Honoring the dream of MLK: Tempe presents its 2023 Diversity awards

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By Janie Magruder

From caring for refugees and teaching children about African American culture to building self-esteem among young girls and supporting the LGBTQA community, people and organizations working for a more diverse, inclusive society were honored this month by the city of Tempe.

Co-hosted by the city’s Human Relations Commission, the MLK Diversity Awards annually recognize those who mirror the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and work to make his dream a reality.

The federal holiday honoring the slain civil-rights leader’s birthday and commitment to the disadvantaged and impoverished is Monday, Jan. 16.

The city’s Individual Adult Awards were given to Carol Stewart, a retired science teacher and Youth Committee Chair of Tempe’s African American Advisory Committee, and Holly Herman, leader of volunteer efforts at University Presbyterian Church in Tempe to help refugees.

Formed 15 years ago, the African American Advisory committee advises the Tempe History Museum on collecting, preserving and presenting African American history and promoting these stories to the community. Last February, Stewart developed a curriculum and hosted the first annual Black History Children’s Activities Day.

She prepared a booklet, “At the Crossroads of Freedom Street and Equality Lane,” comprising inspirational quotes, facts on Africa, inventions of Black people, details on Black History Month and unique crafts and activities.

Stewart set up nine tables, which were geared for children in grades 3 through 8, at the museum with volunteer assistance of Phoenix nonprofit, Fulfillment in Training.

Activities included reading about animals in Africa, making paper masks, bracelets, shields and other crafts, becoming familiar with Black inventors and leaders, and learning about the quilt codes that some historians say African American slaves may have used to navigate the Underground Railroad.

Stewart, who moved to Arizona from New Jersey in 2019 to be nearer to her son, knew her education background was well suited to opportunities at the museum and elsewhere.

“African history is not taught or encouraged,” she said. “I don’t think it’s because no one wants to, it’s just because no one has done it.”

Stewart, 75, said she was humbled by the MLK Diversity Award.

“It’s one of the most beautiful feelings — to do something at this stage of the game, and an organization says, ‘You did a good job for the children’,’’ she said. “Dr. King believed in instilling a strength in each of us to be who we are and to be the best we can. It’s ‘If not you, who? If not here, where? If not now, when?’ You just have to do the right thing.”

Upon her retirement six years ago from three decades in corporate banking and in administration at the Southwest Conference of the United Church of Christ, Herman traveled a bit, cleared her to-do list and thought about her next chapter in life. Her pastor husband, John, had retired two years before, and the couple was becoming involved in University Presbyterian Church.

“I had to find something to do to be useful,” she said. “Everyone needs something that feeds them.”

That something appeared on New Year’s Eve in 2018 when asylum seekers were being left outside the Phoenix bus station in the rain and cold. Pastors at City Square Methodist Church in downtown Phoenix reached out to Herman’s church for help.

“Once you see these people, you just can’t not do something,” she said of the migrants.

“When we first started hosting families at the church, when we really started to talk with people, using translators, and learned how cruel our immigration system can be — well, it brings you to tears.”

And, in Herman’s case, to action. She began recruiting and coordinating volunteers from her church and other faith communities and organizations to help with food and clothing, supplies, language translation and transportation. When Covid-19 closed onsite housing,

Herman arranged for delivery of food and grocery gift cards to a small Hispanic church in west Mesa whose members had lost their jobs and could not collect benefits.

She was not afraid to ask for help.

“People want to do something, they just may not know what or how. If you ask people one-on-one — ‘Would you like to have a conversation with an Iranian guest who needs to develop his or her fluency once a week?’

“Most will say, ‘Yeah, I can do that,’” said Herman, 74.

She asked people to clean out their closets, donate toiletries, buy extra toilet paper and give money.

Last year, University Presbyterian converted three rooms to apartments and began hosting three Iranian families. Herman coordinates all of their needs, including legal assistance and medical care.

“It totally takes a village to do this,” she said.

Herman said she was honored to receive the MLK Award, and that she is sharing it with many others. “It’s incumbent on us to continue Dr. King’s work,” she said. “You just have to open your ears to what’s out there, because when it hits your ears, you can’t forget it. And then all you have to do is find the group that will help you live that out.”

If you are interested in helping Herman in University Presbyterian’s work, email hhbillsmom@gmail.com. To learn more about Stewart’s dream of bringing her project to churches, Scout groups and others, email stewartcarol120@yahoo.com.

The city also recognized two teenagers, Mariangela Bernal Martinez, a peer leader with Peer Solutions, a youth organization at Tempe High, and Rohn Ragland, student union president at Desert Vista High School, with its Individual Youth awards.

Martinez and other leaders at her school help end violence through education, advocacy and engagement in their school and community. Ragland has demonstrated a commitment to improving diversity by volunteering for numerous social justice causes, speaking out on issues impacting minorities and leading voter drives.

Tempe’s other MLK Diversity Awards honorees are:

Tempe Alumnae Chapter Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, which received the Community Group/Organization Award for providing information and services to the city’s youth, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) for 50 years. The group has programming to build self-esteem, support academic success and prepare young women ages 11 to 18 for community leadership. Additionally, they partner with the National Council of Negro Women and its network to share accurate information about vaccines.

Kyrene de las Manitas Innovation Academy’s No Place for Hate Club, which received the Education award for giving students the responsibility of creating a movement for good change.

By polling students, club leaders learned that nearly half did not think the books used in their classrooms represented them. A book drive was held to collect books that fulfilled students requests, and the club also secured a grant to fund a diversity library for each classroom.

Further, the club started diversity libraries at three other Kyrene schools with No Place for Hate Clubs. Brick Road Coffee in Tempe, which received the Business Award for hosting weekly LGBTQA-friendly events such as book clubs, movie and game nights, open mic nights and free HIV testing. In June, the shop hosted a reproductive rights gathering for participants to share their stories and support each other in a safe space.

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