Communicator of the Month

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March 2013

Kathleen Collins
Intellectual Image-Maker

“I have a sense of going my own way, and I don’t really think much about whether it’s going against the grain.”

— Kathleen Collins

Born in 1942, Kathleen Collins was the first African-American woman to write, direct and produce a full-length feature film. Her work is described as postmodern and experimental, and she is credited with helping to change black womanist film, a form of feminism focused especially on the conditions and concerns of black women.

Kathleen Collins: Intellectual Image-Maker

In her films, Collins explored the impact of male dominance, finding meaning and purpose in life, and the plight of the African-American middle class. Collins refused to portray African-Americans in traditional roles of resigned victims, and instead addressed issues related to the impact of racism and sexism. In addition to film, Collins wrote and produced theatrical plays, including “In the Midnight Hour” and “The Brothers.”

Collins married Alfred Prettyman in 1987. One week after marrying, Collins discovered that she had cancer. She died a year later in 1988, leaving behind her images of female characters who embraced independence and self-expression.

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February 2013

Oscar Micheaux
Race Relator

“It is only by presenting those portions of the race portrayed in my pictures, in the light and background of their true state, that we can raise our people to greater heights.”

—Oscar Micheaux

Born in 1884, Oscar Micheaux was the first African American to produce a feature-length film with “The Homesteader” in 1920. He wrote, produced and directed more than 40 feature-length films between 1919 and 1948.

Oscar Micheaux: Race Relator

Recognizing that there were no opportunities for African Americans to create films, Micheaux established his own movie production company in 1919. He used his films to rebut racism and took on controversial topics such as sexuality, racial crime, corruption and intra-racial discrimination. He also confronted the dominant mainstream discrimination of his day, as his film “Within Our Gates” was a direct response to the racism depicted in the film “Birth of a Nation.”

Before making films, Micheaux wrote seven novels, one of which was a national bestseller, and started his own publishing company to produce and distribute his work. He turned to the new industry of filmmaking to make his stories come to life. He died in 1951.

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January 2013

Joan Root
Wildlife Warrior

“Some people just see a few animals in a bit of bush, but I’ve developed this place into a sort of Masai Mara, preserving the environment through animals that would be together in the wild.”

—   Joan Root

Born in Kenya in 1936 to British settlers, Joan Root is celebrated as a pioneering wildlife documentary filmmaker and conservationist.

Joan Root: Wildlife Warrior

While working as a safari guide, Root met her husband, Alan, with whom she would film some of her greatest work. The detailed focus her films placed on her subjects called attention to the fact that no wildlife is insignificant or inconsequential, whether it be plant, animal or insect.

Her most celebrated film, “The Year of the Wildebeest,” covered the mass migration of these animals through Tanzania.

The Roots earned an Oscar nomination for their 1978 film “Mysterious Castles of Clay,” a study of African giant termite mounds.

In the 1980s, Root’s focus shifted away from filmmaking and toward conservation as she fought to defend the natural habitat around Naivasha, Kenya. Protecting the lakeshore from poachers, Root made enemies within local African communities in the process, which led to multiple threats and acts of violence on her home. Root was killed in her home in 2006.


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December 2012

John James Audubon
Fauna Phenom 

“A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.”

John James Audubon

John James Audubon was one of the most influential artists in American history. Although not the first to illustrate all of the birds in the U.S., his seminal work, The Birds of America, is the standard by which bird artists are measured to this day.

John James Audubon: Fauna Phenom

Born in 1785, Audubon grew up in France and was sent to America at age 18 to escape conscription to Napoleon’s army. While there, he set out to document all of the birds in North America. In 1826, he sailed to England with a partly finished collection, which was an immediate success. Five years later, Audubon attempted to create a similar work for all of the mammals in North America, but due to his failing health, the work had to be completed by his sons and family friends.

Audubon died in 1851, but his tremendous environmental legacy lives on. Inspired by Audubon and named in his honor, the National Audubon Society was established in 1905 with the mission to protect and restore the natural ecosystems and habitats of birds in the U.S. and across the Americas.

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November 2012

Angel De Cora
Indigenous Illustrator

Born in Nebraska in 1869, Angel De Cora was a Winnebago artist who made significant contributions to the Arts and Crafts movement and avidly promoted Native American art. De Cora lived on a reservation until she turned 12, but was then separated from her culture and sent to the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute for schooling.

Angel De Cora: Indigenous Illustrator

De Cora was the first Winnebago woman to graduate from college and the first Native American graduate of Smith College, where she was enrolled in the School of Art. Her work blended Western techniques, such as tonalism and realistic illustration, with Native themes and points of view. Her art expressed her personal desire and determination to retain her Native American identity despite institutionalized efforts to eliminate it.

De Cora later taught art at the Carlisle School, a Native American boarding school in Pennsylvania. While there, she established the first Native American Art department.

De Cora also was a founding and active member of the Society of American Indians, created to address the civil rights, health, education and local government needs of Native Americans. She designed the organization’s emblem and presented at their first conference in 1911.

Angel De Cora died in 1919.

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October 2012

Dorothea Lange
Migrant Mother

“The good photograph is not the object; the consequences of the photograph are the objects.”

— Dorothea Lange

An influential American documentary photographer and photojournalist, Dorothea Lange’s photography humanized the reality of two tragic periods in American history: the Great Depression and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Dorothea Lange: Migrant Mother

The social upheaval brought on by the Great Depression led Lange to take her camera into the streets where she documented the sufferings of the dispossessed. Her photographs brought public attention to the plight of farm families and migrant workers and became icons of the era.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Lange turned her camera to the forced roundup and evacuation of Japanese-Americans to internment camps. Her images of Japanese-American children pledging allegiance to the American flag before being sent to internment camps were impounded by the Army for being critical of the internment.

Lange died in 1965.

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September 2012

Carlos Almaraz
Chicano Champion

“Art is a record, a document that you leave behind showing what you saw and felt when you were alive.”

—   Carlos Almaraz

Raised in Chicago and Los Angeles, painter and Chicano activist Carlos Almaraz frequently returned to his place of birth, Mexico City, where he recalled first understanding that art could be “both horrifying and absolutely magical.”

Carlos Almaraz: Chicano Champion

Almaraz struggled as a painter throughout the 1960s in New York City, where he also wrote poetry and philosophy. In 1971, after nearly dying himself, his brother died suddenly. He felt that by surviving, he had been offered a new beginning and used his murals to become involved with social issues and honor his brother’s life.

