4 receive 2016 MTA Human and Civil Rights Awards

From left to right, Lois Ahrens; Fred Bommer; Kathleen Roberts; Human Relations Committee Chair Dale Forest; Betsy Sawyer’s daughter, Ali, and husband, Charlie Sawyer; Louise Gaskins and Betsy Sawyer’s son, Bryan Sawyer, after the ceremony. From left to right, Lois Ahrens; Fred Bommer; Kathleen Roberts; Human Relations Committee Chair Dale Forest; Betsy Sawyer’s daughter, Ali, and husband, Charlie Sawyer; Louise Gaskins and Betsy Sawyer’s son, Bryan Sawyer, after the ceremony.

More than 130 educators and students gathered on June 17 to applaud the presentation of the 2016 MTA Human and Civil Rights Awards.

This year’s awards banquet was held at the Westin Waltham Boston Hotel. Such ceremonies have taken place annually for 34 years to honor those who have shown extraordinary dedication to civil rights and human relations.

Representative Ellen Story (D-Amherst) received the Louise Gaskins Lifetime Civil Rights Award. Story, who is serving her 12th full term representing the Third Hampshire District, will retire at the end of the current legislative session.

Those receiving this year’s Kathleen Roberts Creative Leadership Awards were Lois Ahrens, the founder of the Northampton-based Real Cost of Prisons Project; the late Rosemary “Betsy” Sawyer, a Groton-Dunstable teacher who inspired her students to create the biggest book on Earth dedicated to world peace; and Frederik Bommer, who has worked as a volunteer math assistant in the Barnstable Public Schools for more than 20 years.

Roberts and Gaskins, the educators for whom the awards are named, were on hand for the festivities.

MTA Human Relations Committee Chair Dale Forest told the crowd — which included family members and friends of the honorees, as well as social justice students from Concord-Carlisle High School — that the award recipients were chosen for their efforts to make the world “a more just and tolerant place.”

He called for a moment of silence for people who died in the past year after dedicating their lives to fighting for human and civil rights. They included Sawyer, who died in April after a battle with leukemia, and Gladys Durant, a former member of the committee who passed away recently.

MTA President Barbara Madeloni welcomed the crowd and made note of the recent killings of 49 nightclub patrons in Orlando, as well as violence in the workplace and the oppressive forces that are perhaps less obvious but no less insidious in society today — those that, she said, “narrow our capacity to know one another.”

Despite such tragedies and issues, she said, those who fight for human and civil rights go out every day “and do the work to build relationships — making a place for peace and for justice.”

“As educators, we do this every day,” Madeloni continued. “Tonight we honor specific individuals, but together — all of us — as we knit the fabric of a better world, we will overcome violence and oppression.”

State Representative Ellen Story said public education “is the cornerstone of democracy.” State Representative Ellen Story said public education “is the cornerstone of democracy.”

Story, the first woman to represent Amherst in the Legislature, said she was thrilled to be receiving the Louise Gaskins award, especially after meeting Gaskins in person.

“This is a big deal for me,” Story said as she accepted her award. She noted that she had attended public schools throughout her education. “Public education is the cornerstone of democracy,” she added. “We can’t forget that.”

Before becoming a legislator, Story spent 17 years at the Family Planning Council of Western Massachusetts, eventually becoming associate executive director. She was also a member of the Amherst-Pelham School Committee.

Ahrens has been an organizer for social justice for more than 50 years. In 2000, she founded the Real Cost of Prisons Project, which advocates for an end to extreme sentencing, supports the humane treatment of incarcerated people and educates policymakers and the public about the cruel conditions of confinement that still exist in our nation’s prisons.

Lois Ahrens said her approach to organizing “isn’t complex and it isn’t glamorous — but it does help to be relentless.” Lois Ahrens said her approach to organizing “isn’t complex and it isn’t glamorous — but it does help to be relentless.”

“I’ve tried to do all I can so that each of us can live up to our potential. Up until this moment —literally — my work has come with no official award, but it has come with great rewards: working with, learning from and occasionally teaching thousands of occasionally brilliant, often inspiring, visionary, resilient, persevering women and men — many of whom are incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people.”

She said that she was recently speaking to a class and was asked by a student about her philosophy of organizing.

“It isn’t complex,” she responded, “and it isn’t glamorous — but it does help to be relentless. I said, ‘Be informed. Think of every single thing you can do, every person you can call, everyone to connect with, and do it. Do everything.’”

Sawyer, for her part, was so committed to teaching and to peace that the two fit together perfectly when students in her after-school club said they wanted to make the biggest book in the world. The result was the “Big Book: Pages for Peace.”

The book weighs more than a ton and is 12 feet long and 10 feet wide. Contributors include the Dalai Lama, Maya Angelou and Nelson Mandela.

Ali Sawyer accepted the award on behalf of her mother, Rosemary “Betsy” Sawyer. Ali Sawyer accepted the award on behalf of her mother, Rosemary “Betsy” Sawyer.

Ali Sawyer accepted the award on behalf of her mother, saying her passion for teaching “led her on a mission to create a more peaceful world — for her students and for students across the globe.”

“Her legacy lives on for every single person she touched and inspired,” Ali Sawyer said. “It is up to us now to carry on her message of peace in a world that needs it so much.”

Bommer, the recipient of the final Kathleen Roberts Award to be presented during the evening, started working with students in Barnstable shortly after he retired to Centerville more than 20 years ago.

He became a volunteer assistant teaching math, and his word puzzles and other math games became his signature. Over the years, students and staff learned a lot of math from Bommer, but they also learned a lot about history, perseverance, commitment and the value of giving back. Bommer left the classroom in 2014 and received a long scroll bearing the names of all the students he had reached. This year, he decided he missed the students, so he returned — at age 87 — to volunteering one day a week.

Frederik Bommer uses puzzles and word games to keep students interested in math. Frederik Bommer uses puzzles and word games to keep students interested in math.

During the awards banquet, he unrolled the list, and it stretched across the ballroom.

“I love kids, and doing something different,” he said. “When I did math, I did not follow the regular path. I never had a class that wasn’t interested.”

Also on hand was Dr. David Nurenberg, an MTA member who teaches at Concord-Carlisle High School. Nurenberg uses “The Justice Project” to help his honors English students build their skills and knowledge around an area of social injustice that they feel has affected them personally.

Nurenberg and five of his students took a few moments to explain their projects to the attendees. Working alone or in groups, the students researched the many aspects of their chosen issues, studied previous attempts to address them and proposed their own solutions, taking concrete actions to push for the change they recommended.

The point of the project for Nurenberg was to help the students with research, argumentation and presentation —“and then get out of their way.” He said that learning via a social justice perspective thoroughly engages the students, who become “very appropriately upset” about social justice issues.

Madeline Franck and Daria Pietropaolo researched the issue of child soldiers in Uganda; Deedy Chang and Liana Shames studied the experiences of Chinese children adopted by white American families; and Benny Thomas brought awareness to how society constructs racial categories according to skin color.

Related Resources

  • To read more about each of this year’s award recipients, go to massteacher.org/hcr.
  • Visit our Flickr page to see photos from the event.
  • To read more about the Real Cost of Prisons Project, go to realcostofprisons.org.
  • Click here to see a video about the Pages for Peace project.