WNPJ member to receive the Linda Sundberg Civil Rights Defender Award

On September 18th, Dennis Bergren will receive the Linda Sundberg Civil Rights Defender Award in Madison at Union South, 1308 West Dayton Street. All welcome from 5 - 7 pm that evening to join in the celebration with Community Shares of WI as we recognize this year’s Award Winners: Matt Dannenberg (Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters);  Kim Hogan (Disability Rights Wisconsin); and Dennis Bergren (OutReach).   Backyard Heroes will also be recognized, including WNPJ's Sheila Spears and Mary Beth Schlagheck,   To RSVP by 9/7,  call CSW at 608-256-1066.   Suggested donation is $40. Read more below, about Dennis Bergren, former Board member of WNPJ:

2012 Winner of the CSW Linda Sundberg Civil Rights Defender Award for his work in Madison Area Gay/Bi Father’s group at OutReach, and for his commitment to the LGBT Wisconsin Books to Prisoners program. Dennis can be reached at dbergren@charter.net .

“Dennis is a former teacher, and educating people is the thread that runs through all his work.  I see him as one of the OutReach family.  He was a client; now he’s a mentor, a donor, and part of the fabric of OutReach.”
—Steve Starkey, Executive Director, OutReach

“Dennis has made some huge sacrifices to make sure that others have an opportunity to educate themselves.  He’s an inspiration in showing us what a single person can accomplish.”
—Josh Bartz, Board President, OutReach

Dennis Bergren doesn’t think he deserves recognition for how he spends his retirement.  “I just do what needs to be done,” he said.  But instead of golfing, traveling, and relaxing, Dennis spends 7 days a week sending books to lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) prisoners throughout the country.

A former high-school language teacher, Dennis is passionate about learning.  After being involved with the Wisconsin Books to Prisoners Project, Dennis, who is gay, decided to establish the LGBT Books to Prisoners Project.  It grew from a Wisconsin-only project to a nationwide effort, and Dennis now fills requests from about 40-50 prisoners each week.

However, books on LGBT topics are not the only focus.  “The most requested books are dictionaries and thesauruses,” said Dennis.  “Other popular topics are history, religion, language education, and escapism like suspense novels—though most people do want LGBT novels and non-fiction.”

Sometimes requests are even more specific.  “One man wanted to enter nursing school when he was released. So I sent him old textbooks from MATC to help him get a start on his education,” Dennis explained.

Dennis receives some funding from New Harvest Foundation, and he gets individual donations.  He also works with local used bookstores to take any books they can offer.  But most of the project’s expenses—for books and mailing—come from his own pocket.

Some may wonder why Dennis reaches out in particular to this segment of prisoners.

It’s because he knows the isolation these prisoners face.  “I had been divorced for 15 years before I finally came out in 1985.  At the time I was scared to death.

“For many people today, some of whom are told they’re going to hell if they’re gay, it’s still frightening,” he said.  “Many of them have been cut off by their families.  And the prison environment makes it even more isolating.

“I treasure books, I value education, and so what I do is send books to people who ask for them.”

He gestured to the floor-to-ceiling shelves in his living room and added, “I love to read too.  But I’m so busy—I haven’t read a book in ages!”9/18