When my mom taught third grade she didn’t like spelling bees because only one person was the winner.

Her philosophy was that all of her kids were winners, and her job was to find what they were great at and help them develop. So she had a board where each student was recognized as the expert in one area or another.

At OC Human Relations we look for those sometimes unsung heroes and recognize them for their outstanding contributions to making Orange County a better place for all people, and shine a spotlight on them at Awards 41.

Across America today, bigotry and violence between diverse groups is taking center stage.

As a human relations organization, our mission is to prevent hate from taking hold by investing time in building relationships among our diverse communities.

This positive program brings together a true mosaic of Orange County’s diversity. Many different perspectives, beliefs and opinions are held by our honorees. What they have in common is they are bridge builders.

If we are to realize a future where our diversity is a source of strength as opposed to a divisive force, we have to take steps today to bring people together. We have to learn how to respect those who fundamentally see the world differently and live as neighbors in peace.

Sometimes there will be controversy among our honorees, but at Awards 41 they will come together. At the City National Grove of Anaheim on Thursday at 5:45 p.m., this 41st anniversary of OC Human Relations will commence.

In Fullerton with the Kelly Thomas death and in Anaheim with the Angel Hernandez death, we saw the violent animosity of angry people pointing the finger of blame towards the police, city council or society in general.

The level of discourse in the public arena, often fueled by anonymous bloggers and political opportunists, fell to new lows. With shouted profanity, refusal to listen to anyone expressing a different opinion and marathon venting sessions, one wonders whether we are descending into a new normal where such behavior is accepted.

At OC Human Relations we think we can do better as a community, so we are honoring the following people whose efforts are trying to heal our wounds and build unity in our divided world.

Diverse Community Leadership Awards

Community Leader Awards honor individuals or groups who made extraordinary contributions to Orange County in human or civil rights. This year’s honorees are:

• Dr. Silas H. Abrego (Fullerton) for fostering an environment at Cal State Fullerton in which all students have felt secure, comfortable and prepared to meet the rigors of their academic endeavors. Under his leadership thousands of dollars of scholarships have been raised to enable low-income and Dream Act students to attend college.

• The Rev. Dr. Sarah Halverson (Costa Mesa) for being a tireless and courageous advocate for civic and religious organizations and justice movements, such as the rights of the working poor, ethnic and religious minorities, women, the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender community, the homeless, immigrants and other disenfranchised groups across Southern California.

• Las Palmas’ Leadership Team (San Clemente) for helping residents discover how to make positive changes through the power of community. The team consists of San Clemente residents from the Las Palmas neighborhood and two volunteers, Isobel Pelham and Joan Thompson. Prior to the formation of the team, the mostly low-income, Spanish-speaking residents of Las Palmas felt disconnected and isolated from the larger community.

• Superior Court Judge Wendy S. Lindley (Orange County) for changing the face of the criminal justice system in Orange County. Through her work — including Drug Court, DUI Court, Recovery/Opportunity Court, Whatever It Takes Court, Homeless Court and Veteran’s Court — she has used the court to encourage real and positive change among the lives of diverse Orange County residents.

• Michael Penn (Orange) for founding the Interfaith Youth Council of Orange County, whose purpose is “to come together to promote respect, understanding and appreciation for the integrity of each other’s beliefs, cultures and traditions through interfaith dialogue, education and activities.”

• Vicki Tmoush (Tustin) for promoting interfaith understanding and acceptance. Since 1978, Vicki has been active in more than 25 pacifist organizations and boards dedicated to peace and social justice. She has been instrumental in documenting hate crimes against the Arab-American community and has presented more thaqn 500 workshops on hate crimes and cultural diversity issues. Vicki is also one of the founders of the Interfaith Witnesses group.

• Venerable Dr. Thich Vien Ly (Westminster) for advocating for religious freedom, human rights and democracy. Under his guidance at Dieu Ngu Buddhist Temple in Westminster, there are ceremonies to teach people about how to live in peace, promote the good, eliminate the bad and respect differences but to avoid differentiation, division and disputes.

Community Policing Awards

Community policing awards recognize departments that have tailored creative strategies to provide service and build positive relationships with their communities. This year’s honorees are:

• Orange County Sheriff’s Department Neighborhood Enhancement Team – NET (Anaheim & El Modena), which was created by the sheriff’s and district attorney’s offices to address gangs, crimes and blight. Through the Gang Reduction Intervention Partnership, which the Orange County grand jury recognized as one of the most effective gang prevention programs in the state, NET utilized a multidiscipline approach, which consisted of directed enforcement, gang reduction, community policing and outreach. By working with fourth- to eighth-grade children who are at risk for gang recruitment, GRIP has been able to educate children, parents and teachers and significantly decrease the likelihood of crime activity in the area in the past year.

• Santa Ana Unified School District Police Department (Santa Ana). As the third largest school police agency in California, the Santa Ana Unified School District Police Department strives to provide a safe and secure learning and working environment through a clearly demonstrated, community-oriented policing philosophy. Since working with GRIP, the department has been able to see a significant increase in student attendance as well as test scores.

Distinguished School Awards

Distinguished School Awards recognize exceptional contributions to promoting, nurturing, protecting and/or cultivating a campus that is safe, welcoming and equitable. This year’s honorees are:

• Centralia Elementary School (Buena Park) is a thriving school that cultivates a safe, welcoming and equitable environment for its diverse student body. The school culture emphasizes “One School, One Community” by providing opportunities for parents’ involvement and engagement. Centralia’s teachers formed the Invisible Mentor program, allowing teachers to connect informally with selected students to show that they care and to nurture a positive school culture through intergroup relations and cross-cultural activities.

• Valadez Middle School Academy (Placentia). The staff, faculty, parents, and students have invested time, energy and commitment to three essential areas: equity, inclusion and safety. Their efforts to decrease obstacles related to educational success were solidified during the 2010-2011 academic year as they partnered with OC Human Relations to implement the “Stand Up, Speak Out, Reach Out” campaign focusing on inclusion, equity and safety. They have employed techniques to decrease bullying and increase self-advocacy and peer advocacy, to increase peer-to-peer mentorship between eighth grade and sixth grade students and brought global human relations issues into the classroom.

• Magnolia High School (Anaheim) has an extensive activities program which supports and honors the students and their cultures. Students and staff work hard in multipronged efforts to support the model of kindness. Magnolia’s Sents of Pride student organization, which is affiliated with OC Human Relations, is actively working to make Magnolia a safe, kind and inclusive school. This year’s campaign about hurtful language, “That’s W.H.A.C.K.” (Words Hurt and Can Kill), is having a highly visible impact on the campus.

Rusty Kennedy is a Voice of OC Community Editorial Board member and executive director of the OC Human Relations Commission.

Since you've made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.