Cape Cod, Amherst educators receive Human and Civil Rights awards

Members of the Human Relations Committee, along with Kathleen Roberts and Louise Gaskins, were on hand to honor Diane Turco, fourth from right, and Alicia Lopez, second from right. Members of the Human Relations Committee, along with Kathleen Roberts and Louise Gaskins, were on hand to honor Diane Turco, fourth from right, and Alicia Lopez, second from right.

A retired special education teacher from Cape Cod and an ELL teacher from Amherst shared the spotlight on Friday, June 19, at the annual MTA Human and Civil Rights banquet and awards ceremony.

Harwich resident Diane Turco received the Kathleen Roberts Creative Leadership Award for her three decades of activism in educating New Englanders about the safety concerns surrounding the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth.

Alicia Lopez, who teaches English language learners at Amherst Regional Middle School, received the Louise Gaskins Lifetime Civil Rights Award.

MTA President Barbara Madeloni welcomed the crowd at the Westin Waltham-Boston and acknowledged the stark contrast between a night in which “we celebrate those who make sure to make spaces for humanity, for civil rights and for justice” and the hate crime just two days earlier that took the lives of nine people at a church in Charleston, S.C.

The shooting deaths in South Carolina, Madeloni said, “make me embrace this evening more deeply. In a world where we still struggle so much with the story of racism and injustice, we celebrate the fact that there are people out there who — in big ways and small ways — say no to injustice and racism and yes to our shared humanity.”

Human Relations Committee Chair Dale Forest said Turco and Lopez were chosen for their efforts to make the world a more just, tolerant place and for “enriching the lives of those they serve.”

Kathleen Roberts and Louise Gaskins, for whom the awards are named, were on hand for the festivities, as were longtime MTA activists Anne Wass and John Reed, who summarized the 33-year history of the Human Relations Committee and the association’s Human and Civil Rights Awards.

Turco, the co-founder of a group called the Cape Downwinders, has coordinated lectures and symposia and written petitions; she once staged a sit-in in the office of then-Governor Deval Patrick to draw attention to the health dangers posed by Pilgrim.

After 33 years as a special education teacher, Turco said, she retired early in order to spend more time on activism. As a mother and grandmother, she feels responsible for the environmental safety and health issues that are being left for future generations.

She has been arrested and jailed several times for her civil disobedience, which stems from her deep conviction that Pilgrim should be closed — once and for all.

Each Mother's Day, she organizes a rally and march to Pilgrim. She had just completed a “Close Pilgrim Now” march from Pilgrim to the State House a few days before the Human Relations Committee event.

She told the crowd that she is committed to doing her work until the plant is closed for good.

“Let’s give our children the promise of a safe and healthy future and work together to get that reactor shut down this year,” she said. “Let’s make democracy a verb.”

Lopez, a member of the Amherst-Pelham Education Association, is just completing her 20th year as an ELL and language teacher. She is also a founding member of the Tradiciones Dance Troupe in Amherst and is the Summer Institute director of the Western Massachusetts Writing Project.

Lopez has also been the faculty adviser for the Latinos Unidos student organization at the middle school, and she writes a blog, Maestra Teacher, in which she shares her love of teaching and her thoughts on social justice. She also told her readers about her decision to opt her own children out of taking high-stakes standardized tests.

Lopez told the crowd she gets her strength from her husband and her three children, as well as her students, who “inspire me every day with their stories.”

What drives Lopez, who is from a family of educators — including her mother, Dr. Sonia Nieto, a previous Human and Civil Rights award winner who attended the awards banquet — is her devotion to helping her students meet the challenges of navigating life in the United States for the first time.

Lopez called on the Legislature to “pay attention to calls for less testing and more learning.”

“We need to take back education and start to feel empowered again,” she said.

To see more photos from the 2015 Human and Civil Rights dinner, visit flickr.com/mtacommunications.