He was one of the organizers of Los Four, an artist collective that sought to bring the Chicano Art Movement to the attention of mainstream critics and painters. The movement used street art to challenge the social constructions of race, ethnicity, gender and nationality to create change. Almaraz also worked for fellow Chicano and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez, painting murals and banners for Chavez’s United Farm Workers.

Almaraz died in 1989. His colorful artwork remains a strong influence for young Latino artists.

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August 2012

Henry Ossawa Tanner
Racial Barrier Breaker

“I will preach with my brush.”

– Henry Ossawa Tanner

Born two years before the start of the Civil War to a minister and a mother who had escaped slavery on the Underground Railroad, Henry Ossawa Tanner is considered the first African-American painter to gain international acclaim.

Henry Ossawa Tanner: Racial Barrier Breaker

Tanner become the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ only African-American student in 1879, where his painting flourished under the guidance of the Academy’s progressive professor Thomas Eakins. Tanner also faced racism in this city, as more African-Americans started moving to Philadelphia from the South. After meeting more racist rejection of his art in Atlanta and in his travels around the United States, Tanner moved to Paris.

Tanner established himself as a painter within French art circles and began producing religious paintings, for which he is best-known. His most famous work, however, was the result of a short return visit to Philadelphia in 1893, where Tanner painted “The Banjo Lesson.” The painting departs from stereotypical paintings of African-American entertainers, and presents a grandfatherly African-American man teaching a child to play the banjo.

During World War I, working for the Red Cross Public Information Department, Tanner painted images of African-American soldiers from the front lines, the only paintings of this genre ever produced. Through his realistic depictions of African-American life, Tanner preached hope and inspiration for African-American leaders and young artists.

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July 2012

Frida Kahlo
Political Painter

“I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”

– Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo was a Mexican painter celebrated by feminists for her uncompromising and honest depiction of the female experience. Influenced by indigenous folk art and culture and classic Mexican religious traditions, Kahlo’s paintings often contain symbolic portrayals of her personal experiences. Kahlo’s paintings also demonstrate her political choice to paint in a Mexican, rather than European, style.

Frida Kahlo: Political Painter

Kahlo suffered from various health problems throughout her life and endured more than 30 operations. It was during one of her recovery periods after surgery that she began to paint. She frequently painted herself — 55 of her 143 paintings were self-portraits — and never hesitated to highlight her flaws and pain, which was usually associated with her health problems or troubled marriage to painter Diego Rivera.

Kahlo remained committed to ideals of resisting oppression and poverty throughout her life, even changing her birth year to 1910 to correspond with the year of the Mexican Revolution. While working for prominent American capitalists during her trips to the United States, Kahlo used her paintings to criticize the disparity between wealthy and impoverished Americans during the Great Depression. Kahlo was also loyal to the Mexican Communist Party for most of her life, and last publically appeared at a Communist street demonstration in the summer of 1954, dying a few days later. Kahlo’s work was not widely recognized until decades after her death in the 1980s, when the Neomexicanismo style became popular in Mexico.

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June 2012

Augusta Savage
Social Change Sculptor

“How am I to compete with other American artists if I am not given the same opportunity?”

– Augusta Savage

Augusta Savage was a determined sculptor who refused to let her race and gender stop her from pursuing her artistic passion. She became a leader of the Harlem Renaissance and relentless advocate for equal rights in the art world.

Augusta Savage: Social Change Sculptor

Born in 1892 in Florida, Savage knew at a young age that she wanted to be a sculptor, but her father felt that sculpting was not in line with the family’s religious beliefs. Despite her father’s objections, Savage continued her efforts, but prejudice made it difficult for her to become established.

In the 1920s, Savage moved to New York City to study at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. While there, she applied to a summer art program in France, but was rejected because of her race. Outraged, Savage sent letters about the discrimination to media on both sides of the Atlantic. This event proved to be formative, and much of Savage’s following work featured African-Americans. Her early busts of W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey led to her 16-foot tall masterpiece, “The Harp,” which reimagined the musical instrument with singing African-American faces.

Savage spent the rest of her life supporting the artistic pursuits of African-Americans. She established the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts in the 1930s and opened it to anyone who wanted to paint, draw or sculpt. Later, when Harlem was feeling the worst of the Great Depression, Savage lobbied the Works Projects Administration (WPA) to help African-American artists find work.

Augusta Savage died of cancer in 1962.

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May 2012

Robert Rauschenberg
Peace Promoter 

“The artist’s job is to be a witness to his time in history.”

 Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg: Peace Promoter

Robert Rauschenberg, a painter, sculptor and mixed media Renaissance man, used his artistic talents to draw attention to social and political issues.

Creating collages, called “combines,” Rauschenberg transformed images from popular culture into commentary on society. One of his better known collages, “Signs,” displays themes of the Vietnam War, suppression of African-Americans and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 1984, Rauschenberg began the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange, an ambitious seven-year, 10-country tour to encourage “world peace and understanding” by collaborating with artists from the various countries.

Rauschenberg saw his art as a vehicle for philanthropy. Until his death in 2008, he was active in promoting charitable causes. He created original artwork to benefit the United Nations and the people of Tibet, and he founded the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation to promote causes and groups close to his heart, including education, the environment and humanitarian work.

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April 2012

Ansel Adams
Conservationist Cameraman 

“It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment.”

 Ansel Adams

Born in 1902, Ansel Adams was a celebrated photographer and environmental advocate who used his eye for natural beauty to promote wilderness preservation and help expand the National Park system.

Ansel Adams: Conservationist Cameraman

He first visited Yosemite National Park when he was 14, and wrote, “A new era began for me.” For the rest of his life, Adams used his passion for nature to capture the most beautiful places on Earth. His iconic black-and-white photographs set the standard for landscape photography.

His photography was only one aspect of his environmental activism. Adams joined the Sierra Club at 17 and remained an active member throughout his life, serving on the board of directors for 37 years. He created a photo book as part of the Sierra Club’s efforts to secure Yosemite as a national park and testified before Congress to protect wild lands. He was elected to become a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1966, and in 1980 Jimmy Carter awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Ansel Adams died in 1984, leaving behind critical protections for the lands he so beautifully captured through his art.

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March 2012

Edmonia Lewis
Abolition Archivist

“I am going back to Italy to do something for the race — something that will excite the admiration of the other races of the earth.”

