By Joel MillsThe internet was just a kid when Bill Wassmuth died in 2002, so he likely had no idea of the vast reach his ideals would gain by 2020.
Wassmuth Center for Human Rights Executive Director Dan Prinzing said the Boise-based nonprofit named for the Idaho human rights pioneer was already expanding its online portfolio when he had to alter its programs earlier this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Things just seemed to fall into place.
“We were poised well to go digital,” Prinzing said.
A prime example is this Saturday’s 17th Change Your World Celebration. Normally, the annual fundraiser and gala is held in person, but pandemic concerns pushed the event online. The livestream runs from 5:30 to 7 p.m., and anyone can secure a free ticket by visiting wassmuthcenter.org, where there are also links to donate and bid on silent auction items.
This year’s theme is “Passion to Action.” Prinzing said attendees will be treated to powerful speeches, poignant musical interludes and even some celebrity cameos.
“They will all be articulating why this is all important at this moment,” he said of holding the celebration during the national awakening on racial and social injustices. “It really is a program about how now is the time to take action.”
Wassmuth epitomized that call to action. Raised on a Greencreek farm, he was a priest at St. Pius X Catholic Church in Coeur d’Alene in the 1980s when he found himself confronted with the misuse of theology for hateful aims by white supremacists settling in northern Idaho, according to the center.
“He lived through the bombing of his home and built coalitions to battle the Aryan Nations as chair of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations,” the center’s biography reads.
After leaving Coeur d’Alene and the priesthood, Wassmuth married and moved to Seattle, where he was the director of the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment. Upon his death, Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne called him “an early voice for human rights and human dignity in our state.”
The celebration is one item in a long list of programs the Wassmuth Center has available with just a few clicks. The center is the builder and home of the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial, a Boise site used for a number of in-person programs each year. Prinzing said all of the center’s work grows from the memorial, so it was determined not to lose that power.
For instance, people can visit annefrankmemorial.org to take a virtual tour that mimics an actual walk through the installations. Audio pop-up boxes appear throughout the tour to play inspirational quotes and messages in both English and Spanish.
“It just becomes a great tool, especially if we’re having to be physical distant,” Prinzing said. “Here’s where we can still engage in the space.”
The center also hosts a summer reading program at the memorial for children aged 4-8. With that not possible this year, staff took videos of people reading 30 different children’s books. Two are released every other week to provide something uplifting for families to do together, wherever they are. Topics include respect, dignity, inclusion and diversity, Prinzing said.
One of the center’s biggest missions is education and it provides programming and materials for classrooms across the state, along with an annual summer teacher institute. That was another service that went online this year. It consisted of three and a half days of virtual training sessions for teachers on human rights education. Prinzing said participants from around Idaho were able to attend.
But one of the things he was most excited for was the introduction of the center’s six-hour human rights certification program. It had been in the works for more than a year when it debuted Jan. 20, Idaho Human Rights Day. Prinzing said he had realistic hopes for its early prospects.
“Honestly, I anticipated that we would maybe have 100 completers in the first year,” he said. “We’re pushing over 500 now.”
The certification program is designed for the workforce and trains employees from nonprofits, corporations and government agencies around Idaho and the country on issues like diversity, inclusion, ethics, civility, respect and standing up for what’s right in the workplace. The explosion in interest was likely driven by the nationwide demonstrations after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May, and countless similar incidents.
“A lot of companies are in a moment where they’re asking, ‘What can we do as part of what’s happening nationally? How do we spark the conversation within our own organization?’” Prinzing said. “And that’s what the certification program is doing.”
But Wassmuth may have been most proud of the center’s “Upstander Program” that gives classrooms materials like posters, ebooklets and a podcast to encourage people to “step up and speak out” when they witness injustice.
“Being an upstander is a choice,” Prinzing said. “Just like being a bystander is a choice. That was Bill Wassmuth. What are you going to do when you’re confronted with hate? He stood up. He spoke out. And what I think what we are witnessing is a season where each of us is trying to figure out, what’s going to be my thing?”
IF YOU GO
WHAT: The Wassmuth Center for Human Rights 17th Annual (and first virtual) Change Your World Celebration.
WHEN: 5:30-7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 26.
WHERE: Full details for how to view and donate are at wassmuthcenter.org.
COST: Free admission is available online and the center will mail a Signature Celebration wine glass for a $15 donation.