(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – The DC Commission on Human Rights, DC City Administrator Allen Y. Lew, and City Councilmembers celebrated the 35th anniversary of the DC Human Rights Act at the DC Commission on Human Rights Awards Gala Monday night. Award recipients included members of the 1977 City Council that passed the Act, Barbara Lett Simmons for her lifelong commitment to human rights advocacy, and students of the Youth Human Rights Ambassador contest. Additionally, Mayor Vincent C. Gray proclaimed December 17 “District of Columbia Human Rights Act Day,” in honor of the non-discrimination law.
“It took foresight and courage for members of the City Council to pass the Human Rights Act in 1977, and it is because of their courage that DC can proudly claim to have one of the most progressive non-discrimination laws in the nation,” said the Commission’s Chief Judge David Simmons. “These members represent the District’s commitment to diversity, inclusion and social justice, and the youth we award tonight represent the future of that commitment.”
Fourteen students were finalists in the Youth Human Rights Ambassador contest, and three projects were chosen as winners. Projects representing the Human Rights Act ranged from sculptures, to digital presentations and songs. The finalists were chosen at a November event at Georgetown University Law Center, where judges reviewed nearly 200 submissions from 14 District high schools. The program and contest are a joint project of the Commission and Georgetown University Law Center Street Law Clinic.
“The Commission serves beyond its primary role as decision-maker in cases of discrimination, by also ensuring our youth are aware of the responsibilities and rights that come with living in our District,” said Office of Human Rights Director Gustavo Velasquez. “We are proud many of these youth are here with us tonight, so they have another opportunity to learn about those who passed the Human Rights Act, and about the contributions of dedicated advocates like Barbara Lett Simmons.”
Ms. Simmons, who was unable to attend the ceremony for health reasons, was awarded the Cornelius R. “Neil” Alexander Humanitarian Award for her lifelong commitment to human rights. She was one of the first African American teachers to integrate the public school system in Montgomery County, MD, served on the DC Board of Education from 1973-1986, was a renowned advocate for education in DC after she left the Board, and was a Democratic National Committee Woman for more 20 years. She paid particular attention to the rights of the poor and people with disabilities.
Winners of the Youth Human Rights Ambassador contest – announced at the Awards Gala – were Nkechiryerem Agbaerueke of School Without Walls in first place, and Zarina Farmer-George of School Without Walls in second place. There was a tie for third place between two projects: one by Alena Mayershaya and Kyrylo Korol from School Without Walls and the other by Simone Tucker, Hannibal Bernard, Ke'asiah McLaughlin, and Antoinee Ross from Eastern Senior High School.
The Awards Gala is an annual event hosted by the Commission on Human Rights. The Georgetown University Law Center Street Law Clinic seeks to provide a greater understanding of the law to District high school students, using current law students as teachers.
About the District of Columbia Commission on Human Rights
The Commission on Human Rights is a quasi-independent body whose primary function is to adjudicate private sector discrimination complaints brought under the DC Human Rights Act. It is comprised of 15 volunteer Commissioners appointed by the Mayor and confirmed by the City Council. Three administrative law judges assist the Commission in upholding its responsibilities.
About the District of Columbia Office of Human Rights
The District of Columbia Office of Human Rights (OHR) was established to eradicate discrimination, increase equal opportunity and protect human rights for persons who live in or visit the District of Columbia. The agency enforces local and federal human rights laws, including the DC Human Rights Act, by providing a legal process to those who believe they have been discriminated against. OHR also proactively enforces human rights in the District through Director’s Inquiries, which allow it to identify and investigate practices and policies that may be discriminatory.