 Edmonia Lewis 

Born in 1845, sculptor Edmonia Lewis gained international recognition through her many works around the abolitionist movement. She brought attention and pride to the abolition movement from around the globe.

Edmonia Lewis: Abolition Archivist

Before graduating from Oberlin College in Ohio, Lewis moved to Boston to study under Edward Augustus Brackett, a well-known sculptor. She met many influential Boston abolitionists and found inspiration in their lives, as well as in the stories of Civil War heroes and freed slaves. She created a bust of Robert Gould Shaw, the commander of an African-American Civil War regiment. Several other popular works include medallion portraits of abolitionists John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison.

After the Civil War ended in 1865, Lewis used the income from her work to pursue her dream of studying and working in Italy. She sailed to Rome to study neoclassical style, and her previous success made her studio there a tourist destination. A testament to Lewis’ renown as an artist came in 1877, when President Ulysses S. Grant commissioned her to create his portrait.

Throughout her career Lewis continued to depict abolitionists and incorporate themes of slavery. She often donated works to the YMCA and churches. She died in 1907 in London.

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February 2012

Gordon Parks
Inequality Illuminator

“The subject matter is so much more important than the photographer.”

 Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks, a largely self-taught photographer, musician, novelist and film director, is best remembered for his photo essays that chronicled the African-American experience.

Gordon Parks: Inequality Illuminator

Born in Fort Scott, Kan., and raised in a segregated school system, Parks experienced racism at an early age. When he moved to Chicago, he aimed to become a freelance photographer and share some of the injustice he experienced.

Parks combined a devotion to documentary realism with a knack for making his own feelings self-evident. The style he favored was derived from the Depression-era photography project of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), which he joined on a fellowship at the age of 30.

His most famous photo is from 1942, “American Gothic.” The photo shows a black woman, Ella Watson, who worked on the cleaning crew for the FSA building, standing stiffly in front of an American flag, a broom in one hand and a mop in the background. Parks had been inspired to create the picture after being repeatedly denied service that very day in Washington, D.C., shops.

After the FSA disbanded, Parks became Life magazine’s first African-American staff photographer. He worked there for more than 20 years, specializing in subjects relating to racism, poverty and black urban life. Parks also dabbled in film and music. He performed as a jazz pianist and even directed the 1971 film “Shaft,” as well as its sequel.

Parks died of cancer at the age of 93.

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January 2012

Margaret Bourke-White
People’s Photographer

“It is my firm belief that democracy will not lose hold as long as people really know what is going on, and the photographer has a very valuable part to do in showing what is going on.”

– Margaret Bourke-White

Margaret Bourke-White was a renowned photojournalist with a deep commitment to civil and political rights. Her work captured the poverty and discrimination of the South in the 1930s and the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust.

Margaret Bourke-White: People’s Photographer

Bourke-White became Fortune magazine’s first photographer in 1929 when she documented the working conditions in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Six years later, she joined Life magazine, and her photo of the Fort Peck Dam graced the cover of the very first issue.

She is perhaps best known for her photos of foot soldiers, generals and the destruction resulting from World War II. Accompanying the U.S. troops that liberated Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, she snapped some of the most difficult photos of her career. Her documentation of the atrocities of the Nazi regime gave Americans a look into the scale of human suffering that WWII caused.

After witnessing the horrors of war, Bourke-White focused much of her work on humanitarian issues. She covered Gandhi’s nonviolent independence campaign in India. In fact, she photographed him just hours before he was assassinated. Her coverage of African mine workers and apartheid in South Africa led one associate at Life to say, “Margaret Bourke-White’s social awareness was clear and obvious. All the editors at the magazine were aware of her commitment to social causes.”

Bourke-White developed Parkinson’s disease in 1956 and spent the rest of her life taking photographs and writing her autobiography. She died in 1971 at the age of 67.

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December 2011

Cleveland Amory
Animal Ally

“As anyone who has ever been around a cat for any length of time well knows, cats have enormous patience with the limitations of the human kind.”

Cleveland Amory

Cleveland Amory was a best-selling author, critic and devoted animal rights advocate.

Amory was born in Boston on Sept. 7, 1917. Upon graduating from Harvard, he pursued a career as a newspaper reporter before becoming the youngest-ever editor of The Saturday Evening Post. Amory rose to literary prominence with the publication of The Proper Bostonians in 1947, a critically acclaimed, lighthearted critique of elite Boston society. He followed with two other nonfiction works and later served as a commentator for NBC’s “Today” show and a critic for TV Guide.

In addition to his esteemed literary career, Amory was a passionate animal rights activist. He founded The Fund for Animals in 1967, and his courage, sense of humor and eloquence as the organization’s leader allowed for the expansion of the animal rights movement. He orchestrated a number of highly publicized activities against animal cruelty, including airlifting 575 unwanted burros out of the Grand Canyon and rescuing baby harp seals in the Magdalene Islands.

He wrote three children’s books — The Cat Who Came for Christmas (1988), The Cat and the Curmudgeon (1990) and The Best Cat Ever (1993) — about his cat named Polar Bear, who he rescued from an alley on Christmas Eve.

Amory died on Oct. 14, 1998. He is buried on the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch in Texas with his beloved cat, Polar Bear. Run by the Humane Society of the United States, the ranch carries on Amory’s legacy by providing a safe and loving home for abused and neglected animals from across the country.

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November 2011

Wilma Mankiller
Champion Chief

“I believe in the old Cherokee injunction to ‘be of a good mind.’ Today it’s called positive thinking.”

― Wilma Mankiller

Wilma Mankiller: Champion Chief

Wilma Mankiller was the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, the second largest tribal nation in the U.S. She is remembered as a champion for tribal community development and the security of the Cherokee people.

In the 1970s, Mankiller began working for the Cherokee Nation and learned how to establish much-needed health and education programs in her community. Despite extreme opposition and even death threats, she persevered to become the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1985, a position she held for a decade. Her leadership helped to double employment and build new housing, health centers and children’s programs in northeast Oklahoma, where most of the 200,000 or so tribal members live. In 1990, she persuaded the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs to sign an unprecedented agreement to surrender direct control over millions of dollars in federal funding to the Cherokee Nation.

For her hard work and dedication, Mankiller was honored as Ms. Magazine’s Woman of the Year in 1987, and President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998.

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October 2011

Gloria Anzaldúa
Radical Woman of Color

“I change myself, I change the world.”

