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Social Justice: More than Good Intentions

March 31, 2010 — On Friday, April 9, 2010, the University of Utah College of Social Work will present the 9th annual Pete Suazo Social Justice Awards, beginning at 3:00 pm in the Community Meeting Room of the Goodwill Humanitarian Building, 395 South 1500 East, Salt Lake City. The awards were created to honor the life of the late Senator Suazo by recognizing the work of those who fully dedicate themselves to the goal of social and economic justice. This year, the prestigious awards will be presented to four individuals and two organizations: Dhiraj Chand, People’s Market, Cathy Martinez, Disability Law Center, Melissa Bird, and May Romo.

“It is the focus, the compassion, and the tenacity displayed by these recipients that makes them such outstanding examples of social justice crusaders,” said Farriña Coulam, a social work professor at the U and founder of the awards. “Those dedicated to creating a more equitable society do not limit their work to their jobs – rather, it permeates every aspect of their lives. Because so many of the individuals and organizations that do this type of work go unrecognized, we are especially proud to be able to publically acknowledge their ongoing dedication and service to our community.”

From the moment he enrolled as a University of Utah student in 2004, Dhiraj Chand has been an enthusiastic activist on behalf of social justice. Amid his pursuit of bachelor’s degrees in Gender Studies and Communication, he has passionately engaged in policy-making, educational events, and service activities that contribute to a more diverse and socially just campus environment. “Dhiraj is known to his peers and University administrators to be a compassionate, tenacious, and creative advocate for social justice,” wrote Lori McDonald in her nomination letter. “His holistic approach to advocacy for all students and community members on a myriad of issues is an inspiration.”

From mid-June through mid-October, a diverse collection of Salt Lake residents can be found browsing the booths of local growers at People’s Market. Located in Salt Lake City’s Jordan Park and International Peace Gardens, People’s Market is well situated to bring together farmers, artisans, and residents for a positive community event. Run entirely by a dedicated group of resident volunteers, People’s Market works toward empowering community members to discover and utilize their abilities, creating safe and fun opportunities for socialization, and promoting sustainable living in a variety of ways. “The Market has improved our quality of life by creating lasting bonds between people of different cultures and people who speak different languages,” wrote Patrick Commiskey in his nomination letter.

As director of the University of Utah’s LGBT Resource Center, Cathy Martinez has made great strides toward making the campus a more inclusive and equitable environment. “Cathy is a natural alliance builder,” wrote nominator Joanne Yaffe. “She works with other groups on campus as well as with colleges and departments to help them develop curricula to address homophobia and heterosexism.” In addition to developing sensitivity training for campus faculty, staff, and students, Ms. Martinez worked with students to implement the Safe Zone Program on campus. The Safe Zone Program educates faculty and staff about LGBT issues and helps them learn to intervene in discriminatory situations, contributing to the creation of an active ally community and a safe campus atmosphere.

People with disabilities comprise the largest political minority in Utah – nearly 20% of the total population – making the work of the Disability Law Center (DLC) critical to the well-being of our community and some of our most vulnerable citizens. The DLC is Utah’s only nonprofit agency that provides self-advocacy assistance, legal services, disability rights education, and public policy advocacy – all free of charge – on behalf of more than 400,000 people with disabilities living in Utah. “In 2009,” wrote Forrest Crawford in his nomination, “the Disability Law Center provided over 150 specific trainings about issues impacting people with disabilities… Those presentations educated 17,332 members of the community to be able to both understand and better assert their rights under the law.”

With an emphasis on grassroots social welfare activism, Melissa (“Missy”) Bird is an enthusiastic advocate with extensive experience developing local programs and policy. “She is willing to take on issues that others just talk about,” wrote Lynn Hemingway in his nomination. By working closely with Utah’s residents and legislators, Ms. Bird assists in drafting legislation that promotes positive changes in policy and programs impacting youth and families. Ms. Bird has proven herself an effective advocate for a number of marginalized populations, including minority communities and youth in the child welfare system.

For more than 25 years, May Romo has worked with and for her community. Her work has ranged from being a mentor for elementary students struggling with schoolwork, to helping parents find friends for children with disabilities, to her current role as injury prevention coordinator and Safe Kids Salt Lake County Coalition coordinator under the Salt Lake Valley Health Department. “May seeks to improve the safety of children’s lives and their families, as well as the quality of our services, to ultimately make sustainable changes within Salt Lake Valley’s communities,” wrote nominator Carol Avery.

Media may request contact information and expanded biographies for individual recipients by calling Jennifer Nozawa at (801) 585-9303 or emailing