For most of her life — almost as far back as she can remember — Lory Dance has been engaged in community organizing and activism. Her efforts on campus, in the city of Lincoln and beyond earned Dance the 2023 University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Community Fulfilling the Dream Award.
Presented during the university’s annual MLK Week observance, the award honors the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and recognizes individuals who have contributed to the campus or greater Lincoln community through exemplary action in promoting the goals and vision of King. Dance will be formally presented with the award during the MLK Commemoration Celebration at 5:30 p.m. Jan. 25 in the Centennial Room of Nebraska Union.
As she is recognized, Dance is paying tribute to the woman who instilled in her the spirit of activism and service, Helen Palmer Howard. Dance, who grew up in Petersburg, Virginia, joined the NAACP’s Youth Council by the age of 7, and had a mentor in Howard, the mother of her childhood friend. Howard was a leader of the Youth Council, a contemporary of King, and was friends and colleagues with fellow civil rights leader Wyatt Tee Walker.
“(Helen) was a second mother to me as a child growing up, and she became instrumental to my works to improve communities,” Dance, an associate professor of sociology and ethnic studies, said. “I’m excited that the impact she had on me, that started when I was a child, is still making a difference today. She became my mentor as she saw that I had the ability and interest to do this work.”
Dance eventually matriculated to graduate school at Harvard University, where she was credited with developing diversity programs that helped her peers. As a faculty member at the University of Maryland, Dance worked on programming regularly in both pedagogy and policy, and was the co-founding professor of the Minority and Urban Education Program.
After joining the faculty at Nebraska, Dance served on the steering committee for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion’s Husker Dialogues, has run workshops for effective strategies for discussing race, and has presented numerous times on classroom best practices for diversity and inclusion topics.
In the community, Dance is well-known for standing alongside and supporting the Indigenous community, including most recently helping in the fight to keep the Inipi purification lodges at the Niskithe Prayer Camp in Lincoln.
In her nomination letter, friend and colleague Christina Falci highlighted the many impacts Dance has made over the decades in many communities, but Dance said her most fulfilling work has been helping others find their own voice.
“I am comfortable to stand up, lead and speak,” Dance said. “What’s most meaningful to me is when I step back and facilitate for others, create bridges and create opportunities for others to do community-involved work that improves underrepresented groups.
“That’s something that Helen Palmer Howard did really well. I thank her so much for modeling how you step back as a way of supporting others, and look for ways to facilitate the community activist work of others.”
Dance was also honored to receive the community award because of the people who’ve been recognized before her.
“The other reason I am particularly excited about this award is because my chosen Lakota brother, Leo Yankton, won this award in 2021, and to follow in his footsteps is special,” she said.