― Gloria Anzaldúa

 Gloria Anzaldúa: Radical Woman of Color

Gloria Anzaldúa: Radical Woman of Color

Gloria Anzaldúa was a renowned author and thought leader in the field of cultural theory and an important contributor to the culturally competent approach to modern communications.

Born in southern Texas in 1946, Anzaldúa was a migrant farm worker throughout high school and college, allowing her to support her family and fund her education. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Pan American University and a master’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin, where she worked primarily with children who were bilingual or had special needs.

The publication of This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color in 1981, co-edited by Anzaldúa, challenged traditional feminism by describing the unique experiences of women of color. It went on to win the American Book Award in 1986.

Anzaldúa’s semi-autobiographical book, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, was a platform for her progressive thoughts on cultural awareness and acceptance. In it, she introduced the term “mestizaje,” now commonly used in academia to express the understanding between culture and identity. Borderlands is also recognized for the ground-breaking way in which Anzaldúa weaved together eight variations of English and Spanish to cross linguistic borders and further communicate about social divisions.

Anzaldúa’s body of work includes children’s books, fiction, and poetry. She died in 2004 due to complications from diabetes, but her work has inspired others to journey toward a more inclusive world.

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September 2011

Carlos Bulosan
Freedom Fighter

“The old world is dying, but a new world is being born. It generates inspiration from the chaos that beats upon us all.”

― Carlos Bulosan

Carlos Bulosan: Freedom Fighter

Carlos Bulosan was a Filipino-American novelist and poet who gave a much-needed voice to Asian Americans during the labor movements of the early 20th century.

Born in the early 1900s, Bulosan grew up on a farm in the Filipino countryside during an economic depression. The hard times of his youth became one of the main themes of his writing. He immigrated to America to seek new opportunities, but when he arrived in Seattle, he was met with racial hostility and low-paying job prospects. After surviving years of discrimination, starvation and sickness, Bulosan underwent surgery for tuberculosis. During his recovery, he taught himself to write and began describing the economic and racial struggles facing Filipinos in his homeland and in America.

His childhood experiences served as the starting point for his most celebrated work, the semi-autobiographical novel, America Is in the Heart. Published in 1946, the novel describes the collective experience of Filipino Americans, introducing their cultural experiences to a new audience while making a plea for acceptance among Americans. Bulosan died on Sept. 13, 1956, but his work will forever be credited for serving as a civil and labor rights platform that motivated activism among Asian Americans.

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August 2011

Upton Sinclair
Influential Investigator

“I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

― Upton Sinclair

Upton Sinclair: Influential Investigator

Upton Sinclair Jr. was a prolific author whose most acclaimed work, “The Jungle,” exposed the brutal conditions of the American meatpacking industry and led to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

Sinclair was born on Sept. 20, 1878 in Baltimore, Md. He studied at Columbia University and wrote dime novels and magazine articles to pay for his tuition. He continued to publish after he graduated, and in 1904 he was commissioned by the editors of the popular socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason to examine the lives of Chicago stockyard workers. He spent seven weeks undercover in the city’s meatpacking plants, learning every detail about the work itself, the home lives of workers and the structure of the business. “The Jungle” was born from this research and was first published in serial form in Appeal to Reason. In 1906, “The Jungle” was published in its entirety.

With the instant success of “The Jungle,” Sinclair became a true “muckraker,” a term coined by Theodore Roosevelt about reporters who were working to expose the downside to the Industrial Revolution. No novel since “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” first published in 1851, had made such a social impact. Public pressure led to the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, which established the Bureau of Chemistry that later became the Food and Drug Administration. Ultimately, Sinclair was disappointed that the novel had become known for exposing tainted beef rather than the poor treatment of immigrant workers, including women and children.

With the income he received from publishing “The Jungle,” Sinclair founded the utopian Helicon Home Colony in Englewood, N.J. In 1913, he moved to California and became actively involved in politics, organizing the socialist reform movement End Poverty in California (EPIC). He wrote and produced several films, including “¡Qué viva México!” in 1930-1932. He also hoped to become the Democratic nominee for Governor of California in 1934, but was defeated by Frank F. Merriam.

Sinclair died on Nov. 25, 1968. The Upton Sinclair House in Monrovia, Calif. is now a National Historic Landmark.

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July 2011


Bebe Moore Campbell

Mental Health Motivator


“As I grow older, part of my emotional survival plan must be to actively seek inspiration instead of passively waiting for it to find me.”

Bebe Moore Campbell: Mental Health Motivator

Bebe Moore Campbell

Bebe Moore Campbell was a New York Times best-selling author and mental health advocate.

Born on February 18, 1950 in Philadelphia, Campbell earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of Pittsburgh then taught school in Atlanta for several years before embarking on a career as a freelance journalist.

Critics began to take note of her skills as an author with the publication of her 1992 novel, Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine. The novel was named Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times and won the NAACP Image Award for Literature. Campbell went on to write three New York Times bestsellers: Brothers and Sisters, Singing in the Comeback Choir and What You Owe Me, which was also the Los Angeles Times best book of 2001. Through her work, Campbell sought to counter stereotypes of African-Americans as people who are socially and economically marginal. Her novels were known for their broad appeal to African-American and Caucasian audiences.

Campbell also wrote two picture books for children, Stompin’ at the Savoy and Sometimes My Mommy Gets Angry. The latter was inspired by her interest in mental health and received the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) Outstanding Literature Award. Campbell was a member of NAMI and a founding member of NAMI – Inglewood. Campbell became a visible spokeswoman on mental health issues with the publication of her 2005 novel, 72 Hour Hold, about a mother struggling to help her 18-year-old daughter who suffers from a bipolar disorder.

Campbell died from brain cancer on November 27, 2006 when she was just 56, but her legacy will forever be cemented as an author who challenged cultural stereotypes and brought important stories about mental illness to the forefront of national conversations.

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June 2011

Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzáles
Proud Chicano

“I am Joaquin/ Lost in a world of confusion/ Caught up in a whirl of a gringo society/ Confused by the rules.”

―Stanza from “I am Joaquin,” by Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzáles

Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales: Proud Chicano

Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzáles was one of the earliest leaders of the Mexican-American equal rights movement, commonly referred to as the Chicano Movement. With his poem, “Yo Soy Joaquin,” he helped define the meaning of being a Chicano.

Gonzáles was born on June 18, 1928 and raised in Denver during the Great Depression. His nickname, “Corky,” was attributed to his fiery demeanor, which his uncle coined by saying “he was always popping off like a cork.”

