OREPA Coordinator Ralph Hutchison read the following dedication at the presentation of the 2019 Peacemaker Award celebration.
Long before the creation of the #MeToo movement, the four women we honor tonight were making change in the world. They are part of a lineage in Tennessee that goes back at least as far as August of 1920 when Miss Febb, as her friends called Phoebe Ensminger Burn, sent a note to her son Harry in the state legislature and turned him into the swing vote that ratified the 19th amendment and brought the United States one step closer to becoming a democratic republic.
It was a step on a long march to justice, a goal we have not yet reached. But by challenging the political status quo, as Renee and Seema have done and still do; by standing firm to protect women’s status and power, as Tory does every day, by working tirelessly to create a welcoming place for refugees, as Drocella does week after week, our 2019 Peacemakers are moving us all toward the goal.
Please don’t let tonight’s celebration, with great food, nice music, wonderful company and lovely decorations, fool you. Building peace and justice, most of the time, isn’t this pretty. It is hard work, often lonely and grinding work, striking out into the uncertain with a goal of making things better, knowing that strong forces are arrayed against you.
And the payoff, for Seema, Drocella, Tory and Renee, is not awards, though we are glad they’ve submitted to this honor tonight. The payoff comes most of the time in almost invisible ways. Tory mentors young women in the FYI program to provide peer counseling on healthy sexuality and, in the process, she awakens in them a power they did not know they had.
Drocella works the phones, making connections, networking, seeking resources, not to advance herself, but to provide a place, maybe a job, with a support crew of sponsors, for people who have left everything they have ever known, fearing for their lives and their future, to come to a new place, where almost no one speaks their language. And she gives them the precious gift of security and helps them make a home.
Seema joined colleauges to change the face of Knoxville politics through the City Council movement, and found herself sitting in endless meetings, called on to make decisions, offer advice, sometimes to challenge the powers that be, to go inside the system to become part of changing it. It is work that can wear you down, but it hasn’t stolen her smile or her determination.
Renee launched a campaign to claim a seat in Congress that had long been reserved for one family, and mounted a challenge to the heir anointed. Her platform was a people’s platform; her guiding star was sound policies that would make democracy work for everyone, not just the insiders and those with money. Against all odds, she took the meetings and knocked on doors and spread the word and showed up, again and again and again, and she laid a foundation to build a future on.
This is how change is made, and in our community, we honor Drocella, Tory, Renee and Seema because they are making it.
We didn’t choose four women because it’s a #MeToo moment. Over the last 20 years, OREPA has honored dozens of peacemakers. Women outnumber men by a handful. But it is a good year to celebrate the strength of women as so many are finding muscles they either didn’t know they had, or had been told not to think about using, or had never felt free to exercise. We are all the better for it.
And sadly, it’s a moment when we need to stand strong, in solidarity, as the rights of women and other disenfranchised people are increasingly under attack in our courts, in our legislatures, and even in the highest office of the land. It may sound like hyperbole, but it is not an exaggeration to say that democracy itself is at risk; the institutions we depend on are being politicized in ways that warp the foundations of our political system, and corporations are buying up and stripping out the journalists from the media that provided at least some accountability. I find myself wondering what the rising generation of young people have to hope for, and it’s not a pleasant thought.
But then—then I remember that there are people who not only believe in justice and peace and dignity and rights, but they are fighting for, working for, living for these ideals. They are the light that shines before us. And in the process they invite all of us, young and old, to step into that light and to walk in that light toward the future we create, against all odds. It is a march toward justice, and we walk it together.
Thank you, Renee. Thank you, Tory. Thank you, Drocella. Thank you, Seema.
It is an honor and a privilege to celebrate you this evening, our 2019 Peacemakers.