2016 McSilver Awards Honors Leaders Transforming Systems

Photo of the Peace Poets performing on stage during the awards ceremony.

On the evening of May 16th, 2016 friends, family and colleagues of the McSilver Institute celebrated the 2016 McSilver Awards. This year’s awards recognized individuals who are “transforming systems” to address the root causes and consequences of poverty and featured inspirational speeches from awardees David Gómez, EdD, President of Hostos Community College, City University of New York, Phillip A. Saperia, former CEO of The Coalition of Behavioral Health Agencies, Inc., Linda Sarsour, Activist and Executive Director of the Arab American Association of New York, Reverend Al Sharpton, Founder and President of National Action Network, Sheena Wright, President and CEO of United Way of New York City.

The event also featured the presentation of the institute’s first-ever “Values of McSilver Award” to inaugural director, Dr. Mary McKernan McKay, and the premiere of a moving video about the institute’s Community Collaborative Board (CCB), which was established in the Bronx in 1999, and came with Dr. McKay to the McSilver Institute in 2011.

The awards ceremony kicked off with a powerful performance from The Peace Poets, a Bronx-based hip hop and poetry group, who shared a message of community power and resistance against the systems of oppression affecting poverty-impacted communities of color. The Peace Poets reminded the audience about the fight for justice and peace across the globe via their poems and interactive singing performance.

The first award of the evening, presented by the McSilver Institute’s benefactor, Connie Silver, went to Sheena Wright, whose leadership at the United Way of New York City is expanding educational, income, and health opportunities for the 2.7 million New Yorkers who cannot make ends meet every day. Ms. Wright highlighted the importance of community mobilization. “It is absolutely within our reach to solve the problems that need to be solved,” she said. “We need to deploy our resources not individually, not if you’re lucky enough to get into this program, but collectively and systemically.”

The next honoree, Dr. David Gomez, whose award was presented by Silver School’s Dr. Vincent Ramos, spoke of the “transformative power of education.” He noted that in graduate school, “we would cite the statistics of earning power correlated with educational achievement, and assess the value add that comes from an investment in a college degree. We in the community college movement, however, understand that what we do is not a vague theoretical construct but rather we are witness to tangible evidence of this axiom on a daily basis.”

Before the dinner break, the Silver School’s Dr. Robert Hawkins presented the McSilver Award to Reverend Al Sharpton. Reverend Sharpton gave a speech that affirmed McSilver Institute’s approach of looking not at the individual, but at the system in order to fight poverty. “The problem is not who will break the cycle,” he said, “The problem is the cycle”. He then reminded the audience, which included government officials, professors, students, activists, philanthropists, and prominent community members, that the impetus is on us to continue doing the work, “Life is really about what you achieve for more than yourself.” Indeed Reverend Sharpton has himself been making important contributions for decades to the fight against racism and poverty in the United States.

After another performance by The Peace Poets, members of the McSilver Institute’s Anti-Oppressive Steering Committee (AOSC) presented the McSilver Award to Linda Sarsour, an activist and Director of the Arab American Association of New York. They cited the work the AOSC does to “question, analyze and end oppressive practices both within the organization and in our work with external partners,” and they cited Ms. Sarsour as “an example to follow of precisely such an unwavering commitment to address systemic inequalities, specifically racial inequalities.” Ms. Sarsour spoke about her own work as a Brooklyn-based activist. She shared some of the many fights that she has won in coalition with other communities of color, while emphasizing that we must continue despite tactics to intimidate. “I believe that the power lies in the people,” she said. “When we build power and we stand together we win.”

The McSilver Institute’s Community Technical Assistance Center Director Dr. Andrew Cleek presented the McSilver Award to Phillip Saperia. who has worked for decades to transform the behavioral healthcare system to better serve communities impacted by poverty. In his speech, Mr. Saperia emphasized the need to continue fighting to make the connection between research and practice. “This is essential work that transcends the worlds of academia and technical assistance, he said, “This is work that hopefully will intervene in the lives of people who need and deserve help to live lives of dignity, empowerment and hope.”

The evening ended on a very high note with a well-deserved standing ovation for Values of McSilver Award winner Dr. Mary McKay. She explained that the anti-oppressive and anti-racist values that guide the McSilver Institute’s work are as important as the work itself. She asserted “We at the McSilver Institute maintain the belief and test the hypothesis that YOU and WE together make the work better and the science stronger.”

View photos from the McSilver Awards on Facebook.