Dorothy Harrell was a teenager when she broke the silence about racial inequity in her first letter to the editor.
“I talked about a system that existed in our community that allowed all of us to go to school together,” Harrell said.
But when school was out, only the white children flocked to a teen dance club near Beloit’s downtown.
In 1965, black youngsters were not welcome, Harrell said.
The newspaper never published her letter.
But the young woman was not deterred.
The incident only strengthened her resolve that inequities in society must be addressed.
“Your silence will not protect you,’” Harrell said, citing a quote by poet and civil rights activist Audre Lorde.
Today, Harrell has spent a lifetime speaking up and working for social change, often one person at a time.
On Saturday, she received the YWCA’s annual Racial Justice Award at the annual Martin Luther King Day commemoration at Blackhawk Technical College.
“It’s always a great honor to be recognized in your hometown by people who know you well,” Harrell said.
Harrell was born and raised in Beloit, but the positive impact of her work is felt countywide.
An attorney, Harrell was part of a Rock County committee that looks at best practices in the criminal justice system.
“She brings the viewpoint of our African-American citizens and talks about their concerns,” said Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore. “That is valuable for the police department because we are responsible for representing everyone in the community.”
Along with participating in Justice Overcoming Borders in Beloit, Harrell has studied and raised awareness about issues surrounding incarceration, including the disproportionate incarceration of minorities.
She also has taken time to help young people navigate the criminal court system.
“Sometimes I attend meetings with them,” Harrell said. “Many times parents contact me because they are frustrated and don’t know how to best deal with the system.”
Last summer, Harrell was part of a coalition asking about cultural-competency training for people in the district attorney’s office.
Before earning a law degree in 1990 from the University of Wisconsin Law School, Harrell was a teacher and taught in the Beloit School District.
She later worked on the executive staff for the National Education Association in Washington, D.C. She returned to Beloit five years ago.
Harrell partners with the Beloit and Janesville school districts to address the academic-achievement gaps between white and black students.
The activist is a member of the equity committee in the Janesville School District, which includes students and community members.
“She is highly passionate about equity work,” said Angela Lynch, coordinator of culturally responsive practices in the Janesville district. “It has been extremely beneficial to have her expertise and her experience.”
Harrell gets people motivated in positive ways.
“She helps them see the need for this work,” Lynch said.
In the Beloit School District, Harrell has been part of an effort to encourage minority students who are Beloit graduates to come back and teach in the district.
“I was proud to come back here and teach,” Harrell said. “I would like other students to return.”
Harrell realized her potential to help others at Beloit’s New Zion Baptist Church, where she has been a member for more than 60 years.
“I’ve always been involved in different activities,” she said. “And it started at my church. It’s the church where my parents were active, and they made it a part of our family life.”
Every week for the past five years, Harrell has been part of a Saturday tutoring program at the church. It is open to all students, not just church members.
“We saw young people improve academically and also socially,” she said.
Dennis Baskin and Patricia Majeed nominated Harrell for the Racial Justice Award.
Harrell was Baskin’s elementary school teacher more than 35 years ago.
“Dorothy is respected for a number of reasons,” Baskin said. “She is a very giving person and is very concerned about her community and others. She is a transformational leader.”
Three years ago, Harrell became president of the Beloit Branch of the NAACP and restored confidence and respect in the group after it suffered a leadership void and low morale.
“She focused the organization on educational, workforce and criminal justice reform, and in this short time, the organization has yielded impressive results,” Baskin and Majeed said in the nomination form.
They called Harrell “admired and trusted by many.”
“She is what America stands for—hard work, determination and character,” they wrote.
Baskin is a member of the Beloit School Board.
Majeed, a small-business owner in Rock County, has known Harrell ever since Harrell taught her now-adult son at Merrill Elementary School.
“Dorothy always has been in the forefront making things better for people and humanity,” Majeed said. “Lots of times while we are sleeping, she is working. I think about her and get misty-eyed because she has persevered so.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.