Courtesy photos: Above, Dianne Nagy, recipient of the 21st annual Dorothy and Eugene T. Butler Human Rights Award, initiated bringing the “Welcome, Neighbor” signs to Brookings in 2017. Below, Brookings Mayor Keith Corbett presented the Dorothy and Eugene T. Butler Human Rights Award to Nagy during the Oct. 27 city council meeting. Also pictured are, far left, Matt Rhodes, and far right, Lawrence Novotny.

Nagy initiated ‘Welcome, Neighbor’ signs in Brookings

Recognizing her for “demonstrating quiet yet determined commitment to inclusivity in the City of Brookings for many years in many ways,” Dianne Nagy was named the recipient of the 21st annual Dorothy and Eugene T. Butler Human Rights Award in October.

Nagy is the research integrity and compliance officer in the Division of Research and Economic Development at South Dakota State University. She earned a master’s degree in educational administration at SDSU and a doctorate from the University of South Dakota.

Her husband, Michael, is a professor at SDSU.

A local leader in human rights issues, Nagy spearheaded the 2017 drive for “Welcome, Neighbor” signs which were snapped up by the public.

“It’s a tremendous honor to be associated with other recipients of this award, whom I’ve long admired,” Nagy said. “I’m really humbled to be numbered amongst them.”

She thanked the Human Rights Commission for giving her the award and for continuing to recognize people in the community in this way.

Lifelong interest

Nagy was raised in the Baha’i faith, “so I have always held the firm belief that we need to collectively embrace the fundamental truth that humanity is one, that we’re all members of one human family, and if we can view all aspects of our life through that lens, then we can create a community where all can thrive and so that’s something that I have worked to uphold all of my life,” she said.

“I believe that all religions … come from the same source and they’re part of one unfolding, progressive revelation and so we all share these same spiritual truths,” Nagy said.

There aren’t many Baha’i followers in the area, prompting her to work with interfaith gatherings. She was one of the founding members of the Brookings Interfaith Council in 2010.

“This is a group that brings together Brookings area residents from different faith backgrounds, and pre-pandemic, we had monthly potlucks and we would discuss spiritual themes or ethical, cultural concerns, trying to foster understanding  and respect and appreciation of our diversity and kind of bridge some of those cultural differences,” Nagy said. 

Winds of change

Nagy grew concerned in 2016 “with the change in the political administration” and the Muslim travel ban.

“There seemed to be an increase in hate speech and incidences of aggression and racism; things like that were kind of rippling across the country,” she said.

The Interfaith Council asked the Human Rights Commission to join them and work with the Brookings City Council “to reaffirm the city’s commitment to equity and social justice and respect for human rights,” Nagy said.

She and a small group drafted what would become Resolution 17-022, “A resolution reaffirming Brookings values of inclusion, respect, tolerance, equality and justice, and the city’s commitment toward action to reinforce these values.”

Resolution 17-022 was unanimously adopted by the city council and signed by Mayor Scott Munsterman and attested by Shari Thornes, city clerk, on Feb. 28, 2017. The Brookings School Board and Brookings County Commission also adopted it, Nagy said.

One of the results of the resolution was the formation of a task force under the Human Rights Commission to implement the council’s resolution and work with the school’s administration, Nagy said.

Words not enough

After the resolution passed, Nagy and the others wondered how they could put those words into action.

“One thought we had was putting signs up would be another way to re-enforce that belief and remind people that this is something that we value,” Nagy said.

She saw signs on Facebook that had the message she wanted. The signs read “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor” in English, Spanish and Arabic.

South Dakota Faith and Public Life was offering small grants of money, so Nagy submitted an application, hoping to get the grant and use the money to purchase the signs, even though she had no idea whether folks would want them.

Since the interfaith dialogues drew about 40 people, she figured each of them could take two signs, one to keep and one to give to someone.

“They would have a conversation and initiate dialogue about the signs and how to promote inclusivity and kind of propel participants to reach out to their neighbors and build connections,” Nagy said.

When the grant came through, the Human Rights Commission matched the grant “so we were actually able to triple the number of signs that we could purchase,” Nagy said.

Originally, they planned to buy 80 signs, but wound up getting 220 signs, still not sure if anybody would want them.

Big response

They decided to just put the word out – and the public responded, Nagy said.

The 220 signs “were snatched up really quickly,” Nagy said.

The task force set aside 20 signs designated to be put on campus during the new student move-in, and requests for the signs kept coming.

“They kept a waiting list that had like 40 names on it,” Nagy said.

“The following year, a small group of us met with a local philanthropist who agreed to stand up some money to purchase another batch of signs,” Nagy said.

After stepping out in faith to purchase hundreds of signs, it was gratifying to see the residents’ response.

“It was really heartening to just be riding my bike around town and to see the signs just pop up, you know, all over,” Nagy said.

She’s glad to see the signs have stayed up, even though some of them have taken a beating from the elements. 

“I was just noticing that my sign is really getting beaten up and I need to invest in a new one,” she said.

The weather isn’t the only enemy of the signs.

“There were some reports of vandalism and of people’s signs getting kicked down or knocked over, but the people who had those signs resolutely put a new one up and were very committed to affirming that message of inclusivity,” Nagy said.

“I think it prompted some really rich dialogue in some of the community, and I think it helps people connect with others in ways they hadn’t before,” she added.

Connecting and healing

Nagy said the biggest human rights issue right now is racism. 

“I think that racism is America’s most vital and challenging issue and that we need to recognize it as a disease that’s spiritual in nature,” she said. “If we can develop the capacity to listen and understand and empathize with those who are struggling with these issues, then we can work together to dismantle the system that perpetuates these injustices.”

One way to do that, she believes, is to have civil conversations so everyone involved can learn about the issues.

“I think it really comes down to recognizing our common humanity and seeing that we all have the same hopes and desires for our families and for our friends, you know, and we all want security and love and compassion and all of those things,” Nagy said.

“If we can look past the things that divide us and identify ways that we can work together toward those common constructive goals, then we can be much more peaceful and civil in our interactions,” she said.

Hope for the future

In spite of the problems the world faces, Nagy has hope for the future.

“Oh, absolutely, yes I do,” she said.

She said humans are “noble creatures” with “wonderful qualities and capacities” and if we all tap into those qualities, “we can serve our communities and thereby transform ourselves and transform society,” Nagy said.

The chaos we see around us now is “part of the process of maturity and as these old systems that no longer serve us are crumbling, these new systems of inclusion and unity and justice are emerging,” Nagy said.

Contact Jodelle Greiner at jgreiner@brookingsregister.com.

COURTESY OF: The Brookings Register

Print Friendly, PDF & Email