Gonzáles worked hard to save money for a college education and began attending the University of Denver. Though he took an interest in engineering, Gonzáles realized that he could not bear the financial burden of college and subsequently left school. He began to pursue a career in boxing, where he used the survival skills he learned growing up in the harsh conditions of his childhood neighborhood. Gonzáles rose to become an amateur national champion and one of the top fighters in the featherweight class.

His boxing fame and success enabled him to make a smooth transition to a political career. In the mid-1960s, Gonzáles founded the Crusade for Justice, which organized  high school walkouts, demonstrations against police brutality and mass demonstrations against the Vietnam War. He also organized the annual Chicano Youth Liberation Conference in 1969, which brought together large numbers of Chicano youth from throughout the United States and provided them with opportunities to express their views on self-determination.

Gonzáles died in 2005, but his contributions will forever live on as a communicator, community organizer, youth leader, political activist and civil rights advocate, where he helped forge a new spirit of Chicano unity.

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May 2011


Anne Frank

Anne Frank
Holocaust Heroine

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

―Anne Frank

Anne Frank was born on June 12, 1929. While she lived to be only 15 years old, she is considered one of the most inspiring and symbolic figures associated with the Holocaust. Frank’s diary — which serves as a first-hand account of her experiences hiding during the German occupation of the Netherlands in World War II — is one of the world’s most popular books.

In July 1942, Frank and her family went into hiding to avoid having to report to Nazi work camps in Germany. For two years, they hid in an attic apartment behind Frank’s father’s office without ever setting foot outside. During this time, Frank wrote extensive daily entries in her diary about the ever-present anxiety of being discovered by the Gestapo (German Secret State Police) and being forced into the Nazi concentration camps in Auschwitz. The voice behind her writing was filled with faith, hope and love in a time defined by hatred and violence.

In August 1944, the Gestapo discovered the Frank family’s hiding place after being tipped off by an anonymous Dutch caller. The family was shipped to the Nazi concentration camps. Frank and her sister, Margot, were eventually transferred from Auschwitz to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where they both died of typhus in March of 1945.

Frank was one of more than 1 million Jewish children who died in the Holocaust. After she died, her diary was discovered by her father who had it published after reading the captivating passages contained within. Even though Frank never saw her diary published, she would be proud to hear that to this day, it is still being read by countless individuals who turn to it for inspiration.

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April 2011

Rachel Carson: Mother Earth

Rachel Carson: Mother Earth

Rachel Carson
Mother Earth

“In every out-thrust headland, in every curving beach, in every grain of sand, there is the story of the earth.”

―Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson is the founder of the modern environmental movement and author of the ground-breaking book, Silent Spring.

Carson was born in the little town of Springdale, PA on May 27, 1907. She spent much of her childhood exploring and enjoying the forests and streams around her farm, and her interest in nature inspired passionate writing.

After attending Pennsylvania College for Women, Carson was awarded a scholarship to complete her graduate studies in zoology at Johns Hopkins University. She moved on to a 15-year career in federal service, eventually rising to editor all publications for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Her work allowed her to visit the Chesapeake Bay area in order to better understand the economics and culture of the region. This experience motivated her to author several books, but none as scientifically and culturally important as her last book, Silent Spring. Published in 1962, this landmark publication documented the detrimental effects of synthetic pesticides on the environment, animals, and humans. The use of DDT was later banned in 1972, largely as a result of Carson’s work. Silent Spring has been recognized as one of the greatest nonfiction works of the 20th century.

When Carson died from breast cancer in 1964, the Fish and Wildlife Service named its Wells, Maine refuge, “The Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge,” in her honor. Carson’s life and work set the stage for large-scale environmental advocacy, and has served as the inspiration for countless current and future environmentalists.

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Dr. Seuss: Literacy Leader

Dr. Seuss: Literacy Leader

March 2011

Theodor Seuss Geisel
“Dr. Seuss”
Literacy Leader

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

―Dr. Seuss

Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, was one of the most influential children’s authors and cartoonists in modern history. His approach to children’s literature was a radical departure from the dull texts being used in schools, and since the 1950s, his stories have captured the interest of millions of reluctant readers.

Dr. Seuss was born March 2, 1904, and many speculate that his career and writing style were influenced by his parents. As a child, his father encouraged him to visit the neighborhood library and learn about animals in the zoo, while his mother entertained him with rhymes.

Seuss attended Dartmouth College, where he was the editor-in-chief of Jack-O-Lantern, the school’s humor magazine. After Dartmouth, Seuss studied at Oxford University in England with the intention of becoming a professor. While doodling in class, he met future wife, Helen Palmer, who encouraged him to become an artist. He returned to the U.S. and began submitting comical articles and illustrations to media outlets, such as The Saturday Evening Post, Life, and Vanity Fair before working in the animation department for the U.S. Army during World War II.

After the war, he focused his efforts on children’s literature and art work, as he was bothered by reports of the illiteracy of children in the U.S. Seuss felt he could produce material that children would have fun reading. For his famous work The Cat in the Hat, Seuss took 223 words from the Dolch Word List and created a funny, zany book. This was the first in his series of Beginner Books, some of which he wrote under the name of Theo. LeSieg (Geisel spelled backwards).

Dr. Seuss’ work has inspired 11 television specials, three feature films, and a Broadway musical. His career honors include two Academy awards, two Emmy awards, a Peabody award the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, and the Pulitzer Prize. At the time of his death in 1991, his 46 children’s books had sold more than 200 million copies.

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Ralph Ellison: Civil Rights Scribe

February 2011

Ralph Ellison
Civil Rights Scribe

When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.

Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Named after famed poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ellison seemed destined to become a writer.

Ellison played the trumpet as a young man and earned a scholarship to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Though music was his primary pursuit, Ellison eventually dropped out of school to pursue a career in the visual arts. He relocated to New York City and initially studied sculpture, but once again changed his plans after a chance encounter with literary legend Richard Wright, who convinced him to pursue a career in writing.

Ellison served in the Merchant Marines during World War II, and after the war ended in 1945, he wrote the first line of his most famous work, Invisible Man. Finally published in 1952, Invisible Man explored the theme of man’s search for his true place and identity in society from the perspective of a black man in 1930s New York City. In contrast to the works of many of his contemporaries, Ellison chose to portray characters that were educated, articulate and culturally conscious. He also explored the contrast between the Northern and Southern varieties of racism and alienation. In 1965, a survey of 200 prominent literary figures declared Invisible Man the most important novel since World War II.

