It was the “year of the woman” at 74th annual Freedom Fund Awards banquet hosted by the Reno-Sparks branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People on Oct. 19—and it was a great thing to behold.
This year, the NAACP gave its Eddie Scott/Bertha Woodard Human Rights Advocacy Award to two female policy makers—Democratic State Senator Julia Ratti and Reno City Councilmember Jenny Brekhus. Both women have long track records of dedicated work toward solving Northern Nevada's housing crisis.
But established female professionals were not the only ones recognized this year. Before introducing two of the evening's speakers, branch First Vice-President Andrew Barbano said that this was “the year of the students.” The students to which he was referring are tenacious, poised, teenagers Emily Hernandez Medina, 19, and Taylissa Marriott, 16.
Marriott took the stage first. Last year, she and her family received the Scott/Woodard Human Rights Advocacy Award for standing up the racial hatred and intimidation and death threats they'd been subjected to in Yerington. She and her sister, Jayla Tolliver, both high school students, found themselves in the center of a community and media storm in 2017 but chose to stay on at Yerington High School to finish their educations. Sadly, according to Marriott, the stress of the circumstances has since led Tolliver to move to Hawthorne to finish school.
In her speech, Marriott thanked the NAACP before explaining, “It has been quite different without her here with me, by my side in school—but, still, things are getting better. This year, our high school principal has been replaced with an African American principal. I'm not saying that our case was the main factor, but, if you think of it entirely, it was.”
Hernandez Medina, now a freshman electrical engineering student at the University of Nevada, Reno, was the evening's keynote speaker. According to Barbano, she was the first Latina and youngest person to have filled this role. She came to deliver the graduation address she'd been forbidden from giving as the valedictorian for the 2019 class at North Valleys High School.
“I have never seen such a group of disdainful, condescending people like the North Valleys administration,” she said. “When telling my school registrar about my goals of being valedictorian, the registrar laughed in my face and told me sooner or later I'd realize I couldn't be valedictorian.”
But she was, having earned the title with a 5.3 GPA and a slew of extracurricular activities under her belt—only to be told by the school's principal that her commencement address was too negative and wouldn't be allowed. In truth, the address—titled “To say the least”—mostly celebrated high school underdogs, as this snippet illustrates:
“Here's to all of the fine arts kids, STEM students and those in chess, robotics, Academic Olympics, Latino Club and Key Club—because we are only as good as the sum of our parts. While it seems like athletes are the face of this school, you're the ones who add so much personality and depth to this community. You're not invisible.”