Local Heroes: Plenty of people are making the city better for everyone, this year and every year.
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Artist, gallerist, creator of community
Back in 2010, Gina toured me through the recently established Blackbird Studios on Commerce Street — a couple months earlier, her beloved Place gallery on Main was busted beyond repair by the downtown explosion of 2010, and Blackbird was her big comeback — and a few things struck me. As much as she talked about the zesty lowbrow art she hoped to show (a zombie-themed exhibit was then in the works), she talked about community. About not only renting out studio space to artists, but creating opportunities (such as Drink and Draw events) that would provide a social structure around the essentially lonesome act of making art. About using the space out back for some kind of homeless-assistance program.
That emphasis on bringing everyone along is reflected in Blackbird’s effusion of group shows — memorable exhibits dedicated to atheism, our nuclear legacy and the current Grimm’s fairy tale show among them. Group shows are good for keeping a lot of artists, established folks alongside the emerging, in the public eye, and for sustaining the feel of a living, working scene.
But she’s down with individual action, too. When the downtown fixture Tiffany’s Cafe fell on hard times she pitched in, volunteering — as a waitress. Still does it, every Wednesday and Friday. That’s Gina, doing what she can to help preserve one small pixel of authentic Vegas. Come on, who among you would’ve done that? I sure as hell didn’t.
So that’s why Gina’s not only on this list, but is the face of it — if she didn’t give the most money or have the broadest impact, her open-hearted willingness to do the most she could on behalf of her community (or communities) is practically my definition of a local hero. SCOTT DICKENSHEETS
Founder, Purple W.I.N.G.S.
Toshia Shaw remembers the first time she spotted the need for young women’s mentoring in the valley.
She was a student doing field work at Westcare drug rehab when a girl was admitted in a condition that shocked her.
“She was butt-naked and high,” Shaw recalls. “That was the first time I had heard of black-tar heroin.”
It wasn’t the last time Shaw would hear of young Las Vegans facing seemingly insurmountable troubles, however. Some were in “the life,” a street term for prostitution. Others were suicidal. They were dropouts, victims of violence, 11 years old and pregnant.
Thinking back to her hometown of Memphis, Shaw recalled an organization that provided guidance for young women at risk. She researched Las Vegas groups, but found a void when it came to serving the needs of young women.
So in October 2010, Shaw founded Purple W.I.N.G.S., which stands for “women inspiring noble girls successfully.” And it has been a success.
Five months after opening its doors, the volunteer-run organization had reached capacity. Its goal for 2011 was to become the “go-to” organization for troubled girls, and it has.
W.I.N.G.S. students are referred by the Juvenile Justice System, Clark County Juvenile Courts, Family and Child Treatment of Southern Nevada and the school district, among other entities.
During a 12-week program, young women, ages 10-18, meet with mentors twice weekly. There they are taught self-worth and belonging. The goal is to keep them out of the legal system, keep them off the streets and out of gangs. In some cases, the food they receive during their sessions is the only meal they will have that day. In other cases, it is the first time they are told they are cherished.
“There is no judgment,” Shaw says. “The most important thing is that they are loved.”
For Shaw, who has a full-time job and runs the program 10 months out of the year because it is her passion, there is no problem too big or small. She is available to all young women in need.
“Whatever the source of the problem is for the girls, we find out what it is and we go out and try to mend it.” KRISTY TOTTEN
HOWARD WATTS III
Field director, PLAN
Howard Watts III worked as field director for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada and PLAN Action Fund to coordinate progressive organizations and their response to the 2012 general election. PLAN Action depended on telephones and shoe leather as part of a grassroots get-out-the-vote effort that helped secure President Obama’s win in Nevada.
In November, Watts won the Mario Savio Young Activist Award, a national award recognizing an organizer with “a deep commitment to human rights and social justice and a proven ability to transform this commitment into effective action.”
Watts is born and raised in Las Vegas as the son of casino employees, and began his career in activism as a high school student at the Las Vegas Academy, working with the homeless. His efforts continued as a student at UNLV, where he graduated in 2011, and as an intern for PLAN beginning in 2008. This year, PLAN and PLAN Action’s effort included registration of more than 7,000 new voters, making more than 150,000 phone calls and knocking on 20,000 doors in Nevada. Many of those contacts were with historically underrepresented voter populations.
Watts, 25, coordinates the organizations’ civic engagement, leadership development and youth programs. He lives in the Huntridge area near downtown. He says that the voter outreach program helped increase early voting by 10 percent in Southern Nevada. “We weren’t just bugging people, but getting people out to the polls,” Watts says. LAUNCE RAKE
Executive Director, The Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada
It’s understandable that someone who is gay might not be familiar with the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada (aka The Center), which is tucked away within the Island of Misfit Businesses that is the Commercial Center. The eastside complex hardly beckons passersby, which puts important spots like The Center at an exposure disadvantage.
But if you’re a member of the LGBT community and you’re unfamiliar with Candice Nichols, the executive director of The Center, well, you’re really not a member of the gay community.
Her participation in the local LGBT rights movement — especially in the last four years — has raised both her profile and her efficiency, motivating activists and concerned citizens much like she does her small staff at The Center. But her efforts are as much about community-building as they are equality — an important ideal when you have a loosely bonded gay populace.
There she was, in November 2008, at the podium outside The Center, speaking to a thousand-plus at a protest rally in response to the passage of Proposition 8, which excludes same-sex couples in California from legally marrying. There she was again, in the spring of 2009, with a giant busload of eager queer volunteers, lobbying legislators in Carson City for the passage of Senate Bill 283. They succeeded, and now domestic partnerships are the law of the land.
