When Joe Reed was a young teacher, Alabama's schools were segregated. Racism and discrimination reigned at every level of government. Voting rights didn't exist. And the notion of an African-American rising through the ranks of the Democratic Party to become a powerful player in Alabama politics seemed impossible.
But this never deterred Reed, who today stands as an embodiment of achievement in education and politics alike. He is chair of the Alabama State University board and chair of the Alabama Democratic Conference, serves as associate executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association, and is a member of the Montgomery City Council.
Reed's longtime goal, achieved through forceful advocacy and a keen appreciation of the political process, has been to involve African-Americans at every level of government and education -- to "wreck the wall of discrimination," as he puts it. Among other achievements, Reed recently drafted a redistricting plan for Alabama, which goes into effect this year, to empower more African-American voters.
Critics and admirers alike point to Reed's round-the-clock work habits and his commitment to get things done. He says he is proudest of his political achievements, which few would have predicted back in 1964 when Reed first became an official of the Alabama State Teachers Association.
It's difficult to balance public service and one's personal life, Reed says, but "one can't lead or make change working from 8 to 5. It has to be beyond the call of duty."
When 84-year-old Clara Link is asked about her Public Service Achievement Award, she reacts with self-deprecating humor. "I have been busy trying to save the nation -- a big job!" she remarks. "But my public service, if that's what you can call it, is: I write letters-to-the-editor in my community."
Link writes so regularly to the editors of the Pasadena Star News in California, in fact, that when introduced around town she inevitably hears, "So you're Clara Link! The lady who writes those letters!"
"That's my ammunition," Link says of her battered Royal typewriter, now entering its 44th year of service.
Her first battle was over a proposed school bond. But Link soon trained her sights on state and national politics, where she has been a persistent advocate for campaign finance reform and a variety of other causes ever since. She joined Common Cause in 1970, helped launch CC/California and has served on the CC National Governing Board.
"Clara epitomizes citizen action," says Barbara Margerum, who has known Link since the early days of CC/California. "She never lets an important issue go by without letting her voice be heard."
Link recalls the time when she was "a kid who grew up on the desert of Nevada and knew everyone in a 500-mile area." She has seen immense changes in Southern California since raising two children there.
Along with government reform, Link is big believer in reproductive rights and gun control. She has been active in the League of Women Voters and adheres to a kind of bipartisan political stance that asks the best of both parties.
The son of Japanese immigrants, Garry Oniki was pulled out of college during World War II and placed in a California internment camp. "Here I was," Oniki said, "in a sit-uation where money, status, education -- things you thought were so critical -- were stripped away, and I had been given a religious question: What is the meaning of life?... Living on the basis of a certain set of values became important to me."
Following the war, he attended divinity school and for the past 48 years has dedicated himself to a career in social service ministries, working to find new and effective ways to fight poverty and discrimination. Now 73, he continues to work with the Community Renewal Society (CRS), a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting poverty and discrimination …