Nearly 200 people filled the Fishman Space at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) Fisher Building on Tuesday evening, April 28th, to see five exceptional leaders in the fight against poverty receive 2015 McSilver Awards.
After a cocktail hour on the building’s stunning roof deck, which featured a display of photographs taken by students in the McSilver Institute’s Step Up youth development program, the awards dinner itself kicked off with a rousing performance by the Lavender Light Gospel Choir. The performance was followed by welcoming remarks from McSilver Institute Director Dr. Mary McKay, who thanked the attendees for supporting the McSilver Institute’s mission of addressing the root causes and consequences of poverty and rapidly translating new knowledge into action. She explained, “We think that research and numbers and findings are important, but they are only as important as they help people’s lives improve.” NYU Silver School of Social Work Dean Dr. Lynn Videka, also welcomed the crowd and paid tribute to Constance and Martin Silver, “the benefactors and idea leaders of our school,” whose transformative gift in 2007 renamed the Silver School of Social Work and created the McSilver Institute.
The Master of Ceremonies for the evening was Heather McGhee, President of Demos, the national public policy organization that is “working for an America where everyone has an equal say in our democracy and an equal chance in our economy.” McGhee noted that Demos and The McSilver Institute “share a belief in the power of applied research as a meaningful force in the fight to end economic and political inequity.”
Dr. Robert Hawkins, McSilver Associate Professor in Poverty Studies and Assistant Dean and Director of the Undergraduate Program at the Silver School of Social Work, introduced the first honoree, Margarette Purvis, President and CEO of Food Bank For New York City. Ms. Purvis, said she is saddened to have to do the work she does. “I didn’t grow up rich and I don’t believe a person has to grow up rich,” she said. “We should be disgusted that food is not accessible to everyone in this country, period.”
McSilver Institute Fellows Dr. Latoya Small and Dr. Tricia Stephens, who are about to join the faculties of two of the country’s finest social work programs, introduced the next honoree, Carolina Cordero Dyer, Associate Executive Director and Chief Financial Officer of The Osborne Association, which is New York State’s oldest and most experienced organization serving men and women involved with the criminal justice system. Ms. Cordero Dyer recounted some of the Osborne Association’s many tremendous achievements for people affected by criminal justice involvement in her 20 years with the organization and said, “People like me are mostly behind the scenes and it means a great deal to me for you to recognize my work. It’s work that goes unrecognized, and without work from people like me, the great work of organizations like Osborne never gets done.
After a break for dinner, McSilver Institute Deputy Director Gary Parker gave a powerful speech about The McSilver Institute’s commitment to addressing the interrelatedness of race and poverty. He cited Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and the countless other unarmed black men whose deaths at the hands of police were not captured on video. He spoke of the institute’s efforts including its new report entitled Facts Matter! Black Lives Matter! The Trauma of Racism, and said, “We will continue to shine an empirical light on the tyranny of racism and seek to dismantle the structures that perpetuate it.”
Next, Tanaisha Jackson, an alumna of the Step Up Class of 2014 and a communications major finishing up her freshman year at SUNY Potsdam, introduced honoree Reverend Dr. Jacqui Lewis, Senior Minister at the Middle Collegiate Church and Executive Director and co-founder of The Middle Project. Dr. Lewis spoke from the heart about the fires burning in Baltimore and the many tragic events affecting people of color and other marginalized communities. She asked, “We as people of good conscience, what are we going to do about this stuff? We can be overwhelmed by it or, as my Bible says, we’re able to do more than we can ask or imagine through the power at work within us.”
Trish Marsik, Executive Director of the Mayor’s Task Force on Behavioral Health and the Criminal Justice System, presented the next award to Carlton Whitmore, Director of the Office of Consumer Affairs of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Mr. Whitmore, a behavioral health consumer in recovery himself, spoke passionately about people in the behavioral health system. He explained they are labeled and stigmatized because of their diagnosis, and often have to overcome poverty, poor health and insecure housing in addition to a mental health or substance use disorder. “Being poor is not a lifelong condition one has to be resigned to for the rest of their lives,” Mr. Whitmore said. “Recovery from poverty and mental illness is not only possible but it should be everyone’s goal.”
The final award of the night was presented by Dr. Micaela Mercado, McSilver Institute Senior Researcher, to Tracie M. Gardner, New York State Assistant Secretary of Health. Ms. Gardner, who spent 30 years as an advocate for people with HIV, substance use disorders and criminal justice involvement before joining Governor Cuomo’s administration earlier this year, spoke of being called to action by the death of her childhood friend to AIDS in 1985. She said HIV was her education: “It taught me about the vulnerability of young men of color, and women and children of color as the barometer of the health of a community. When you didn’t do right by the women and children, your community was going to die. And stigma around sex, and drug use, and poverty, and, of course, it’s jail and prison stupid. The great unraveller of all of our forward thinking policies undercut by the mass warehousing of young male brown and black bodies. There is so much to do.”
The evening concluded with Ms. McGhee noting how the evening had given “a sense of the incredible reach of the McSilver Institute,” and asking for “a rapturous round of applause for the honorees who have together told us the story of how we can make change.” It was a request with which all in attendance readily complied.
View more photos from the McSilver Awards on Facebook.