Throughout Northeast Florida this year, there were many causes worth championing. And the region certainly had its share of champions. Some took up the torch of inclusion, justice and human rights. Others stood tall in the face of juggernauts, like the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, keeping the best case scenario for our region’s natural resources in mind. And there were others who worked to bring groups together who had previously been at odds.

The area is replete with active and engaged citizens doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do. While not enough time, paper and ink exists to adequately recognize all that stood for vital causes, we endeavor to highlight a few who made 2015 such a year of inspiration, with enough impetus to carry us all into 2016.

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Jacksonville Coalition for Equality
While the resolution surrounding a modernization of Jacksonville’s Human Rights Ordinance (HRO) lies in the near future for the city, the groundwork efforts that have brought the issue to the forefront have been ongoing for a few years. The Jacksonville Coalition for Equity (JCE) spent much of 2015 educating businesses and faith leaders, and the community as a whole, on the crucial need for expanding the HRO to end discrimination against LGBT people.

Dan Merkan, chair of the steering team that coordinates and directs JCE activities, says that in 2015, a group of concerned citizens — committed to securing passage of an updated HRO — developed a clarity of mission and a focus. Their efforts helped JCE hold dozens of community trainings. Ultimately, these trainings and conversations helped build consensus and gather support of more than 315 businesses and more than 100 faith leaders in Jacksonville.

Hope McMath, The Cummer Museum, Jacksonville
The Cummer Museum director is set to receive the President’s Citation Award from the OneJax Humanitarian Awards. In 2015, the Cummer, under McMath’s leadership, educated and empowered the city with thought-provoking exhibits. From the Whitfield Lovell exhibit, which examined African-American life from the Civil War to the Civil Rights era, to the Newcomb Pottery Enterprise, which focuses on women, art and social change, McMath used the tools at hand to engage the community in much-needed conversation about equality and justice.

For McMath, it is intuitive to use art to help break down barriers. She states that with every exhibit and community forum, “we are forced to learn and be vulnerable and humble about what we do not know.” It was this spirit of self-reflection that led her and her team to open the Cummer with no admission fee in the wake of the tragic events in Charleston, South Carolina. McMath says that it was vital to create a safe haven for conversation at that time.

Lisa Rinaman, The St. Johns Riverkeeper, Jacksonville
Known by many as the voice of the St. Johns River, Lisa Rinaman spent 2015 deep inside all things which protect the waterway that has always been a part of the city’s identity. The former senior staff member for Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton pushed back on the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers (ACE) on the dredging at the mouth of the St. Johns River. Strictly concerned with protecting the river and the ecosystems that it serves, Rinaman wants to ensure that any work the ACE does in the river is coupled with mitigation to replace and enhance natural resources that will be damaged during dredging.

Rinaman’s aim is not only to preserve, but to replenish and revitalize the river, which is why she continues to champion the removal the dam that obstructs the flow of the Ocklawaha tributary, which feeds the St. Johns’ water and wildlife.

Caren Goldman, Compassionate St. Augustine
“Being named a Compassionate City does not automatically make a city compassionate,” says Caren Goldman, executive director of Compassionate St. Augustine. Referencing both the recognition of St. Augustine becoming the 30th Compassionate City in the world, designated by the global Charter for Compassion, and the recognition that even designated cities have work to do, Goldman states that “compassion” must be a verb.

It was so in 2015 for Compassionate St. Augustine, as the group set about to create a legacy of compassion by making sure that the 450th commemoration of the city was alive with cooperation, collaboration and communication surrounding the four tenets of its mission: Freedom, Democracy, Human Rights and Compassion.

Compassionate St. Augustine played a key role in brokering a peaceful discourse between members of the Islamic Center in St. Augustine and a group of armed protesters, consisting of St. Johns County residents who were compelled to portray the Islamic faith as a great evil. Members of the Compassionate St. Augustine team were present to simply pass out cake and lemonade to people on both sides; in doing so, they facilitated a simple conversation that de-escalated the tension.

Chevara Orrin, EQ3 Media, Jacksonville
From the very instant Chevara Orrin set foot in Jacksonville three years ago, she was involved in the activism that has charged her whole life. In 2015, she helped bring the film to Jacksonville, to explore what she refers to as intersectional justice, where two seemingly unrelated struggles actually share common resolutions for justice. She also was integral in the Soul Food Shabaat, in which nationally renowned chefs explored the culinary, religious, and cultural intersections of the black Christian and Jewish faith traditions.

She closed the year by reviving local study circles, which occur in several locations around Jacksonville.  These are curriculum-based five-week conversations are led by trained professionals. Each topic covered relates to race and culture and the important role they play in Jacksonville’s past and future. Orrin believes, wholeheartedly, that the best way to work toward justice is in solidarity with one another.