On March 14, business leaders, educators, students and others gathered at Pacific Lutheran University to have conversation about race.
The People's Gathering Conference, founded in 2017, is designed to prepare people to have difficult conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion. More than 200 people attend the conference to talk about institutional racism, unconscious bias and other topics.
The event caught the eye of the Greater Tacoma Peace Prize committee.
On April 9, the organization announced the conference's organizer, Melannie Denise Cunningham, is this year's laureate "for her exemplary work promoting racial reconciliation."
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"American society is moving backwards," the committee wrote in its announcement. "Discussions to deny individuals their rights are no longer behind closed doors."
Cunningham, PLU's director of multicultural outreach and engagement, has been active in the community for decades. She helped organize Tacoma's first citywide Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration in the 1980s and was the event's keynote speaker in 2015. She serves on the Tacoma Sister City Council and regularly visits George, South Africa. She works with Women of Vision, an organization designed to help women and girls advocate for change in their communities.
She successfully encouraged Tacoma to become the first city to take the "Hate Won't Win" challenge. The challenge, inspired by the 2015 massacre at a Charleston, South Carolina, church, calls for people to show "an act of love to someone of a different race."
"Melannie is a visionary, educator, community servant and consummate peace builder," Joanne Lisosky, the PLU professor who nominated Cunningham for the award, said in the announcement.
Cunningham also serves as a mentor for students at PLU, where there are few administrators and faculty of color, the prize's announcement states. "It is necessary for students to experience teaching and learning from people of multicultural backgrounds," Cunningham said.
Cunningham hopes to inspire others to take action. She has stated that she was inspired to encourage others by a quote from Martin Luther King Jr., "A time comes when silence is betrayal."
Cunningham, who worked previously as PLU's director of multicultural recruitment, advises the PLU Gospel Choir and helps coordinate the annual Gospel Experience, according to the school's website.
The Greater Tacoma Peace Prize was founded in 2005 and the area is the only one with a laureate recognized by the Norwegian Nobel Institute. The winner receives a trip to Oslo, Norway, to attend Nobel Peace Prize events.