Kim Wassenaar and Rick Cardenas, two Minnesota disability activists, were honored by the Governor’s Council on the Martin Luther King Day Celebration. They received awards on January 20 at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul.
The ceremony was preceded by a civil rights march from the Cathedral of St. Paul to the history center. An overflow crowd heard keynote speaker Congressman Keith Ellison, Gov. Mark Dayton.
A lifetime achievement award was given to Josie Johnson, a community organizer and lobbyist who was the first African-American to serve on the University of Minnesota Board of Regents. She also served as the university’s associate vice president for academic affairs.
Wassenaar is the first deaf person honored with one of the awards. She is founder and president of the St. Paul/Minneapolis Black Deaf Advocates Chapter #25, starting the group in 1997 to help others feel less isolated. She has served as an at-large board member for the St. Paul-based Minnesota Association of Deaf Citizens (MADC). MADC is a nonprofit organization serving and representing Minnesotans who are deaf, deaf blind or hard of hearing. MADC’s services include advocating for the social, cultural, and economic status of people in Minnesota with hearing loss, and protecting their rights as citizens.
Wassenaar has held leadership roles on the Minnesota Commission for Deaf, Deaf Blind and Hard of Hearing, Minnesota Deaf Campers and Deaf Women of Minnesota. Her other activities have included membership in the Great Lakes Deaf Bowling Association, league bowling and the Twin Cities Bowling Association A resident of Coon Rapids, Wassenaar is a native of Dayton, Ohio. In a 1997 interview, Wassenaar explained that she grew up partly hearing and partly hard of hearing. She attended the Model Secondary School for the Deaf in Washington, D.C., where she learned American Sign Language.
Wassenaar moved to Minnesota after graduation in 1978. Two days after arriving in the Twin Cities to attend technical college, she became totally deaf. She transferred to what is now Northeast Metro Intermediate School District 916, and graduated from there with a degree in early childhood education. Wassenaar and her husband Gerry, who is also deaf, have two grown daughters.
Cardenas is co-director of St. Paul-based Advocating Changes Together (ACT). ACT is a statewide self-advocacy group, run by and for people with disabilities. He began working at ACT in 1996 and became its co-director in 1998.
Cardenas grew up in a union family, with politically involved parents. His own days of working on campaigns began as a youth.
Shortly after his high school graduation in 1960, Cardenas was injured in an auto accident that left him quadriplegic, He is now one of the oldest quadriplegics in Minnesota. He studied sociology and political science at Hamline University, and then pursued a master’s degree in social work at the University of Minnesota. Instead of becoming a social worker, Cardenas became a community organizer. He first worked with legendary labor figure Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers’ organizing committee. He also worked as an organizer with the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, before going to ACT.
At ACT Cardenas has worked mainly in public policy and leadership development. Cardenas is a familiar figure at the state capitol and many area meetings where disability issues are discussed. He has worked extensively with ACT’s Remembering with Dignity Coalition which works to honor people who died in Minnesota’s state institutions. Cardenas has also led numerous workshops to empower people with disabilities and help them become confident and effective self-advocates.
Cardenas recently received an award from the city of St. Paul, for his work to get a street-to-skyway elevator and stairway connection built in time for the opening of the Central Corridor or Green Line light rail service.
One honoree, attorney and civil rights advocate Manuel Paul Guerrero, was honored posthumously. He died in January, just days before the event. Other honorees are Cameroonian Community of Minnesota leader Michael Fondungallah, human rights advocate Jocelyn Ancheta, motivational speaker and performer Tou Ger Bennett Xiong, Chicano Latino Affairs Council Executive Director Hector Garcia, former St. Paul School Board Member Elona Street-Stewart, domestic violence victims’ advocate Margaret Bushinger, Native America community leader Altin Paulsen, and Sierra Leonean activist Rebecca Johnson.