Jason Brown always had an egalitarian streak, but it wasn't until he served a church mission in the highlands of the Dominican Republic 10 years ago that the then-Brigham Young University student decided to stand up for social justice.
"It put a human face on what poverty and inequality look like," said Brown, now an adjunct professor at two Utah colleges. "Many of the people I worked with were landless peasants. They didn't fit the model conservatives put on the poor. They weren't lazy, they were hardworking."
Brown is among the 150 Utah peace activists whose stories Utah Valley University professor Kathryn French and her students have produced for an online oral history archive. That work helped win French this year's Gandhi Peace Award from the Utah non-profit Gandhi Alliance for Peace.
"People who do peace and justice activism don't get into the papers very often. They don't get into the history books. This is more important work to our world than fighting, but they really get overlooked," said French, who lives in Salt Lake City.
She started the project six years ago, "bumbling" along with a tape recorder whose audio quality wasn't so good. A grant from the Utah Humanities Council paid for the transcriptions and another from UVU paid for equipment.
The archive contains histories taken from outspoken figures such as attorneys Rocky Anderson and Ron Yengich to the late folk singer Utah Phillips to community organizer Ashley Sanders, the one-time student behind BYU's "alternative" commencement and other memorable campaigns, such as the Lorax's appearance at the Utah Legislature to lobby on behalf of the trees.
When Brown arrived in Utah in 2004 to study anthropology at BYU, he took on causes drawing attention to the growing inequalities at home and what he saw as the injustice of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. At an Honor the Troops event on campus, he held a sign that read "Peace is honorable" while ROTC cadets twirled their rifles.
"Documenting what normal people are doing every day is not only validating what they do but shows others who might feel alone in their convictions that they aren't alone. There are a lot of people working for a better world," said Brown, who is also a seasonal forester and program coordinator for Utah Interfaith Power & Light.
An adjunct professor of religion and ethics, he is now leading a campaign to improve compensation and job security for fellow adjuncts at UVU and Salt Lake Community College.
French believes Utahns had "big reasons" to become activists because the federal government militarized the state's landscape during the Cold War.
"We are downwinders. We had the MX missile, the biological weapons test site, the Tooele depot," said French, who holds a doctorate in educational psychology and has been closely associated with UVU's environmental studies and peace and justice programs. She recently retired after 17 years at UVU and is moving to Tucson.
Gandhi Peace Award
P Utah Valley University professor Kathryn French will be honored Sunday at 4 p.m. at the Gandi Alliance for Peace's birthday celebration of Mohandas Gandhi, in Tracy Aviary's Chase Mill in Liberty Park. Admission is free. The oral histories of Utah peace activists produced by French and her students are available online through UVU, and at the university's library and the Utah State History Archive.
Past honorees include Utah law school dean Hiram Chodosh, author Terry Tempest Williams and UVU philosophy professor Michael Minch, who directs the school's peace and justice studies program.