In 1969, Ellison received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 1985, he was given the National Medal of Arts. He died on April 16, 1994, but many of his works were published posthumously, including Flying Home: And Other Stories in 1996. Today, he is respected as one of the most influential authors of the 20th century.

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Zora Neale Hurston: Harlem Renaissance Folklorist

Zora Neale Hurston: Harlem Renaissance Folklorist

January 2011

Zora Neale Hurston
Harlem Renaissance Folklorist

“Mama exhorted her children at every opportunity to ‘jump at de sun.’ We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.”

Zora Neale Hurston

An American folklorist, anthropologist and author during the time of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston has been described as “the most successful and most significant black woman writer of the first half of the 20th century.” Perhaps best known for her controversial 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, which was made into a 2005 movie starring Halle Berry, Hurston also published three other novels, two books about folklore, and more than 50 short stories, plays and essays in her lifetime.

Born in Notasulga, Ala., and the fifth of eight children in her family, Hurston was raised in Eatonville, Fla. — the nation’s first incorporated black township — near Orlando. Because Eatonville was not integrated, Hurston grew up with no awareness of racial inferiority. At the age of 13, however, her idyllic childhood came to an abrupt end when her mother died and her preacher father remarried a younger woman with whom the teenaged Zora could not get along.

With her formal education incomplete, Hurston left Florida in her early teens to work as a maid to the lead singer in a Gilbert and Sullivan traveling troupe. Over the years, she worked at various menial jobs, eventually turning up in Baltimore in her mid-20s without having finished high school. She later attended — while working as a manicurist and a secretary — Howard University and Barnard College. Hurston studied anthropology at Barnard, and with the help of Franz Boaz and Elsie Clews Parsons, was able to win a six-month grant that she used to collect African American folklore. She also later attended Columbia University. After college, Hurston began working as an ethnologist, eventually incorporating her knowledge of culture into her fiction writing.

In 1925, Hurston went to New York City and began writing fiction. She is closely associated with the Harlem Renaissance and is considered an influence on writers like Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Gayle Jones, Alice Walker and others. Her work is an important source of black myth and legend.

Hurston’s last book was published in 1948, and as her popularity waned, she worked at various times on the faculty of North Carolina College for Negroes in Durham, Warner Brothers motion pictures and on staff at the Library of Congress. Eventually, she returned to Florida where she died in poverty in 1960, her work nearly forgotten and thus lost to most readers.

In the 1970s, Alice Walker, best known as the author of The Color Purple, helped revive interest in Hurston’s writings. Today her novels and poetry are studied in literature classes, women’s studies and black studies courses, and have again become popular with the general reading public.

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John Lennon: Musical Peace Maker

John Lennon: Musical Peace Maker

December 2010

John Lennon
Musical Peace Maker

“Imagine all the people living life in peace. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will be as one. ”
― “Imagine,” by John Lennon

John Lennon was a songwriter, lead singer of the famed British band The Beatles, and one of the most iconic musical artists in history.

Lennon grew up in Liverpool, England, where he first gained an interest in music. His first band, The Quarrymen, later evolved into The Beatles in 1960. Along with Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, The Beatles — considered by many critics to be the greatest rock and roll band in history — enjoyed unprecedented success in their British homeland before journeying to the United States where they became an international phenomenon.

After their break-up in 1970, Lennon embarked on a moderately successful solo career. In particular, he sang about anti-war and world peace themes, while focusing on civil rights activities with his wife, Yoko Ono.

Lennon and Ono took advantage of their honeymoon as a Bed-In for Peace at the Amsterdam Hilton in the Netherlands and would later stage another at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, where they recorded the anti-war anthem, “Give Peace a Chance.” This would later be sung by 250,000 anti-war demonstrators in Washington, D.C., during the second Vietnam Moratorium Day. Many of Lennon’s songs became musical symbols of the anti-war movement.

Lennon died in December 1980 after being shot outside his home in New York City. In all, as a performer, writer or co-writer, Lennon had 27 No. 1 singles on the US Hot 100 chart. Although he has been gone for 30 years, his legacy as a musician and peace activist still carries strong emotions for those impacted by his work.

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Peter LaFarge: Tribal Troubadour


November 2010

Peter LaFarge
Tribal Troubadour

“Gather ’round me, people, there’s a story I would tell,
About a brave young Indian you should remember well;
From the land of the Pima Indians, a proud and noble band,
Who farmed the Phoenix Valley in Arizona land.”
―Chorus: “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” by Peter LaFarge

Peter LaFarge was a singer and songwriter known for bringing Native American issues into the public spotlight in the 1950s and 1960s through contemporary folk music.

As a youth, LaFarge competed as a rodeo rider. After serving in the United States Navy during the Korean War, he worked as a rodeo cowboy where an accident almost cost him a leg. After recuperating, he relocated to New York City, where he became increasingly interested in music, particularly songwriting. As a singer-songwriter, he became well-known as a folk music singer in Greenwich Village, along with Bob Dylan, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Dave Van Ronk and Pete Seeger.

As a result of his performances in Greenwich Village, he was signed to Folkways Records and recorded five albums devoted to Native American themes between 1962 and 1965.

His most famous song, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” tells the story of a Pima Indian who became a hero as one of five United States Marines who raised the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima, but later experienced prejudice and became an alcoholic after his return to civilian life. This song was made popular by Johnny Cash, who covered the song in his 1964 album, Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian. It would reach No. 3 on the Billboard country music chart.

Tragically, LaFarge died on October 27, 1965, in his New York City apartment. With his powerful lyrics and messages, LaFarge is widely considered a pioneer in the Native American rights movement and is known for being one of the first politically aware Native American musical artists.

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Ma Rainey: LGBT Blues Singer

October 2010

Ma Rainey
LGBT Blues Singer

“You don’t sing to feel better. You sing ’cause that’s a way of understanding life.” —Ma Rainey

Ma Rainey was one of the earliest professional blues singers and one of the first women artists to record the blues. Her powerful yet raspy voice, unique melodic phrasing and trademark “moaning” style of singing earned her the title of “mother of the blues.” Rainey played a key role in meshing the less polished, male-dominated country blues with the smoother, female-concentrated urban blues of the 1920s.

