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'You cannot back down': Gilbraith to be honored Sunday for her activism

'You cannot back down': Gilbraith to be honored Sunday for her activism

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Athena Gilbraith will spend a good portion of Sunday evening on a Zoom call, waiting for her name to be called as the recipient of the Jo Ann Zimmerman Activist Award during the Third Annual Emerge Iowa DAWN Awards ceremony.

Founded in 2002, Emerge is perhaps best described as an interest group that recruits and trains women to become active in the Democratic Party. Iowa DAWN is the state's Democratic Activist Women's Network.

Who is Athena Gilbraith and why is she picking up some virtual hardware? That's the most interesting question. And the best answer to it might be found a long way from any political party.

Gilbraith picked up a hockey stick and strapped on the gear for the first time eight years ago. One day she decided she wanted to learn the game, play goalie, and compete against the best players she could find.

She worked at the sport until she was part of a team that won the 2017 Q-C Women's Hockey League championship. Gilbraith was 32 when she started playing and 37 when she hoisted a cup.

At 40, Gilbraith traded in the hockey sweater for another kind of jersey — a T-shirt with the word "Radical" emblazoned across its chest. She got the label from Davenport Alderman Ray Ambrose after contentious city council meetings throughout 2020 where Gilbraith and others raised questions about systemic racism, policing priorities, and a range of reform issues.

"I do like to compete," Gilbraith said. "I'm not competing against other people, trying to be better than anyone. But we have to compete in the world of ideas — and in policies.

"I think we have to talk about ideas and we have to show why some ideas are, well, bad. Some policies are bad. I'm more than willing to take on systemic racism. I'm more than willing to show we can have better ways to police our communities."

Gilbraith was an organizer before issues of police brutality and systemic racism were raised during the spring and summer of 2020. In early December 2019 white nationalist Nick Fuentes took to the stage during what was billed as an "immigration forum" hosted by the Scott County Teenage Republicans at Pleasant View Baptist Church in Bettendorf.

Gilbraith led the effort to publicly denounce Fuentes, an Illinois native who rose to prominence in 2017 during the "Unite Right Right' and has gone on to be a rising star in the America First movement.

Gilbraith's efforts to directly confront Fuentes' "white identity" ideology caught the eye of Julie Ross. Ross nominated Gilbraith for the DAWN award.

Gilbraith is the first woman from Davenport to win the Zimmerman Award.

"It's humbling to be recognized," Gilbraith said. "But it's not a prize. The award reminds me to not be timid because activism is not for the timid," Gilbraith said. "The fight, or competition, or whatever you want to call it is really against injustice.

"And if you're going to go up against injustice you cannot back down."



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