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Four women recognized as Human Rights Champions

The 2021 Spokane Human Rights Champions awards were presented along with the Eva Lassman Take Action Against Hate awards at the closing of the International Conference for Hate Studies on Nov. 6. Nia Wong, evening anchor and reporter for 4 News Now/KXLY-TV, was emcee.

The Spokane County Human Rights Task Force (SCHRTF) and Spokane Human Rights Commission joined the Gonzaga Institute for Hate Studies to honor "neighbors who not only saw a need but found a way to satisfy it," Nia said.

Nia said the Spokane Human Rights Champions Awards started a few years ago after "horrific events in Pittsburgh and Christchurch where sanctuaries of love and faith were rocked by violence driven by hate."

While those incidents did not involve people in Spokane, gatherings at Temple Beth Shalom and at the Spokane Islamic Center brought faith and community leaders, even political adversaries "together to unite in healing and reweaving the fabric that invisibly binds us all," she said.

The Spokane County Human Rights Task Force, decided to celebrate the good that happens every day but is overlooked.

So the government-based Spokane Human Rights Commission and the volunteer-based Spokane County Human Rights Task Force started the Spokane Human Rights Champions Awards.

Because of COVID-19, the awards committee chose to do a live streaming event with prerecorded award presentations.

Excerpts of their stories are below.


Jennyfer Mesa

Jennyfer Mesa brought information and resources to the Latinx community by starting a Facebook page to translate news and a grassroots movement in 2017 in response to anti-immigrant sentiments that left families afraid to access resources.

It grew into a nonprofit, Latinos En Spokane, to help Latinos and immigrants access resources, develop community and participate in civic life through events, education, activism and partnerships.

In nominating her, Guillarmo Espinoza, said she and her family faced obstacles immigrating from Colombia, seeking a safe place, but they did not give up.

In COVID isolation, knowing Latinx community likes to gather, he said, Jennyfer built community on Facebook, where people encourage each other and share resources, urging people to participate in the census, be vaccinated and know health guidelines so they can gather and celebrate.

Jennyfer opened the Latinos en Spokane office at 1502 N. Monroe, as a center to empower Latino and immigrant families with local, state, insurance, technical, cultural and other resources. She also started a monthly cultural and fresh food summer market, El Mercadito.

"When I think of human rights, I think of how we are all born free and should have the right to be who we are with access to clean air, clean water, food, health care, education, a home and safety," said Jennyfer.

Angel Tomeo Sam

Angel Tomeo Sam uses her experiences to call others to re-enter productive society.

Moving through personal adversity of domestic violence, addiction, homelessness and incarceration, she became chair-elect for the Racial Equity Committee of the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council. She also works with the Health and Justice Recovery Alliance, the Bail Project, the Spokane County Domestic Violence Coalition and State Domestic Violence Risk Assessment Work Group.

Her advocacy to change the name Ft. George Wright Dr. to Whistalks Way led Spokane to name her a Woman Warrior.

Other involvements include the Equal Justice Coalition, Native American Alliance for Policy and Action and Peer Reentry Navigation and Community Bail Fund. As acting director of Salish for Strong Spokane, she works with Missing, Murdered Indigenous Women and People.

Angel said that work for human rights "comes from a place of love of humanity and my neighbors." She said many faiths speak of love. A favorite is "love casts out fear," because "when we are fearless we can be bold and when we are bold we can get stuff done." Having been impacted by many experiences, she advocates for the "things next to me."

"My life would be different if someone had not reached out and given me a hand up," said Angel, who seeks to do that for others.

Katie Urbanek

Katie Urbanek took what many families struggled to accept and created the opportunity for parents to be proud of their gay and lesbian children, said Gene Otto and Ted Clark, who nominated her as "a pioneer."

The SCHRTF recognized her for helping start a local chapter of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). In another community, her son, Hal, came out as gay, when it was less accepted than now.

She and her late husband, Harry, were proud of him. They joined a PFLAG group and held meetings in their home. At first just five came, then there was standing room only.

When they moved to Spokane in 1984, Katie and Harry brought PFLAG with them, changing the conversation here by helping families understand, accept and also be proud of their gay or lesbian children.

PFLAG also works with schools to help children who are bullied and have no one to talk with, to prevent suicides and to inform counselors.

"I soon found that there were people all over the place who were glad to know that there were other parents like them, and they couldĀ  join together and learn to be able to support their children," said Katie, now 97.


Jan Baker

Jan Baker has changed many lives through her involvement with organizations that promote democracy, guide young people, teach gardening and support LGBTQ people.

She has registered voters, recruited candidates and organized advocacy events through the NAACP Spokane Political Action Committee before and after retiring from 39 years as a medical technologist and educator in the clinical lab at Sacred Heart.

As a master gardener, she has taught organic gardening to youth at Riverfront Farms, now Youth Ops, which divert youth from drugs and jail to complete high school and college. She also taught gardening to women at the Growing Hope Program of the former Women's Drop-In Center, now the Women's Hearth.

Jan's worked to enact legislation for the GLBTQ community. She was the first to register voters for the Democratic Party at the PRIDE event, and she invited the NAACP to march in the parade and Master Gardeners to have a booth at the event.

City Council member Betsy Wilkerson said, "Jan embraced me early on and started educating me on human rights from a different perspective. We talked about race, but more discrimination than race." She considers Jan a "great ally with a heartfelt commitment" and "a servant leader vested in the community."

Jan said that "human rights is never done in a vacuum, it's essential to start at the grassroots level and move from the bottom up, not the top down. The umbrella uniting us in human rights is to do unto others as we would like others to do to us, a concept from the Bible, and other religions and spiritualities."

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, December, 2021