And there she was this summer, shovel in hand, breaking ground at the site of the new Center, at 401 S. Maryland Parkway. A much larger, more versatile and — this is key — more visible Center. This Center will accommodate more people, gay and straight. Its expanded resources means it will better attend to those with sexual and mental health needs. It will also offer a larger sanctuary to alienated gay youth and seniors. This is consistent with Nichols’ goals for the Center; she made those underserved groups a priority when she assumed leadership of the facility in 2004.
The new, $4 million Center — to be named after another LGBT hero, Robert L. Forbuss — will open in February. Its significance to Las Vegas’ growing gay community can’t be overstated. Neither can the influential mojo, outreach prowess and sheer will of its director. MIKE PREVATT
Advocate for humankind, tireless volunteer
Mel Goodwin’s work focuses mostly on LGBT issues, but justice for all is at the root of her mission. She wants fairness in economic and racial arenas, rights for undocumented workers and for “marginalized people to be treated with dignity and respect.” Until those things happen, Goodwin will have her work cut out for her.
As an activist, Goodwin has identified as a vegetarian since 15, a feminist since 18 and has focused primarily on transgender issues for the past four years. She’s a UNLV social work grad and a former employee of Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth. Currently, she serves as a youth services director at The Center, is the acting board president of Gender Justice Nevada, a chair of GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) and a community outreach volunteer with the Downtown Project, where she has also partnered with the Huntridge Neighborhood Foundation to spread the word about Circle Park’s reopening.
Goodwin is an energetic, cheerful person who is constantly smiling, and always has time for people in need.
“There’s a lot of needless suffering in the world that stems from injustice and hatred,” Goodwin says. “I don’t want to be a part of a world that’s just accepted. So my purpose is to push back on that, and change it.” KRISTY TOTTEN
State director, Mi Familia Vota
Leo Murrieta is a lot like thousands of other young people in Las Vegas. He is an immigrant, arriving from Mexico as an infant, but raised as an American and becoming a citizen in 2010.
Murrieta doesn’t take his citizenship for granted. He is working to increase civic participation among Latinos and Latino communities as Nevada state director for Mi Familia Vota, a nonpartisan political organization that is transforming politics locally and nationally. In the 2012 election, the rising political power of Latino voters helped lift President Obama to victory. Republicans now also are noting the importance of the Latino community, with some urging the GOP to abandon its shrillest anti-immigrant positions in the name of avoiding political suicide. That’s particularly true in Nevada, which has a Latino Republican governor and where Mi Familia Vota helped increase the share of Latino voters from 15 percent in 2008 to almost 19 percent this year — the largest percentage increase for Latino turnout in the country. Murrieta and his colleagues are well-versed in new information technologies, but the bulk of Mi Familia Vota’s effort has been based on direct engagement with the voters at the doorsteps and at community events.
Two factors have inspired his activism: His experience growing up as an immigrant, and his coming out as a gay man and participation in the National Equality March in 2009. That sparked his involvement in statewide electoral and issue campaigns.
“I grew up as an immigrant with very few opportunities and almost nobody offering their hand in help. My family, our entire lives, we depended on our faith and hard work,” he says. “Now I’m in a position and with an organization that is designed to help people and give them a voice, so unlike in my family growing up, they can have respect and dignity and a chance at equality.” LAUNCE RAKE
State Senator, District 1
Being an openly gay African American woman, the odds were already stacked against Patricia Spearman in Nevada’s November elections. Add to that her opponent’s endorsement from Harry Reid, and a victory for Spearman seemed impossible — or at least unlikely.
But Spearman, an ordained minister and 29-year Army vet, pushed on with determination, speaking to groups and people who, in turn, spoke for her. With the support of progressive orgs such as The Gay & Lesbian Center and Planned Parenthood of Southern Nevada, Spearman defeated two-term District 1 incumbent Sen. John Lee in the Democratic primary with 63 percent of the vote. This matters because to many progressives, Lee was a Democrat in name only. Spearman is a genuine progressive.
Spearman, who put her doctoral degree on hold to work toward a greater good, prides herself on fighting for health care, environment, union workers and for giving a voice to underconnected people.
It remains to be seen what Spearman will do in office, but her victory is heroic in itself, and, in replacing Lee, it’s a step toward some much-needed diversity in Carson City. KRISTY TOTTEN
Also deserving …
A few others we look up to:
Myron Martin — We’ve had our issues with The Smith Center, from the architecture to (hoo, boy!) the acoustics to some of the programming. But there’s no denying that it’s Southern Nevada’s top cultural facility, and Martin gets the lion’s share of credit.
Diana Bennett — The CEO of Parago Gaming quietly donates tons of money to charities.
Staff of the Barrick Museum — For fighting off closure and reinventing the museum as a vital part of the valley’s arts community.
Matt Callister — The attorney has filed more class action lawsuits on behalf of troubled homeowners than anyone. He’s won some, lost some — and he ain’t doing it pro bono, of course — but he’s really gone all out to fight back against banks and mortgage companies.
Don Watkins — Owner of The Coffee House in Henderson, bringing good coffee and evening music to the city’s largely uncultured downtown nabe.
Lane Olson — For bridging the gap in AIDS-related health care services by opening Action Red, a resource and education center, in downtown Las Vegas.
Brett Sperry — Art Square, the multiuse culture spot next to the Arts Factory that, among other public services, gave a permanent home to Cockroach Theatre, is an important part of the arts district’s next evolution.