Five Nebraskans honored by Civic Nebraska for helping to build a robust democracy

By: - March 20, 2023 4:45 am

People gather in the State Capitol Rotunda, just outside the area where state senators make laws. (Courtesy of John Melingagio)

OMAHA — Civic Nebraska, a nonprofit dedicated to voting rights and strengthening youth and civic leadership, is set to recognize five people who have helped build a “more modern and robust democracy.”

The Strengthening Democracy Awards program April 13 also will feature a talk from national voting rights activist and 2023 Nobel Peace Prize nominee Desmond Meade. Meade, recognized by Time as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2019, led a grassroots initiative that restored voting rights to over 1.4 million Floridians with past felony convictions.

The event is to be held at the Livestock Exchange Ballroom in Omaha.

The five Nebraskans to be honored demonstrate exceptional civic leadership and embody the Civic Nebraska vision of a collaborative and innovative society, said Adam Morfeld, executive director.

“Democracy is built from the ground up, which means many everyday acts can go unnoticed,” Morfeld said. “That’s why Civic Nebraska lifts up these civic advocates: to celebrate their vigilance and persistence.”

The honorees, and descriptions of their efforts, according to Civic Nebraska: 

Community Builder:

Eric Garcia-Mendez of Grand Island led the creation of the Elevate program. “When he saw how his community’s leadership didn’t always reflect the area’s diversity, Garcia-Mendez found solutions to better equip new American leaders for local leadership roles,” said a statement. He also initiated Young Professionals of Color and the Welcoming Initiative.

Civic Catalyst:

Rick Galusha of Omaha has brought diverse opinions together. Ten years ago, Galusha helped create the Free Speech Society, which has grown into 530 members. The group meets monthly to have respectful, insightful discussions,often led by community leaders. A professor, Galusha also leads Bellevue University’s American Vision and Values series.

Champion of Learning:

Cheyenne Hartshorn of Lincoln is active in promoting student-driven service learning and civic leadership. As an instructor at Lincoln Northeast High School, Hartshorn helped develop Capitol Experience Day, a Civic Nebraska flagship program that immerses students in the workings of state government. She has helped build other student programs and clubs.

Young Civic Leader:

Kendall Bartling of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln inspires young people to participate in our democracy. During high school, Bartling was on the Grand Island Public Schools board and became a deputy registrar so he could register young voters. He continued those efforts at UNL as chair of the Husker Vote Coalition, helping to register more than 1,000 first-time voters.

Jan Gradwohl Memorial Defender of Democracy:

Joseline Reyna of Grand Island is an organizer, reformer, and advocate for ballot access. As a “Dreamer,” she cannot vote because of her immigration status, but she has fought against restrictive voter ID laws and for expanding pathways to citizenship. In her YWCA role, she’s knocked on hundreds of doors and called thousands to encourage them to weigh in on a collective future.

(Courtesy of Civic Nebraska)

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Cindy Gonzalez
Cindy Gonzalez

Senior Reporter Cindy Gonzalez, an Omaha native, has more than 35 years of experience, largely at the Omaha World-Herald. Her coverage areas have included business and real estate development; regional reporting; immigration, demographics and diverse communities; and City Hall and local politics.