Unsung Heroes Honored at SU’s MLK Celebration
The 2014 Martin Luther King Jr. Unsung Hero Awards were presented to four members of the Syracuse University and greater Syracuse communities during the University’s 29th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration, “Pursuing the Dream: Against All Odds.” The event was held Sunday, Jan. 19, in the Carrier Dome.
This year’s Unsung Hero Award recipients were Joseph Bryant, Debra L. Person, Georgia A. Popoff and Dorothy Russell.
The awards are presented annually to people who, in the spirit of King’s “beloved community,” have made a positive difference in the lives of others but who are not widely recognized for their efforts.
As board president of the Southside Community Coalition for the past four years, Bryant has spent countless volunteer hours advancing the coalition’s mission of developing a business and cultural district on Syracuse’s South Side.
Through his leadership, commitment and hard work, Bryant helped to make the Eat to Live South Side Food Co-op a reality, organized local businesses to apply for green infrastructure funding and was integral to the rehabilitation of a dilapidated house into a neighborhood Communication Center. He is also involved with rebranding the South Salina Street corridor into the new Sankofa District and helped push for the development of a vacant lot into a pocket park, with new lighting and area signage.
Born and raised on the South Side, Bryant overcame the challenges of living in a severely under-resourced environment and now owns three local businesses—all on the South Side—including the soon-to-open Java House café.
Bryant’s intensity, commitment and courage have made way for notable and long-lasting neighborhood improvements and community revitalization on the South Side.
Debra L. Person
Person has made a positive difference in the lives of others by providing spiritual, physical, intellectual, emotional and social support through community outreach and residency programs. Person is the founder and executive director of Exodus 3 Ministries, a faith-based, nonprofit organization for women and children in need in Central New York.
Against many odds, and with limited funds, Exodus 3 Ministries grew from what began as an outreach program in 2010 and the overwhelming need for more community support to assist those seeking deliverance from the pain of addiction, prostitution, domestic violence, child abuse and homelessness.
Through the Exodus House residency program, women gain the skills and resources necessary to lift themselves out of poverty and to develop healthy, sustainable relationships with their families, service providers, faith communities and the community at large.
The community outreach component of Exodus 3 Ministries has helped hundreds of families in the Syracuse area with shelter, clothing, housing and other immediate needs.
Person is a beacon of light as she and Exodus 3 Ministries continue on a journey of healing and restoration in the Syracuse community.
Georgia A. Popoff
A resident of Syracuse’s University East neighborhood for the greater part of the last 50-plus years, Popoff embodies the saying, “Think globally, act locally.” Currently, here are some of the ways in which she serves the community: as a workshop coordinator and faculty member for the YMCA’s Downtown Writer’s Center; as a faculty member and program coordinator for the Young Authors Academy for middle- and high-school writers; as an active participant in two community-based organizations—Syracuse Stories and Wacheva Cultural Arts; as an after-school poetry teacher in the Syracuse area schools; as an instructor of arts in society in SU’s Honors program; and as a writer for SU’s College of Arts and Sciences.
A graduate of Nottingham High School, Popoff has been an active contributor in forming the arts community in Syracuse. There is hardly a long-term community art event, festival, organization or program of which she has not been a part. She has impacted the lives of thousands of young people by inviting them to experience words and language as a window in to their souls, and then as an act of social change through self-expression.
Popoff’s most recent published work, “Our Difficult Sunlight: A Guide to Poetry, Literacy & Social Justice in Classroom and Community,” co-authored with poet Quraysh Ali Lansana, demonstrates the power of poetry in the K-12 classroom. Drawing on their combined 30 years as teaching artists, they explore the terrain of the 21st-century public school and outline strategies for using the reading and creating of poetry to improve students’ reading comprehension and writing skills. The book was nominated for a NAACP 2012 Image Award for Excellence in Instructional Literature and was one of five finalists.
Bringing diverse populations together as a way to form connections and share cultural history and lineage is a natural in which Popoff sees the world, and, therefore, creates programming. Last year she was awarded an SU Feinstone Grant for a program that brought together young women who are members of the Onondaga Nation, Habitat for Humanity and the Jocelyn Gage Foundation. The young women shared meals and learned of each others’ cultures.
Russell, or “Dottie from the Schine,” as many people know her, is a long-time fixture on the SU campus. Her entire career has been with SU Food Services—in Sadler Dining Center, in the former Commons Snack Bar in Slocum Hall and in the Schine Dining Center since the building was opened.
No matter who comes in to Schine Dining, Russell welcomes them with open arms. From incoming first-year students to vice presidents, she has a smile and a hug for everyone. Because of the volume of people she meets, she doesn’t remember everyone’s name, but she is known for saying, “I’ll just call you Baby”—and she does.
Besides serving students and making them part of her campus family, Russell also served her coworkers as a chief union steward in 1990. She currently serves as a union steward for Schine Dining, helping new employees understand the contract and how it applies to them and their job. She represents employees who feel they have been unfairly treated. She is an advocate for the employees, working with the management team to ensure equitable treatment for all.
Not only does Russell give freely of her time and energy to her peers and campus family, but she is the first one to step in and help when a tragedy occurs. She is the one to start a collection when someone has fallen on hard times. She started a collection for the Golisano Children’s Hospital when it was being built. She was one of the driving forces behind the Schine staff’s efforts to provide a happy holiday for an underprivileged family in the area.
Russell lives the phrase, “People may doubt what you say, but they will always believe what you do.”