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Oakland Remembers Harvey Milk, Monument Dedicated

by Karin McKie

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday May 29, 2013

"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has been rescinded and marriage equality is gradually gaining acceptance state-by-state, like slow-motion dominoes. The law of the land is moving toward tolerance and acceptance of sexual identity. A leading impetus in LGBTQ rights advancement came with the election of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician to be elected into public office in California in 1978. The former San Francisco Supervisor will be honored in bronze on Friday, May 31, in northern California.

The Oakland Chamber of Commerce's Remember Them: Champions of Humanity event will be held at 3 p.m. at Henry J. Kaiser Memorial Park, marking the final dedication of the four-section monument created by sculptor Mario Chiodo. Including Milk, the larger-than-life sculpture features 25 culturally diverse international role models who have made significant contributions toward global peace, freedom and human rights over the past 150 years.

Council President Pro Tempore Rebecca D. Kaplan said, "I'm especially pleased that the project pays tribute to Harvey Milk. He paved the way for so many, and, as Oakland's first openly-lesbian council member, his story and leadership were a significant part of my own inspiration to dedicate myself to public service."

The Champions of Humanity landmark is a prominent addition to public art in the Bay Area. Located downtown at Rashida Muhammad and 19th Streets, it's over 31 feet high, 52 feet long and weighs 60,000 pounds. The work showcases 14 local champions as well, as Oakland is known as a center of civil rights activism from labor issues to women's rights, and is home to legendary community activists and politicians.

"In a city with one of the largest LGBTQ populations in the country, it is fitting - in the month of his birth - that we memorialize Harvey's life in this special way," Kaplan added.

Remembering the activist's legacy is an ongoing enterprise for his home constituents. On May 22, people around the U.S. celebrated Harvey Milk Day, but Californians were especially reminded about Milk's "coalition of the us's," as Dustin Lance Black recently wrote in the Huffington Post.

"He understood the interconnectedness of our common struggles," the Oscar-winning "Milk" and out screenwriter wrote. "He believed that people who are very different deserve equal protection, and he knew that if we were ever going to win that freedom and keep it, we had to stick together."

Chiodo, an Oakland native, also understands the need for community cooperation, having grown up within many cultures. He was deeply impacted by the events of 9/11, so he gave up commercial work to focus on art for social justice.

"I wanted to convey the innate unity of all human beings, inspire our compassion and shed light on the truth of our shared histories," Chiodo said. "I hope that viewers of this 'Champions for Humanity' project can walk away with positive awareness. Once we are aware and exposed, we can begin the process of understanding."

To that end, nonprofit project officials brought in interns from local high schools. Chiodo, who donated the design and his sculpturing time, included the teens in every aspect of the project from design, mold-making, sculpting and engineering to historical research. Educational resources, such as biographies and information on each champion are available at High school curriculum plus teacher field trip guides and worksheets, to help students discover opportunities for personal inspiration, action and leadership in their own neighborhoods, can also be downloaded.

"Young people might see themselves within these champions, and use this in their own life's journey to overcome obstacles, and build better ways to understand and reach other people," Chiodo said.

This theme of inclusion not only encompasses sexual orientation but also differing physical abilities. The monument offers a "visually-impaired wall," which allows those with sight impairments to explore the characters on the monument through touch. Bronze castings of each champion will be mounted on granite walls, along with Braille and large imprints of well-known quotations.

"You cannot resolve the social injustices of one group without addressing the issues of all groups," Chiodo said. "People from all sides of humanity need to understand the other side from a common perspective." After the dedication on May 31, Chiodo plans on building a traveling exhibit of the entire project, including original artwork, diaries, sketches and monument castings.

"I would love to focus the exhibit according to each location visited," he said. "In addition to Milk, I would create additional artwork that includes other LGBTQ-focused individuals. I'm open to recommendations."

Among the 14 Oakland natives featured in Remember Them are Joyce Taylor, a humanitarian businesswoman and community leader who worked toward the termination of child prostitution; Dr. Marcus Foster was Oakland's first African-American school superintendent and committed to the power of education; Oleta Abrams founded the first rape crisis center in the country, and raised awareness about sexual assault; Ina Coolbrith was the first American poet laureate and first Oakland public librarian, who also mentored Jack London and Isadora Duncan; Oakland police officer John Grubensky died trying to rescue a family during the city's horrific 1991 fire; and an Ohlone Woman pays homage to the genesis of human life in the Bay Area, and to the 40 Native American tribes who peacefully lived together until Spanish settlement in the late 1700's.

Presidential Medal of Freedom winner and "mayor of Castro Street" Harvey Milk was an outspoken activist for equality until he was assassinated on the job in 1978. Others commemorated in the international section of the monument include notable civil rights activists such as six-year-old Ruby Bridges, who braved an angry, racist mob to become the first African-American student to attend an all-white elementary school in the South, in 1960 New Orleans, depicted in Norman Rockwell's painting "The Problem We All Live With." Writer, poet, and educator Maya Angelou, civil rights activist Rosa Parks and abolitionist leader and author Frederick Douglass are also featured.

Political leaders memorialized on the Champions for Humanity sculpture include peaceful Nez Perce Native American Chief Joseph; South African anti-apartheid revolutionary and politician Nelson Mandela; Mahatma Gandhi, pioneer of nonviolent, civil disobedience and leader for Indian nationalism in British-ruled India; WWII British Prime Minister Winston Churchill; and presidents Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who also co-created the United Nations.

Six of the champions are still living - Angelou, Bridges, Ibadi, Mandela, Tum and Wiesel - and six have won the Nobel Peace Prize: Ibadi, Dr. King, Mandela, Mother Teresa, Tum and Wiesel (Churchill won the Literature Prize). Yet Chiodo feels that the monument celebrates the common threads among these change-makers and everyday citizen viewers.

"This project is about putting everyone on an equal level," he said.

Karin McKie is a writer, educator and activist at