Born Gertrude Pridgett on April 26, 1886, in Columbus, Georgia, Rainey began performing in her early teens. After she married Will Rainey, a fellow singer and entertainer, in 1904, she performed under the name “Ma Rainey.” The couple eventually formed their own group, Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues. She was discovered by a producer at Paramount Records in 1923 and signed a recording contract with the company. Ma Rainey made more than 100 recordings during her five years at Paramount, and at various times, her band included jazz stars Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey and Coleman Hawkins.

Although she was married to Pa Rainey, Ma Rainey was candid about her love of women, as is evident in her 1928 recording, “Prove It on Me Blues.” Today, Rainey is considered a woman of great courage for revealing her sexual orientation, as it was considered taboo during that era to speak of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) relations.

Rainey died of heart disease in 1939 at age 53. She was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame in 1983, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 and the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1992. She was named one of Georgia’s Women of Achievement in 1993.

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Odetta Holmes: Voice of Civil Rights

September 2010

Odetta Holmes
Voice of Civil Rights

“No one can dub you with dignity. That’s yours to claim.” – Odetta Holmes

Odetta Holmes—known simply as Odetta—was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on December 31, 1930. At age six, she moved to Los Angeles, where she studied music at the Los Angeles City College. Coached by a music teacher who heard her singing after school, the classically trained singer discovered folk music in her teens. Odetta created a name for herself using her powerful voice and acoustic guitar to give life to songs usually sung by ordinary people, as well as prison songs and slave plantation spirituals. Attention from Harry Belafonte helped push her into the national spotlight in the early 1950s.

Cited as a primary influence for songwriters such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, Odetta became a leader in American folk music. Injecting her songs with messages of equality and social justice, Odetta took an active role in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where she sang “O Freedom.” Her performance would forever serve as a powerful symbol of the civil rights movement, with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. going on to dub Odetta as “the queen of American folk music.” Despite this title, Odetta considered her role to be “one of the privates in a very big army.”

In 1999, Odetta was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Medal of the Arts. President Bill Clinton said her career showed “us all that songs have the power to change the heart and change the world.” Odetta was still performing as recently as October 2008 and had expressed wishes to sing at Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration. She died from heart disease at the age of 77 on December 2, 2008, in New York City.

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Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes: Chanteuse for Children

Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes: Chanteuse for Children

August 2010

Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes
Chanteuse for Children

“I want to give back to the world, what the world has given to me.” – Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes

Born on May 27, 1971, in Philadelphia, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes was an entertainer, humanitarian and social activist best known for being a member of the famed R&B trio, “TLC.” She first discovered her love for music as a young child, and by age four, she had already learned to play the piano by ear. After relocating to Atlanta as a young adult, Lopes became involved in the city’s thriving music industry. Along with Tionne “T-Boz Watkins” and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas, she formed TLC in 1992.

TLC went on to become the best-selling female group of all time in the United States and dominated the R&B charts in the 1990s. Lopes, recognizing her unique role as an entertainer, sought to become an agent of social change for thousands. She began routinely replacing one of the lenses of her glasses with a condom during performances—which became her trademark—in order to promote safe sex, especially among TLC’s predominantly teenage following. After spending most of the early and mid-1990s in the spotlight, Lopes spent a good portion of the late 1990s away from the public eye, instead choosing to perform humanitarian work. Following a trip to Honduras, she made it her goal to assist the nation’s impoverished people in every way she could. Many of her philanthropic projects benefitted victims of Hurricane Mitch, which struck Central America in 1997.

Tragically, Lopes died in a car accident in April 2002. When she passed away, she was in the process of fulfilling her dream of establishing a nonprofit educational and medical center on property she owned near the coastal Honduran cities of La Ceiba and Jutiapa. In her memory, the Lisa Lopes Foundation is currently dedicated to neglected and abandoned youth from low-income communities and diverse cultural backgrounds, providing them with innovative programs and resources to increase motivation and strengthen their desire to succeed in school and in life.

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July 2010

Woody Guthrie: Working Class Balladeer


Woody Guthrie
Working Class Balladeer

“I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work.”― Woody Guthrie

Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Guthrie was born in Okemah, Okla., on July 14, 1912. With a love of singing and music instilled in him by his parents, Guthrie took to the road in 1931 after an oil boom — and following bust — left his family and hometown in financial ruin.

After departing for California in search of work to provide for his wife and three children, Guthrie landed a job hosting a radio show on KFVD radio in Los Angeles in 1937. Singing traditional music alongside some originals as part of his hosting duties, Guthrie quickly developed a devoted following among the thousands of relocated migrants living in California who counted on him to remind them of their shared past and experiences. While on the air, he used his radio program as an outlet for social commentary and criticism on behalf of the migrant workers that were struggling in desperate poverty. Guthrie established himself as a champion of fairness and justice, taking on corruption in all forms and advocating for union organizers fighting for the working class. In this role, he was among the first musicians to use his platform as an entertainer to become an advocate for social justice.

As a migrant himself, Guthrie identified strongly with the homeless and disenfranchised, sentiments that he ensconced in songs such as “I Ain’t Got No Home,” “Talking Dust Bowl Blues” and “Hard Traveling” — all of which sought to give a voice to the voiceless. After his affinity for the road led him to leave Los Angeles, he continued to travel and record while maintaining an affinity for social commentary. During World War II, his passionate objections to fascism led him to serve in both the Merchant Marine and the Army. While in the service, Guthrie wrote numerous anti-Hitler, pro-war songs such as “All You Fascists Are Bound to Lose” and “Talking Merchant Marine” to help boost the morale of his fellow troops. He was ultimately targeted by the anti-Communist Red Scare in the aftermath of World War II, but remained an outspoken advocate for free speech and workers’ rights until his death in 1967.

Although he rarely won awards for his music in his lifetime, Guthrie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 and honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000.

