned houses and similar manual work so she could focus on her activism. Guay mentioned her devotion to “the resistance” to “things that are coming down” in Washington, D.C., and invited attendees to join her at a rally opposing proposed federal tax reductions.
Mary E. Sine accepted for her partner, the late Lydia Polley. Although best known for her opposition to the death penalty, Lydia became a committed peace activist before reaching adulthood, as her way of honoring her brother Frank, a “gunner” in the Army Air Force in World War II. Lydia and her mother, moved with Lydia to be near the base which was his U.S. station in the U.S. As her mom worked long hours in a cafeteria and sought information on her MIA (missing-in-action) son, Lydia often slept under the counter while her mother labored. After they learned Frank had died, Mary related, Lydia decided, “I hate war. I’m going to fight for peace for the rest of my life.” After the war, Governor Robert S. Kerr gave her mother a commendation honoring Frank, which Mary read at the awards ceremony. Several members of Lydia’s family attended the recognition.
Veronica Laizure from the Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-OK), was the next award winner. She praised Adam Soltani as “the best boss ever,” thanked colleagues at the organization, friends who attended and “community allies” who assist CAIR. Laizure read from the Holy Koran a quote that lifting up those who save one life, and thereby heal the world.
Mariana Llanos, a successful author of children’s literature, was the next honoree. She recalled an incident, early in her time in America, when an angry man told her loudly she should “ ‘move back to Mexico.’ I could not do that, because I was not born in Mexico, but in Lima, Peru.” From a family of professionals, Llanos developed her talents early on, and was granted access to culture and to the arts. She believes “this should not be a privilege but a right.” Llanos said, “reading is vital. It gives us mirrors into other worlds.” Books, she said, help us understand other people, “to wear their shoes, feel their pain.” Next year she will bring her ninth book, “Luca’s Bridge,” dedicated to that man who yelled at her.
Described as “an activist of the spoken word,” Candace Liger next came to the well of the state House. She related she has often reflected on this year when she won several awards, at first feeling unworthy. She thought “on who has access to rights, how do we define rights,” and believes that “regardless of dissent and obstacles, we have the right to be amazing, the right to be our best selves, the right to cry, to embrace each other as if we’re never, ever going to see each other again.” She asked everyone to “envision a world that does not yet exist, with the right to dream.”
Narcisso Arguelles was humbled to receive an award, saying it made him “grateful to my God and my faith.” He grew up with “a sense of fighting for the underdog.” A high school arts teacher, he recalled opening a photography exhibit at the Capitol ten years ago. Not long after it opened, House Bill 1804 (at the time, the harshest immigration-restriction passed in any state) was on its way to passage. Arguelles was told the curator was under pressure to take down a photo of a certain California traffic sign – one of a group of people running across a highway. The photo was removed, and he had not returned to the Capitol since. He reflected “it feels good to be back here to receive this award.” He is working to establish the state’s first sustainable Latino Cultural Center, aiming for a February 2018 opening. “People like you make this possible,” he concluded.
A youthful “dreamer” named Victor Acosta was the next honoree. A graduate of Santa Fe South Charter High School in Oklahoma City, he worked hard to secure financial assistance for a college education. He wants “to help other young people with the obstacles they face, show them they can do it. People who trusted me and believed in me showed me I could do it.” He is a graphic designer, and has won awards for his work.
Fannie Bates, award sponsors said, has taken “the idea of distance learning to a new level.” Born in “the Choctaw Nation” of southeast Oklahoma, she was inspired by her favorite teacher, Irene, to become an educator herself. At the University of Oklahoma, she learned how to teach at-risk kids. After teaching in places like Crutcho and in Alaska, she decided a few years ago “to dedicate the last one-quarter of my life to helping at-risk women.” Having determined that Afghanistan was the worst place in the world to be female, she now teaches, over secure Internet, from 2:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. “our time,” every day. Her students are battered women, residents of shelters that are hated by both the Taliban and ISIS. Over time, she has begun to teach men, as well, because they are targeted for supporting women. She related the story of success with a woman who has endured three sets of death threats, and her daughter who, after great challenges, Fannie helped to potty-train. She sends via the Web pictures of “a doll, a teddy bear, happy words and happy pictures.” Bates told the crowd, “Thank you, each and every one of you, for what you do. What you do matters and don’t ever let anyone tell you it doesn’t.”
The final in-person award went to Anne Murray, best known for her work with The Peace House. She sketched her relationship with the Sisters of Benedict, after previous involvement in the peace movement, leading her to visit Guatemala. She became an advocate of indigenous weavers, women seeking to support their families. That early work led to “Market Day” – held five times a year here in Oklahoma – at which Americans could purchase the work of the Guatemalans. Over time, that developed, through many stages, into Pambe Ghana, assisting workers in the developing world, including in Africa. Eventually she networked with Rigobertu Menchu Tum, a human rights activist ultimately awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Murray was part of protective details for Menchu at a time of widespread violence in Guatemala, even as she continued practical good works with the women seeking economic opportunity. Menchu was often in physical danger, but survived. Murray is proud to have worked with Polley and state faith leaders such as Rev. Bill Tabbernee in opposition to capital punishment. “We could not have done any of these things without the support of people that we loved,” she told the crowd.
Closing the gathering was Aheiser Black , a volunteer and member of OUHRA and an Afro-Cuban who particularly applauded the story Victor Acosta. He invited all attendees to a complementary luncheon at Centro de Celebration sponsored by UNA-OKC.
Priya Desai, director of advocacy for the local UN Association, formally presented the awards to each honoree.
Brief introductory remarks were given by Wilfredo Santos Rivera, chairman of the Oklahoma Universal Human Rights Alliance and organizer of the gathering. U.S. Marine Corps veteran John Pettijohn, an advocate for veterans’ rights, led the Pledge of Allegiance to the U.S. Flag.
Not present or represented at the awards ceremony were Peter Schaffer, an attorney who established the “Grateful Bean” in downtown Oklahoma City, and David Hill, an American Indian Movement (AIM) activist.