Syracuse University announces recipients of 2008 Martin Luther King Jr. Unsung Heroes Awards
Syracuse University announces recipients of 2008 Martin Luther King Jr. Unsung Heroes AwardsJanuary 11, 2008Kelly Homan Rodoskikahoman@syr.edu
The Syracuse University Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee has selected the recipients of the 2008 Unsung Heroes Awards. The awards are presented to members of the SU and greater Syracuse communities who exemplify the spirit, life and teachings of Martin Luther King Jr., but who are not widely recognized for their efforts.
This year’s recipients are Lakesa Allen, a junior at Corcoran High School in Syracuse; Eunyoung Choi and Junghoon Oh, a doctoral candidate and master’s degree candidate, respectively, in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs; Gertrude Danzy, a staff member at Syracuse University and advocate in the Syracuse community; Ann Tiffany, a Central New York peace activist; and Danya Wellmon and Betsy Wiggins, co-founders of Women Transcending Boundaries (WTB).
The recipients will be honored during the Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Dinner on Sunday, Jan. 20, in the Carrier Dome. The celebratory dinner will include an evening program and a keynote address by Barbara Ransby, a historian, writer and longtime political activist who is an associate professor of African American studies and history at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Below are the award recipient stories.
Lakesa Allen — helping her peers to make positive choices
Lifelong Syracuse resident Allen, a junior at Corcoran High School, is a young African American woman and student leader who has excelled past adversity inher own life by engaging with her local community through human service and peer education.
Currently an above-average student enrolled in college preparatory courses in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program at Corcoran, Allen once dealt with instability in her life that in some instances could have led her down the wrong path. Instead, she chose to rise above and works with her peers to help them make positive choices in their own lives.
Allen actively participates in Way To Go, a comprehensive youth development and adolescent pregnancy prevention program for more than 50 students in grades 7?12 from central Syracuse neighborhoods and schools. The afterschool program, located at Southwest Community Center (SWCC), is run by Contact Community Services Inc., a nonprofit human services agency committed to serving the people of Central New York.
A Way To Go participant since 2004, Allen has consistently taken on roles that represent her commitment to community service and her peers. Through the program, she has volunteered in the local community as an arts and crafts leader for senior citizens at the Vivian Teal Howard Residential Health Care Facility of Syracuse, assisted with the Rescue Mission’s clothing store and kitchen, and is a peer educator for the pregnancy prevention initiative InterSEXtions, which conducts workshops, outreach and media campaigns. She also assists Way To Go program aides with administrative duties and is always willing to lend a helping hand to other staff members, graciously volunteering whenever she is needed.
“The experiences I’ve been a part of through my participation with Way To Go and my work in the local community are invaluable to me,” says Allen. “I want to continue to be a positive role model for my peers because I enjoy helping people who might not be able to help themselves, to show others there are resources available to them that they might not know about and to help them make good choices.”
In addition, Allen has also taken part in the NAACP’s ACT-SO (Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics) competition, winning awards and praise for her photography. Her photography was displayed at a For the Children fundraiser put on by the Syracuse Model Neighborhood Facility Inc., a nonprofit governing agency of the SWCC. She voluntarily completed a project for the fundraiser, which was a collaborative effort with Contact Community Services. Her work has also been displayed at the Community Folk Art Center, a program of the Department of African American Studies in SU’s College of Arts and Sciences.
After graduating from Corcoran High School next year, Allen hopes to attend a local or regional college to study human services. In the future, she sees herself working as a counselor and continuing to help guide young people toward positive choices, like those she has made in her own life.
According to Marinda Williams, youth development specialist for Way To Go who nominated Allen for this award, “Despite some hardships in her life, Lakesa is still able to keep a good head on her shoulders and lead a positive life. Living in a community in which young people can be led astray, she has truly shown that you can excel no matter what life brings you.”
Eunyoung Choi and Junghoon Oh — inspired by MLK to serve others with a ‘a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love’
Syracuse University graduate students Choi and Oh first met during the summer of 2006 at the Korean Church of Syracuse on East Genesee St. Since then, they have spent countless hours together helping three Asian refugee families begin new lives in Syracuse. In addition, Choi and Oh have spearheaded efforts at their church to establish a computer-training program and English language program for refugees.
