Whether she's making phone calls to Guatemala to serve as a translator for a local couple adopting a child or sponsoring Cultural Thursdays events at Central Lakes College, Jan Kurtz makes every effort to "Think Globally, Act Locally," as her car bumper sticker suggests.
Kurtz, who is a Spanish instructor at Central Lakes College in Brainerd, was honored Monday as the 2004 recipient of the second annual Crow Wing County Human Rights award for her volunteer work to promote cultural diversity in the Brainerd lakes area.
More than 50 people attended the ceremony at the Crow Wing County courthouse rotunda sponsored by the Crow Wing County Human Right Commission. The courthouse was closed Monday to recognize the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, but was opened for the ceremony to honor Kurtz.
Kurtz said, much like the celebrated late civil rights leader, she also has a dream.
"I have a dream that I will be able to stop having to say in my profession why it's important to learn a language," said Kurtz, adding that politicians in particular should be required to attend a mandatory study abroad program to gain a better understanding of other languages and cultures.
Kurtz has worked as a CLC Spanish instructor for the past 10 years and began teaching Spanish at Brainerd High School in 1982. She previously taught Spanish in Forest Lake and White Bear Lake.
Becoming bilingual transformed Kurtz, giving her the gift of a new perspective on her life and the world around her. She hopes to inspire her students and community members to do the same.
"I just see language as important as knowing about computers these days," said Kurtz. "It's just a wonderful thing to add to your life."
Surprisingly, Kurtz wasn't a particularly good Spanish student at her Eau Claire, Wis., high school. She didn't like the coursework and was only taking the language course because her teachers recommended that she did to get into a good college. But at age 15 and after two years of struggling through Spanish, Kurtz traveled to Mexico with a friend of her parents to attend an intensive three-week study abroad program. She spent five hours a day in language courses and lived with a Mexican family to further develop her language skills and to learn the culture.
For a teenage girl of German heritage from Wisconsin, the experience changed her life.
"It was unbelievable to me at how big of a world it was," said Kurtz. "You see your life from a different perspective. I was psyched."
Kurtz attended Hamline University in St. Paul where she majored in Spanish. She also received her master's degree at Hamline in Latin American studies and Spanish.
Kurtz became active in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the Overground Railroad movement, serving for three months in Comer, Ga., as a Spanish interpreter for Jubilee Partners' Project Canada program. The Christian-based refugee program was working to get Central American refugees legally to Canada because they weren't being accepted in the United States, Kurtz said. It was called the Overground Railroad because many churches would sponsor refugees, providing them with food, shelter, English lessons and life skills they would need and they would stay in various churches while on their way to Canada.
Kurtz said she would hear horrific stories from the refugees, many from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, of seeing their families and others murdered and tortured. She also hosted foreign exchange students from Latin America who shared similar stories.
"Spanish up to that time had been fun mostly," said Kurtz. "But then I had an exchange student from Guatemala who said she was here because she was afraid of persecution and death. It changes things."
Kurtz no longer considered herself simply a Spanish instructor. She said she felt it was her duty, particularly because she's bilingual in a small community like Brainerd, to promote cultural diversity and become a resource for others.
"What I call human rights is being a voice for the voiceless," Kurtz explained.
Whenever someone needs a translator, they usually call Kurtz. She has traveled to Guatemala on medical missions with area medical professionals to serve as an interpreter and often befriends area Spanish-speaking residents to help provide a sense of belonging.
She has helped organize international folk dances at the college as well as Cultural Thursdays, which introduce CLC students, staff and the community to different cultural experiences. She is active in First Congregational United Church of Christ, where she coordinates church volunteers for the soup kitchen. She's also involved with Habitat for Humanity; Crossing Arts Alliance; Parents, Friends and Families of Lesbians and Gays area chapter; among many other nonprofit organizations. Kurtz said she attempts to contribute financially to many organizations to "Think Globally, Act Locally."
Kurtz started a conversational Spanish group, which meets from 5 to 6 p.m. Tuesdays at Northwest Pizza. The evening provides Spanish-speaking residents and those who are learning the language the opportunity to practice Spanish together in an informal setting and get to know others.
For about 15 years she served as a foreign exchange program coordinator and continues to help exchange students become accustomed to their new environment.
Kurtz said while the Spanish-speaking community in Brainerd remains small, it is bound to grow. She hopes she can help the community avoid the conflicts and racial tensions that have occurred in other Minnesota communities as a result of a large influx of immigrants from other cultures.
"They're coming and we need to learn about them," said Kurtz.
Kurtz, who lives in Fort Ripley with her husband, Robert Morgan, said she was humbled by receiving the human rights award. Carol Rose, chair of the human rights commission, presented Kurtz with the award. She was nominated by Sara Dunlap and Marcia Ferris.
"She has made a difference in the world and our world," said Ferris, of Kurtz. "She really deserves this."
Dunlap said she has admired Kurtz for her activism.
"It's like being awarded for getting up and breathing because it's always been a part of my life," said Kurtz with a smile.
At Monday's ceremony, Michelle and Oscar Gonzalez performed a Latin American dance in the courthouse rotunda. Lunch also was served for those attending the ceremony.
JODIE TWEED can be reached at email@example.com or 855-5858.
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