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Last week, it was reported that Ku Klux Klan recruiting materials were found posted throughout areas of Westmoreland County. The flier, with the words, “The KKK Wants You!” featured an illustration of a person in traditional KKK robes, pointing in a fashion similar to illustrations of the “Uncle Sam” character used in army recruitment materials.

That night, Nov. 16, the YWCA Greater Pittsburgh held its 20th Annual Racial Justice Awards, where they reflected on the inception of the awards and its tie to KKK activity in the area over the past three decades.

20TH ANNIVERSARY—Brenda Frazier, left, and Lavera Brown reflect on the history of the Racial Justice Awards.

“There were people in Uniontown who were having swastikas painted on their garages. I remember reading a column about the Klan coming and them being protected by the ACLU,” said Brenda Frazier, a former county councilwoman and longtime civil rights activist. “Several groups came together to figure out how to combat Klan activity in the area.”

Together with Lavera Brown, the first African-American president of the YWCA of Greater Pittsburgh, Frazier discussed the Klan’s presence throughout western Pennsylvania over the years and the women’s involvement in the founding of the Racial Justice Awards. Brown also talked of Klan activity as recent as a 1998 rally in front of the Downtown courthouse, which was countered by the YWCA and other activism groups who rallied nearby in Market Square.

“There was a need in 1998 and clearly there is a need in 2011 so we are glad the YWCA has adopted the Racial Justice Awards to recognize people doing this work,” Brown said.

Each year, the YWCA’s Racial Justice Award recognizes individuals and organizations for their work towards racial equity in the Pittsburgh region. This year’s event, which drew close to 200 guests, was held at the Westin Hotel.

“Since 1992, the YWCA has sponsored this annual celebration to honor those whose personal actions reflect the YWCA’s commitment to eliminating racism. Tonight we celebrate the 20th Anniversary of this event,” said YWCA CEO Magdeline Jensen. “Twenty years ago, nothing like these awards existed. The Racial Justice Awards were the first of its kind.”

The awards recognized honorees in the categories of arts, community engagement, education, faith, government, public safety, and youth achievement. Many of the honorees expressed their admiration for the YWCA and feelings of both appreciation and unworthiness for being recognized for their work.

“You hear these wonderful things written and said about you and you almost want to say, ‘who are they talking about,’” said Rev. B. De Neice Welch, pastor of the Bidwell Street United Presbyterian Church. “I also owe a huge debt of gratitude to my congregation who allows me to do as much work out in the community as I do in the church.”

“I am deeply humbled to be here this evening. Building things in the community, reaching out to the community is something very near and dear to me,” said Diane Richard, a veteran patrol officer and police instructor who currently serves as spokesperson for the Pittsburgh Police Department. “As you all know, the youth today are in a desperate situation. I believe if you reach one, you can teach one; and sometimes you can only reach one, but that’s enough.”

This year’s community engagement category saw the pairing of one lifelong community activist, Cecile Springer, and a relatively new community activism organization, New Voice Pittsburgh: Women of Color for Reproductive Justice.

“For the last eight years we have committed our lives to promoting social and political opportunity to women of color in Pittsburgh,” said LaTasha Mayes, New Voices executive director. “We stand on the shoulder of so many women of color.”

“When I was young, the only place I could go outside of my neighborhood was the YWCA,” Springer said. “Overtime I learned that the YWCA had many objectives for girls and young women. What I didn’t know is that the YWCA is the largest women’s organization in the world.”

Other honorees included the Hip-Hop on L.O.C.K. program; Rex Crawley, assistant dean and a full professor of communication at Robert Morris University; the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee; Knight Sor, a concilation specialist with the U.S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service; and Frank DiNardo, a student in the Shaler School District.

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