Community activism is not new for either Choi or Oh. Choi, a geography doctoral student in SU’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, has traveled to Korea and China on several occasions to work with Asian refugees. In 2006, she worked for 10 months in China as a Mercy Corps volunteer. Choi was also active in environmental issues as an undergraduate at Korea University. Before coming to Syracuse, Oh, an international relations master’s student at the Maxwell School, spent several years tutoring impoverished students in a rural area of Korea and working on programs through his church to help homeless people living in Seoul City find jobs and obtain food, clothing and medical care.
When Choi and Oh began attending the Korean Church of Syracuse, the Rev. Yong Ju Jee quickly recognized the unique talents the two students could bring to the Asian refugee resettlement program, a cooperative effort between the church and Interfaith Works of Central New York.
“Both of them from a young age have trained and volunteered to help marginalized people in society,” Jee says. “At the same time, they also have done a remarkable job of integrating and maintaining a balance between academics and activism.”
Choi and Oh were appointed as the church’s liaisons with Interfaith Works. The pair coordinated the search for homes for the families and the collection of household goods, clothing and food. After the families arrived in Syracuse, Choi and Oh continued to help them almost every day in numerous ways, including providing transportation and interpretation services, teaching them to shop and to understand the monetary system, helping to enroll their children in school and teaching them how to obtain medical care.
While the tasks were seemingly endless, both Choi and Oh say the rewards were greater. Choi, who was pregnant with her first baby when she started working with the refugee resettlement program, says the families became like her own during a difficult time in her life. Her husband is a humanitarian aid worker in China. “They helped me when I was pregnant much more than I helped them,” says Choi, whose baby is now three months old.
Oh, whose wife and 20-month-old baby only recently joined him in Syracuse, says that while he was helping families here, others were helping his family in Korea. Choi and Oh also say that nothing could have been accomplished without the dedication and support of the entire congregation of the Korean Church of Syracuse. Congregation members have provided funding for the computer lab and training program and are also helping to establish the English language training for refugees. Both programs will be open to all refugees who have settled in the Syracuse area.
“The members of our church have very caring hearts,” Choi says. “We just asked and they provided.”
Gertrude Danzy — speaking up for those without a voice
Danzy remembers all too well the struggles of trying to raise a family on wages of $5 per hour. She lived it for years as a single mom while her son, Desmond, was growing up. “Most of the time, my family kept us fed while I just prayed that my salary would be enough to cover the bills.” Her mother knew that struggle as well, supporting three daughters by working temporary jobs that paid even less. Danzy also supported her mom for 18 years until her death in 2005.
Those unforgotten struggles have inspired Danzy to be a strong and vocal advocate for economic and social justice in a wide range of ways in the Syracuse community.
“Gert embodies the spirit of Dr. King, especially in her uncanny way of pressing the barriers of race, class, age, gender, sexual orientation and educational background,” according to the Rev. Kelly Sprinkle, SU’s Protestant chaplain, and the Rev. Craig Schaub, pastor at Syracuse’s Plymouth Congregational Church, who nominated Danzy for the award. “She is undaunted by social barriers, lives and moves in amazingly diverse circles and translates within groups and between groups.”
“It is a joy to be around Gert because of her genuine warmth, her knack for bringing a party with her, her hunger for justice for all people and her profound integrity,” Sprinkle and Schaub note.
Danzy, a lifelong resident of Syracuse, has worked for SU for 14 years, most of that time in Food Services before joining the housekeeping staff at University College last March. Her service to the Syracuse community is deep and diverse.
Danzy serves as a member of the Syracuse Living Wage Commission, which works to ensure that all eligible workers are receiving the benefit of the city’s commitment to a living wage. She is also an active member of the Central New York Labor-Religion Coalition, which supports the rights of workers across the region; a steering committee member of the Working Families Party of Central New York; a steward for the Syracuse Employees International Union Local 200 United at SU; and a member of the steering committee of the Central New York Council on Occupational Safety and Health.
