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Seattle Human Rights Convention Honors Groups Who Stand Up Against Poverty, Hunger and Discrimination

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Melinda Giovengo didn’t keep the cold reality of her organization’s work out of the cozy banquet room hunkered off in a corner of the soaring, cathedral-like lobby of Seattle City Hall on the evening of December 8.

Giovengo, executive director of YouthCare, was called up to receive one of three awards presented at the 16th annual Seattle Human Rights Day Celebration at a banquet space tucked behind a wall of colored glass panels, in a room with cheery light, an array of spice-scented foods and the buzz of pleasant conversation. As the applause at her introduction died down, Giovengo, standing next to Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, told how YouthCare served 4,500 homeless youth this year. Nearly two-thirds were people of color, more than a third were GLBTQ, she said. Lack of shelter space leaves hundreds of these kids out in the cold each night, she said.

“I thought, wow, we are getting an award for giving out blankets and food for people—in the city of Seattle, 2011—to sleep under a bridge. Children. Hard to believe that that is something we should be recognized for. It’s great to keep them alive, great to keep them warm but it’s not exactly what I would call a human right.”

But, Giovengo continued, YouthCare works hard to connect homeless youth with education and job programs, “which leads to the most essential human right to go forward, and that is hope.”

Her forceful acceptance was appropriate for a night dedicated to honoring people and groups who speak out on uncomfortable topics—poverty, hunger, discrimination—in a city often stereotyped as a liberal’s paradise.

The nearly half-century of work to assist some of Seattle’s poorest residents with housing, food and financial help, was recognized with an award to the Central Area Motivation Program, accepted by CAMP executive director Andrea Caupain.

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The final award was presented to a young woman. Heather Purser, Suquamish, was honored for speaking up to members of her assembled tribe at this year’s General Council about supporting same-sex marriage. It was a proposal the tribe approved overwhelmingly.

“Tonight we are here to honor Heather because she didn’t sit on the sidelines. No, she got up and she fought, and we are better people because of it and we are here to honor your vision and your courage,” said Seattle attorney Chris Stearns, Navajo, chairman of the Seattle Human Rights Commission, introducing Purser.

“Who here remembers the Battle of Seattle?” asked the emcee for the evening, Gyasi Ross, Blackfeet. No, no, he told a few hand-raisers, not the tear-gas-clouded World Trade Organization riots in 1999. The real Battle of Seattle was fought—on ground very close to the present-day City Hall—in 1856 as a confederation of Northwest tribes tried to stem the takeover of land by settlers.

“This city was founded on gunfire,” Ross said. “I say that to contextualize... that Seattle hasn’t always been a politically correct La-La Land. We have come a long ways. We live in a great place. We understand it can get better.”

That was echoed by Mayor McGinn, in an interview before he left, who reflected on Giovengo’s tough commentary. “She was just taking the opportunity to point out how much remains to be done,” the mayor said.

Indeed, on an evening set aside for feting the hard work of people who strive to address harsh realities, a reminder of hard times was just on the other side of the smoked glass. One of the entry plazas to City Hall is filled with the tarps, tents, portable toilets of an Occupy Seattle campsite.