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Recognizing Dedication to the Fight

March 19, 2009 – On Friday, March 27, the University of Utah College of Social Work will present the 8th annual Pete Suazo Social Justice Awards, beginning at 3:00 pm in the Goodwill Humanitarian Building, 395 South 1500 East. The awards were developed to honor the life of the late Senator Suazo by recognizing the work of those who dedicate themselves to the goal of social and economic justice. This year, the prestigious awards will be presented to five individuals and two agencies: Denise Castañeda, Forrest Crawford, Linda Hilton, Sandra Asbury, Sheila Walsh-McDonald, the Central Region Refugee Support Team of the Department of Workforce Services, and the Human Rights Education Center of Utah.

“There have always been people who need help,” said Farriña Coulam, a social work professor at the U and founder of the awards. “Fortunately, there have also always been those willing to step up and provide assistance, and those who engage in the ongoing fight to gain equal services for vulnerable populations.” In today’s volatile economic climate, the need is even greater, said Coulam. “These award recipients fill a great need within our communities, and yet they are rarely acknowledged for their contributions or their lifelong dedication to social justice. It is very important to recognize their service in a public way.”

When members of the Utah Legislature sought to repeal the state law mandating in-state college tuition for undocumented students, Denise Castañeda, knew a repeal would be a mistake. She respectfully and confidently testified before a legislative committee, telling them that this action would jeopardize Utah’s future. Currently a senior at the University of Utah, Castañeda has advocated for immigrant rights and in-state tuition for undocumented students since her freshman year. “She stands up for people who don’t have a voice in Utah,” wrote nominator Jennifer Sanchez. “She works to make sure all people, regardless of skin color, have the opportunity to go to college.”

“Forrest Crawford holds compassion in his heart and humble greatness in his actions,” wrote nominator Carla Kelley. Crawford, a professor of Teacher Education and the first Assistant to the President for Institutional Diversity at Weber State University (WSU), has dedicated his life to serving his community in ways that assure a more fair and equitable world for all. Since being hired at WSU in 1977, Crawford has transformed the university climate by hosting conferences, forums, and seminars that have helped foster the diversity discourse on campus. Through lectures, speeches, curricula, editorials, and trainings, Crawford has shared his vast knowledge in the areas of teacher education development, multicultural education, and human rights.

A community leader and advocate for more than 20 years, Linda Hilton has taken on many roles. “She simply asks how she can help,” wrote Carla Kelley in her nomination letter. Hilton is currently the volunteer/resource manager, community outreach and relations coordinator, and advocacy group director for Salt Lake’s Crossroads Urban Center. Each year, Hilton advocates for economic equity and marginalized communities during the Utah legislative session. She has spoken for the removal of sales tax on food, the regulation of payday lenders, funding for Medicaid vision and dental, emergency food pantry programs, and many other causes.

Upon graduation, Sandra Asbury’s son asked “Mom, where am I going to work tomorrow?” Asbury, a retired special education teacher, realized that for people with disabilities – people like her son – this was a difficult question to answer. Inspired by the question, Asbury and her husband started the agency, Transitions, in Blanding, Utah. Transitions contracts with the state to provide day services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. “Sandra’s leadership permits her staff to try unique and innovative ways to get people with developmental disabilities involved in their communities,” wrote nominator Claire Mantonya. “Her dedication is making a huge difference to all people in San Juan County.”

A health care advocate with Salt Lake Community Action Program, Sheila Walsh-McDonald is usually on-hand for high-stakes discussions about tax reform, affordable housing, adult education, and many other important issues. She efficiently collects data and presents it to Utah legislators in an effort to help them better understand the issues of those with unmet needs. A persistent advocate on behalf of low-income Utahns, Walsh-McDonald gets solid, lasting results. Walsh-McDonald has been integral in organizing a fight on behalf of Utah Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). In addition to helping expand health care access for low-income children, she has also helped working adults through the Primary Care Network and the Utah Premium Partnership.

Refugees face a diverse set of challenges as they attempt to navigate and familiarize themselves with Utah and its culture. The seven employment counselors and six eligibility workers that make up the Department of Workforce Services’ Central Region Refugee Support Team help make this transition as fluid as possible. The team, representing eight ethnicities and speaking 14 languages, provides case management and employment services to refugees for up to 24 months after their arrival to the United States. Since several members of the team have been refugees themselves, they have an understanding of the barriers refugees face and the skills that need to be acquired.

Since 1999, the Human Rights Education Center of Utah (HREC) has provided more than 30,000 Utah youth with educational programs that focus on anti-bias/anti bullying and diversity education. By working with schools and other community partners, HREC has helped young men and women develop the skills necessary to challenge bias and prejudice. “HREC believes,” wrote teacher Katie Tyser in her nomination letter, “that education is the key to addressing intolerance, bullying, exclusion, and disrespect.” HREC develops and provides human rights education at the request of any organization, school, or educator. HREC also provides diversity and cultural competency education to adults through local businesses, healthcare providers, faith-based organizations, and nonprofit organizations.