She also works tirelessly to register new voters in Onondaga County, particularly young voters. “I was one of those people who always complained that things never got any better,” she says. “Then I realized that your vote affects everything, from welfare to the price of gas to the way you live. I connected the dots and realized that your vote is how you are heard.”
A few years ago, Danzy shared her life story through 1199 SEIU’s Unseen America Project, creating photos and stories out of her experiences, dreams and challenges as a service sector worker. Even though she was going though a number of challenges at the time, especially the illness of her mother, she stuck with the project. She initially became involved with the project because she saw its value as an educational tool for the greater community on economic and social justice. For her personally, though, the project became a welcome release. She is particularly proud of a photo she took of her dying mother and a poem she wrote that are part of the project. “They enabled me to see my mother through God’s eyes,” she says.
On top of all she does in the community, Danzy is also an active member of Plymouth Congregational Church, where she is an usher and “does whatever is needed.” She often cooks for large numbers of people to build community (Danzy operated her own catering business for nearly 20 years, as well as a cleaning business). “She finds joy, energy and focus in the act of giving,” note Schaub and Sprinkle.
Danzy is humble, though, about her tireless work to make life better for working families in Central New York, and is accepting the award for all who don’t have a voice. “I’m doing God’s work, and doing what I love to do,” she says. “I’m speaking up for those people who have a hard time speaking up or who aren’t heard. Believe me, I have a set of lungs on me that I am not afraid to use.”
Ann Tiffany — making a commitment to advancing peace and justice
Mother, grandmother, nurse, activist and humanitarian are but a few of the words that describe Tiffany and her life-long commitment to her family and her community, which stretches from Syracuse to some of the most remote and impoverished regions of Latin America.
Now retired, Tiffany, who raised four children and has 10 grandchildren, has been a key figure in the Central New York peace and justice movement for more than 25 years. Between 1983 and 1991, she helped coordinate the Sanctuary Movement in Syracuse, an underground railroad that provided safe passage to Canada for some 90 Salvadoran refugees who were fleeing right-wing death squads during the country’s civil war.
Because the United States government refused to grant political asylum to Salvadoran refugees, those involved in the Sanctuary Movement — both in Syracuse and across the country — risked arrest and federal prosecution for their efforts. One Salvadoran family remained in Syracuse for 22 months under the protection of the Sanctuary Movement. The family eventually obtained legal refugee status as a result of a class action lawsuit.
When the civil war ended, Tiffany was a key figure in establishing a sister community relationship with the rural, mountainous region of La Estancia, El Salvador. The priest who was working in the area was a friend of the Salvadoran family that stayed in Syracuse. Eleven people from Syracuse first visited the region in 1993. Groups continue to visit to this day. Money raised in Syracuse has helped rebuild a church; built a library, latrines and bridges; and has provided scholarships for high school students and school and medical supplies for the villages.
Tiffany’s involvement with the Sanctuary Movement led to her efforts to join a national protest against the School of the Americas (SOA). Based in Fort Benning, Ga., the school’s graduates have been linked to many notorious human rights abuses and atrocities committed in Latin America since the 1980s and continuing today in villages in Colombia, Peru and other places.
“Our activism against the SOA stems from a very personal connection with the people in La Estancia,” Tiffany says. “When you see how U.S. military aid impacted their lives, you just can’t close your eyes. It just put us on fire to speak out against the SOA.” Tiffany now coordinates efforts to help a sister community that was recently established with a village in Colombia.
In 1998, Tiffany was among a group of seven Central New Yorkers who spent six months in federal prison as a result of their acts of civil disobedience against the SOA at Ft. Benning. She continues to participate in annual demonstrations against the school, organized by the national School of the Americas Watch organization.
The recent activities of Tiffany, a long-standing member of the Syracuse Peace Council, have included organizing public demonstrations and weekly vigils against the war in Iraq, acts of nonviolent civil disobedience against the war and subsequent arrests, lobbying Congress and educating the public about stopping the war. Tiffany is also the chair of the Syracuse Center for Peace and Social Justice. The group recently raised enough money to purchase a new building on East Genesee St. that will provide a central location for local peace and justice organizations.
