Bahai News -- The Spokesman-Rewiew - Award to recognize 'soul' of group Sunday, March 30, 2003

IDAHO

Award to recognize 'soul' of group

Human rights activist to be honored at Boise State University lecture

Susan Drumheller
Staff writer

SANDPOINT _ Brenda Hammond keeps a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on an office shelf.

She doesn't really need it for reference, but she shares it with visitors.

The 30 articles contained in the declaration are principles that have been part of Hammond's personal philosophy for as long as she can remember.

She became a member of the Bahai religion in college after discovering that "in my heart, I already believed in its basic tenets -- that prejudice should be abolished and people should live together in harmony."

That conviction is one reason why Hammond's peers nominated her for a statewide human rights award. Hammond will travel next month to Boise to be honored for her human rights work during the Kessler-Keener "Extraordinary Witness" Lecture Series at Boise State University.

The annual lecture series brings people to Boise who have had a significant impact on other people's lives through their human rights work.

"In hundreds of actions big and small, Brenda Hammond has been the soul of our Human Rights Task Force," wrote Hal Hargreaves, president of the Bonner County Human Rights Task Force, in a nomination letter to the Idaho Human Rights Commission, a co-sponsor of the award.

"Her actions and successes reflect her commitment to both the spiritual and the worldly call to oppose discrimination, to promote equal treatment and to lift up those who are hurting," he wrote.

Hammond, who is vice president of the task force, says she's deeply honored by the nomination but deflects the praise by saying the award belongs to all the task force members.

The Bonner County Human Rights Task Force formed in 1992 after a community meeting at Sandpoint High School featured speaker Bill Wassmuth of the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment.

Hammond will never forget that meeting.

"Richard Butler (Aryan Nations leader) and his followers were there wearing swastika armbands. They were in the balcony and very visible," Hammond said. "It was the first time I was aware there was anything like that here."

Hammond attended the meeting with some students from the private boys school where she taught at the time. They were sitting near Butler, and after Butler had a turn at the microphone, the students told Hammond that they didn't think he should have been allowed to speak.

Hammond disagreed.

"He did more to discredit himself and his group than anyone else could have," she said.

Hammond attended many of the early meetings of the task force but didn't become more involved until she changed jobs and had more time. Task force co-founder Buzz Arndt asked her to be a board member and suddenly she was elected president.

Hammond found herself staying up nights reading about hate groups, trying to educate herself in order to be an effective leader.

Arndt said she's been a mainstay with the task force ever since.

"She's been probably the most consistent and dedicated person that I've ever worked with," Arndt said. "She's always calm and takes her responsibilities really seriously. She is absolutely, genuinely concerned for the rights of all people."

Hammond and the task force took a very non-confrontational approach to their human rights work in Sandpoint.

In the mid-1990s, during the height of the militia and patriot movements, Hammond and other task force leaders chose to sit down at a picnic table and talk with leaders of the local patriot organization, the Idaho Citizens Awareness Network, instead of argue their points publicly.

When white separatist Vincent Bertollini blanketed Bonner County and parts of Kootenai County with fliers and videos espousing racist views, the task force got creative.

For instance, they invited people to respond by donating money to the task force for scholarships to a human rights conference for youths. For every donation, the task force sent Bertollini a postcard saying a donation had been made in his name.

They raised $3,500 to help bring teenagers to the leadership conference, which Hammond organized.

Hammond said it was important not to go head to head with hate groups, because that just "turns their wheels."

"It's easy to just fall into the cowboy and Indian, us versus them mentality," Hammond said. "You end up not being part of the solution. You're not creating unity."

Hammond has helped keep the task force on higher ground, say her peers.

"Oftentimes when you're in a human rights group, you can get caught up and become like those people who are purveying hate," said Gretchen Albrecht-Hellar, a past president of the task force. "But Brenda, in all the years I've known her, has been able to work in this field with no anger, with no sense of `I know what's best for you."'

Now that Bertollini has fled from authorities who want him on a DUI charge, Butler has lost his compound and the patriot movement has fizzled, one might think that the task force has little to do.

Hammond said that's not the case.

"From the very early days of the task force, we felt our real purpose was education and creating more awareness of diversity and issues that affect people," she said. "The challenge was always not to let hate groups form our agenda."

Now the task force has more time to concentrate on projects such as bringing a conflict resolution curriculum into local schools.

One of Hammond's greatest priorities is addressing the problem of widespread poverty. She works at the Community Action Partnership, a social service agency in Sandpoint, where she comes into contact with people every day who need the basics -- food, heat and shelter.

In her spare time, Hammond helped found SEED, Seeking Equitable Economic Development, a coalition that's trying to identify resources that are lacking in the community.

"We started SEED a year ago to educate ourselves on poverty and create local solutions," she said.

Hammond then quoted article 35 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations in 1948: "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care. ..."

"Basic needs are human rights," she said, paraphrasing. "And when we have so many people in our country and our county who can't access basic needs, it's something we need to pay attention to. It weakens the fabric of our community."

©Copyright 2003, The Spokesman-Review (WA, USA)

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