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June 2010

Celia Cruz: Diva for Democracy


Celia Cruz
Diva for Democracy

“Celia was an absolute pillar as a human being and one of the most unselfish humanitarians I have ever met and am sure I will ever have known.” – Marc Anthony

Internationally renowned as the “Queen of Salsa,” Celia Cruz was born in Cuba in the 1920s.  Her lifelong devotion to education was instilled in her by her father, who had hoped she would become a teacher.  Cruz, however, dropped out of the national teaching college as her musical talents became increasingly undeniable, instead attending the Havana National Conservancy of Music.  After joining the Cuban big band La Sonoran Matancera in 1950, Cruz departed for extensive tours of North and Central America, taking her to Mexico in 1959 when Fidel Castro assumed power.  Rather than return to Cuba, Cruz and her band sought asylum in the United States – leading the new Castro regime to bar her from ever returning home.  Cruz became an outspoken critic of Castro, and an American citizen in 1961, going on to become one of the top selling salsa artists of all time.  Releasing more than 70 albums, three GRAMMY® awards and four Latin GRAMMY® awards, Cruz rooted her music firmly in Cuban styles.  With her success, Cruz became a Cuban icon – a representation of what was possible without the limitations of an oppressive regime – and used this status to give back to the Hispanic community.  In 2002, Cruz and her husband founded the Celia Cruz Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising funds for underprivileged students seeking to study music, while also supporting the fight against cancer.

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May 2010

Marvin Gaye: Anti-War Performer


Marvin Gaye
Anti-War Performer

“In 1969 or 1970, I began to re-evaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say. I was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home. I realized that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world.” – Marvin Gaye

Though propelled to fame by hits like “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” Marvin Gaye’s later musical endeavors made him the social justice advocate we honor today.  As his fame grew in the late ‘60s, Gaye increasingly felt his songs lacked relevance in the face of the dramatic social changes occurring in the United States.  After a period of self-imposed seclusion, Gaye returned with What’s Going On in 1971.  The album redefined what popular music could be: thoughtful, progressive and activist, What’s Going On tackled issues of environment, police brutality and racism head on.  But the album’s primary focus was the war in Vietnam, conveying a powerful anti-war message from the perspective of Gaye’s brother Frankie – a soldier who had recently returned from combat.  Despite prolonged objections from his recording company, Gaye insisted the album be released as it was intended, with social messages intact.  The result – the first concept recording in the United States focusing on social issues – was an enormous commercial and critical success.  Today, What’s Going On continues to influence musicians and activists alike, with Rolling Stone Magazine ranking the album sixth in their 2003 cover story, “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”  Gaye’s courage, commitment and passion for communicating the important issues of his day ultimately enabled other artists to follow him in crafting socially motivated music.

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John Denver: Conservation Crooner

April 2010

John Denver

Conservation Crooner

“I’m a global citizen. I’ve created that for myself, and I don’t want to step away from it. I want to work in whatever I do…towards a world in balance, a world that creates a better quality of life for all people.” ― John Denver

Born Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr., John Denver’s devotion to songwriting was matched only by his love for his fellow man and the planet. In addition to imbuing hit songs like “Rocky Mountain High” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads” with images of environmental beauty, Denver became an outspoken advocate for progressive causes such as homelessness, poverty, global hunger and the African AIDS crisis. Following his musical successes in the 1970s, Denver founded his own environmental group, the Windstar Foundation, in 1976. He’d go on to help establish the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; serve as on-camera narrator for “In Partnership with Earth” alongside then-EPA Administrator William Reilly for Earth Day 1990; and film an episode for the Nature television series focusing on the environmental inspiration for his songs. Denver devoted equal efforts to his fellow man. He served as a member of the Presidential Commission on World and Domestic Hunger and helped found the Hunger Project, a group dedicated to ending hunger around the world. Denver also used his fame as a songwriter to serve as a cultural ambassador to the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, hoping to open cultural ties with the United States and promote peace. He remained a passionate progressive advocate until his death in 1997. Denver’s final song, “Yellowstone, I’m Coming Home,” was inspired by the beauty of rafting on the Colorado River.

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March 2010

Marian Anderson: Barrier-Breaking Contralto


Marian Anderson
Barrier-Breaking Contralto

“When I sing, I don’t want them to see that my face is black. I don’t want them to see that my face is white. I want them to see my soul. And that is colorless.” – Marian Anderson

Born in the heart of Philadelphia, Marian Anderson rose from humble beginnings to become recognized as one of America’s premier vocalists – and used her stunning contralto to promote racial harmony. When prevented from performing at Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1939, the resulting support of President and Eleanor Roosevelt led to an open-air performance at the Lincoln Memorial.  The legendary performance attracted an integrated audience of 75,000 in still segregated Washington, D.C.  Anderson continued to use her vocal talent to break racial barriers throughout her life, becoming the first African-American to perform with the New York Metropolitan Opera, serving as a singing cultural ambassadress for the U.S. Department of State, and appointed a representative to the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations by President Eisenhower.  Anderson remained active in the Civil Rights Movement, giving benefit concerts and performing at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  Shortly thereafter, she became one of the 31 original recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  Winning countless awards, Anderson enjoyed critical and cultural successes throughout her career, until her death in 1993. The “Marian Anderson Award,” originally established in 1943 by Anderson herself as a singing competition, was re-established in 1990.  After her passing, the award was reformed to recognize “Artists Whose Leadership On Behalf Of A Humanitarian Cause or Issue Benefits Society.”

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February 2010

Frank Zappa: First Amendment Artist


Frank Zappa
First Amendment Artist

“I have four children, and I want them to grow up in a country that has a working First Amendment.” – Frank Zappa, September 18, 1985.

Frank Zappa was known as one of rock’s sharpest musical minds and an astute social critic. A lifelong free-speech advocate, he testified before a Senate subcommittee in 1985, and he championed democracy by urging Americans to exercise their voting rights. In 1991, after serving as a cultural liaison for the Czechoslovakian government, he considered a run for the U.S. presidency. Zappa’s continued interest in the political arena became his focus, working less and less with music.  His efforts helped to stir political interests in other artists, who today are increasingly committed to First Amendment issues.

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Mary Travers: Social Justice Songbird

January 2010

Mary Travers
Social Justice Songbird

“We’ve always been involved with issues that deal with the fundamental human rights of people, whether that means the right to political freedom or the right to breathe air that’s clean.”  – Mary Travers

The passing of Mary Travers in September 2009 marked a loss not only for the folk music community she helped create, but also for the many causes that she championed.  As a founding member of Peter, Paul and Mary, Travers injected her music with messages of peace and hope, helping songs such as “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “If I Had a Hammer” to become synonymous with the anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s.  When Peter, Paul and Mary reunited after splitting in 1970, Travers continued to back a variety of causes: opposing nuclear energy in the late ‘70s, taking on homelessness and South African apartheid in the ‘80s, and more recently performing in opposition to gun violence against children, for the rights of strawberry pickers in California, and to raise awareness about world hunger.  Mary Travers used her voice as an instrument for social justice, singing on behalf of those going unheard.