Danya Wellmon and Betsy Wiggins — planting roots of support and advocacy
Six years after they founded Women Transcending Boundaries (WTB), Danya Wellmon and Betsy Wiggins are still in awe that the grassroots organization sprang from their conversation over cups of coffee.
WTB (http://www.wtb.org) brings women together to cross over faith and cultural boundaries, to advance the human rights of all women and to help maintain peace and justice for people of all faiths. Since its humble beginning in Wiggins’ DeWitt home, WTB has grown to more than 400 members and received attention from members of the national and international media.
Wellmon and Wiggins, now life members of WTB’s governing council, were nominated for the award by current WTB president Ann Eppinger Port on behalf of all of the organization’s members “with pride and gratitude for their outstanding leadership of WTB.”
WTB’s roots were planted in 2001, shortly after the terrorist events of Sept. 11. Wiggins, a speech therapist and a member of the Protestant faith tradition, had attended a forum at University United Methodist Church. There, a fellow forum participant expressed her desire to reach out in solidarity to the women in the Muslim community. She was reluctant, though, unsure of the approach she should take and not wanting to cause any more anxiety than she assumed the women already felt.
After leaving the forum, Wiggins says she just couldn’t let the issue go. “I wanted to do something to help in any way I could,” she says. She called Ahmed Kobeisy, then the leader of the Islamic Society of Central New York, who in turn connected her with Wellmon, a DeWitt resident and medical technologist with the American Red Cross. As one of the female leaders at the Syracuse masjid (mosque), Wellmon was deeply engaged in interfaith work and had built strong relationships with many of the female members of her faith community.
Wiggins and Wellmon connected, and spoke several hours on the phone before meeting in Wiggins’ DeWitt home. There, they came to the realization that their common concerns far outweighed their differences. By the end of their conversation, both knew they wanted to continue it, and to create a safe and respectful place for women to engage in dialogue. “When you start to learn something, that is when you realize how much more you have to learn,” Wiggins says.
Two weeks later, Wellmon and Wiggins each invited nine other women — diverse in faith traditions and home countries — to Wiggins’ home for food and fellowship. Both say the energy in the room during that initial meeting was electric. The 20 women gathered talked about their lives and families, and began to see how common their experiences were. The group also discussed the beliefs and customs within their respective faith traditions, already beginning to chip away at the boundaries that separated them.
From that initial meeting, WTB blossomed. The monthly meetings moved out of Wiggins’ home and into worship spaces throughout the community. Wellmon and Wiggins encouraged the membership to engage in service activities and to establish an organizational structure that would allow WTB to grow and be sustainable in the future. Over the past five years, WTB has been involved in countless projects, including local literacy and refugee resettlement programs, distribution of school supplies to needy children, aiding in tsunami and hurricane disaster relief, serving incarcerated women, and starting Supporting, Uniting and Noticing (SUN), a WTB organization for teens. Their biannual International Dinner has raised funds to build a secular school in Pakistan through IBTIDA and helped to fund micro-financing projects around the world through Women for Women (this year’s dinner is scheduled for March 16). In the coming year, WTB will also focus on aiding abused and homeless women.
WTB’s work is held in high regard and has been emulated by other women’s groups in Michigan and California. Wellmon and Wiggins have received speaking invitations from around the country.
Wellmon says the group is dynamic because its members, who refer to each other as sisters, are compassionate women who are all eager to learn, connect and make a difference. “It’s all of us coming together to work for the good of all,” she says. The many talents of the members have played a big part in what the group has been able to do. “When we have a need, we find that it is always provided for.”
The group meets monthly and continues to provide a place for women to learn about the members’ diverse faith traditions. Wellmon says the friendships that have been formed through WTB are nothing short of amazing. One example of the support WTB sisters — as they are called — provide each other is through WTB Cares. This small group, comprised of women of different faiths, acts as a sort of “prayer circle,” responding to the urgent needs of members through the customs of their different faith traditions. Wellmon and Wiggins both have had the support of their WTB sisters during difficult personal times in their own lives.
Wellmon and Wiggins say that they stand as one with the group in accepting the MLK award. Like many of their WTB sisters, each wears silver bracelets on their wrists that include the symbols of different religious faiths: a symbol of the common bond that connects them all.