SANTA CRUZ -- The Rev. Deborah Johnson has worked throughout her career to foster understanding among diverse groups and bring divergent communities together to share in dialogue, including work on issues of race, poverty, the Middle East conflict and equal rights for minority groups.

In recognition of that work, Johnson has been chosen as the recipient of the third annual Tony Hill Memorial Award.

The award is given by UC Santa Cruz in recognition of a resident of Santa Cruz County who exemplifies the work and efforts of the late Tony Hill. It is meant to honor individuals for their efforts to seek solutions to the needs of the community, build bridges across diverse communities and develop innovative approaches to solving social problems.

Hill was a community leader, mentor and mediator who worked to improve the lives of the poor and underprivileged in Santa Cruz County. He championed affordable housing and better race relations in the area. He died in 2007, after which UCSC and Hill's family teamed up to sponsor the award.

"Tony was irrepressibly positive," said Scott Kennedy, the Middle East program coordinator at the Resource Center for Nonviolence, who knew Hill and has worked with the Rev. Johnson. "Tony refused to let his commitment to justice make him relate to people in a negative way. He was adamantly committed to justice, and deeply committed to treating people with respect.

"The same can be said for Deborah." The award will be presented at the 27th annual UCSC annual Martin Luther King Jr. Convocation on Jan. 31.

Teynote speaker this year is civil rights activist Terrence Roberts, a member of the "Little Rock Nine" -- the group of African-American students in Little Rock, Ark., who made history in 1957 as the first to attend classes under the federal mandate to desegregate public schools.

"We live in a community with many progressive people who are doing all kinds of extraordinary work, and to be noticed in such a wide pool of possibilities was really humbling," Johnson said in a statement.

She recalled the words of Martin Luther King Jr. when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize.

"He described himself as a trustee, and said he was accepting the award on behalf of a movement -- and that's how I feel," she said in the statement.

Johnson was in Los Angeles on Monday and could not be reached for comment.

In addition to being the founding minister and president of Inner Light Ministries, an Omnifaith outreach ministry, Johnson is also the founder and president of The Motivational Institute, an organizational development consulting firm specializing in cultural diversity serving the public, private and nonprofit sectors.

Johnson also supported the Sulah Project, which brought together Palestinians, Jews and other groups from the Middle East for cultural exchange and conversation at the Inner Light Center in Soquel. She has been an active participant in the civil rights movement and works on projects designed to help people affected by AIDS.

Recently, she was a vocal opponent to Proposition 8, the California proposition that banned same-sex marriage, at one point bringing together proponents of the proposition at the Inner Light Center for a forum where all sides of the debate could be heard.

She was the successful co-litigant in two landmark cases in California. One set a precedent for the inclusion of sexual orientation in the state's Civil Rights Bill; the other defeated the challenge to legalizing domestic partnerships.

"When she came here, Santa Cruz was blessed to get such an incredible person that is loving and giving and not afraid to call it like it is," said Santa Cruz Barrios Unidos Executive Director Nane Alejandrez, who worked with Tony Hill and has participated in projects with Johnson. "She always brings alternatives to dealing constructively with different aspects of community."

Past award winners are Luis Alejo, former Watsonville mayor and recently elected to state Assembly, and Santa Cruz City Councilman Ryan Coonerty.

Linda's Hearth note: I've attended the worship she offers, along Freedom Boulevard. The wonderful singer, now deceased, Joyce Diamond told me about this church. Last year, I met Raine Eisler there. If you love singing with worship, check it out, wonderful.