On Oct. 21, the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine presented the 2021 Gerda Haas Award for Excellence in Human Rights Education and Leadership to Dr. Grace Valenzuela, PPS executive director of communications and community partnerships.

Dr. Grace Valenzuela, executive director for communications and community partnerships for the Portland Public Schools, has been selected by the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine (HHRC) as the recipient of the 2021 Gerda Haas Award for Excellence in Human Rights Education and Leadership. Dr. Valenzuela received the award at HHRC’s virtual annual meeting on Thursday, Oct. 21. The meeting this year honored the memory of HHRC founding visionary Gerda Haas, who passed away this past summer.

HHRC promotes universal respect for human rights through outreach and education. Haas, HHRC’s founder, inspired many with her passion for human rights education. A Holocaust survivor originally from Germany, Haas learned that students weren’t being taught about the Holocaust in Maine schools. She not only identified a critical educational void, she took action to rectify it. HHRC welcomes the opportunity each year to recognize and honor an individual who, like Haas, has demonstrated excellence and initiative in human rights education and leadership.

In presenting the award to Dr. Valenzuela, HHRC Board treasurer and legislative coordinator Jenna Vendil listed her exceptional accomplishments and summarized them by saying: “Dr. Grace Valenzuela is one of Maine’s unsung heroes in the work of racial justice and human rights.”

PPS Superintendent Xavier Botana said, “Dr. Grace Valenzuela is most deserving of this recognition. The Portland Public Schools is Maine’s largest and most diverse school district, with about one-third of our students coming from homes where languages other than English are spoken. It is thanks to Grace’s long years of hard work, dedication and leadership that we have our own Multilingual and Multicultural Center that stands out as a model in Maine for meeting the needs of our diverse students and their families. Grace is a fierce champion for social justice for all students and families. We are deeply grateful to her for all she has done and continues to do for the Portland Public Schools.”

Dr. Valenzuela, who holds a PhD in public policy with a concentration in educational leadership and policy from the University of Southern Maine, is originally from the Philippines. She has worked for the Portland Public School since the 1980s, beginning her career as an ELL teacher before moving to the position as director of the district’s Multilingual and Multicultural Center.

In that role, Dr. Valenzuela did her best to make sure that students and their families received the education and support they were entitled to, assisting the Portland Public Schools in implementing and complying with the federal guidelines mandated by the landmark Supreme Court case, Lau v. Nichols, known as the Lau Plan. In 2007, Dr. Valenzuela founded Make It Happen!, an award-winning program that provides academic support to immigrant and refugee students, helping them to create competitive academic profiles and access financial aid to enable them to attend college.

Today, Dr. Valenzuela serves as the executive director of communications and community partnerships for the district, a position that brings together all of her past experiences, education, and skills.

“Grace has an infinite capacity for accomplishing a high level of quality work, at times with minimal resources,” said community outreach and development specialist Nanette Dyer Blake, who works closely with Dr. Valenzuela on the PPS Communications Team. “She credits her teams and colleagues, though it is her ability to think outside the box when confronted with challenges and an intense focus on how the outcome will best serve the community that sets her work apart. She also is well known for her party planning skills and the one many turn to when the order of the day is ‘fun!’”

In accepting the prestigious award, Dr. Valenzuela expressed her deep appreciation to the HHRC Board and staff.

“This is such a huge honor,” she said. “I am humbled to be in the company of some of the previous Gerda Haas awardees: Tim Wilson, the late Betsy Parsons, Pious Ali, ILAP, and last year’s honoree Assistant House Majority Leader Representative Rachel Talbot Ross – all remarkable and fierce advocates and leaders on human rights in Maine. I am also humbled by this recognition, knowing that much of the work I do is not done alone. It is always in community with passionate and principled colleagues, co-educators, co-activists, students, and mentors who are all co-conspirators in the struggle towards social justice, equity and liberation. This esteemed recognition belongs to them also.”

In her remarks, Dr. Valenzuela called for humane reform of the U.S. immigration system. She concluded: “Thank you very much for this award of a lifetime. I hope to continue to be deserving of this honor and live a life in the spirit and passion of Greta Haas.”

Learn more about the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine at: https://hhrcmaine.org/

The Portland Public Schools is Maine’s largest school district, with 6,500 students, and is also the most diverse. About one-third of the district’s students come from homes where languages other than English are spoken—a total of more than 60 languages. 52 percent of the district’s students are white and 48 percent are students of color. Approximately half of PPS students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.