by Yusef Salaam
Citizens Against Recidivism (CAR) presented its First Annual Citizen Awards recently at the Harlem-based Schomburg Cultural Center. The event, which drew a packed audience, celebrated ex-offenders who have become productive contributors to society.
Special invited guest New York State Senator Bill Perkins, a Democrat of the 30th Senatorial District in Manhattan, noted, “We have all experienced recidivism.” He said that he has a brother who is in jail, and that when a family member is incarcerated, those who love that imprisoned person suffer as if they are in jail, too. Officials from the New York State and the New York City Corrections Departments were also in the audience.
The keynote speaker was New York State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, Democratic representative of the 18th Senatorial District, Brooklyn. Montgomery, who was appointed co-chair of the New York State Senate Democratic Task Force on Criminal Justice Reform, said that she heard testimonies from criminal justice advocates that heightened her consciousness of the need to assist people who return home from incarceration and those still in prison. She noted that it was criminal justice activists like Mika’il and Wanda DeVeaux, co-founders of CAR, that helped her understand the plight of ex-offenders. The senator said, “I know many people who have successful lives after prison.” She added, “If we on the outside gave more support to those on the inside, many of them wouldn’t be inside.” Montgomery said that she is working on trying to get the United States Census Bureau to change its policy of counting prisoners as living in upstate areas although their home addresses are in downstate urban communities. She wants the Census Bureau to count such inmates as denizens of the areas where they lived before they were incarcerated. She said that urban communities “lose political power” with the current method. She concluded, “I believe that right now we are underrepresented as far as our numbers are concern.”
The awards ceremony was spirited, often comical, and at the same time it maintained its theme, “Something Inside So Strong.” The Awardees were Imam Umar Abdul Jalil, the featured recipient, who is head of the Chaplaincy of the New York City Department of Corrections; Dr. Kathy Boudin, Program Director at St. Lukes Roosevelt Center for Comprehensive Care; Dawn Bryant, Director Volunteers of America’s Domestic Violence Champion program; Edwin (Eddie) Ellis of the Center for Nu Leadership and Urban Solutions; Glenn Martin, Associate Vice-President of Policy and Advocacy for the Fortune Society; Julio Medina, Executive Director of the Exodus Transition Community; Vivian Denise Nixon, Executive Director of the College and Community Fellowship, and William Eric Waters, Program Director of the Prison Reentry and Family Services Osborne Association.
Most of the awardees had very little to say when they accepted their award plaques. Dawn Bryant, who received the Fannie Lou Hammer Award for Social Justice, offered a a simple “Thank you” after briefly explaining the importance of being sensitive to homeless individual and families and those suffering from domestic violence .
Introduced by Imam Talib Abdur-Rashid, Imam Umar Abdul-Jalil, who was recently promoted to Assistant Commissioner in the New York City Department of Corrections, received the Malcolm X Award for Spiritual Leadership. He said, “I thank my grandmother who nursed me in her arms while she picked cotton. He offered appreciation for his mother, “Who gave me backbone.” He thanked his sisters, aunts, and sisters. He gave tender loving thanks to his wife who he said reminded him, “‘You can be Imam and Assistant Commissioner on the outside, but when you come home, play your position.'” He added to a chorus of laughter, “And you know what? I play my position!” He also offered appreciation to the men who helped him build and reconstruct his life.
Eddie Ellis, a former leader of the Black Panther Party For Self-Defense was honored with the Martin Luther King , Jr. Life Time Achievement Award. He said, “There is life after prison. People can emerge from those dungeons and come out giants. Eddie spent twenty-five years (1969-1994) in prison for a crime that he swears he didn’t committ; many believe that he was a target of the late Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J.Edgar Hoover’s Counterintelligence Program to neutralize Black leadership. Instead of dwelling on himself, Ellis pointed to his mentor in the audience, Larry Luqman White. He said that Luqman had been his leader when he was locked down. “He’s an intellectual genius,” he said. “He is the one who came up with the idea of the non-traditional approach to criminal justice. He motivated us to find out who we were and explained how we could get out of the condition that we were in.”
Dr. Kathy Boudin quietly acccepted the W.E.B. Du Bois Award For Research and Scholarship. She was recognized for her committed service to social justice in the 1960s to the Civil Rights Struggle and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement. While serving 22 years in prison, she led the iniative to build “programs that addressed the HIV/AIDS epidemic, parenting from prison, the need for higher education, and personal transformation, including responsibility” for one’s crime(s). During her four years of freedom (2003), Boudin has earned a doctorate at Columbia University, developed a program to assist adolescents whose parents are imprisoned, and she supports projects that help “those who have little chance of seeing a parole board or of being granted parole at the expected release date in spite of personal transformation.”
Glenn Martin received the Thurgood Marshall Advocate of the Year Award; Julio Medina was given the Harriett Tubman Freedom Award; Vivian Denise Dixon, the Mary McCleoud Bethune Award for Leadership in Education; and William Eric Water, the Ralph Bunche Bridge Builder Award.
The event closed with rousing set by the Teralynn Jazz Ensemble.
What I am talking about is the First Annual Citizens Awards, held on October 18, 2007. Citizens Against Recidivism, co-founded by Mika’il and Wanda DeVeaux, put on a classy and long overdue event at the Schomburg Cultural Center in Harlem. This will be the hottest ticket in town when the event has it’s second production in 2008.
The purpose of the awards ceremony was to publicly welcome home and celebrate the accomplishments of some of our community members that have been formerly incarcerated and never given this recognition. Our media focuses on and sensationalizes the failures of those that have spent time in prison without balancing it with the positive and outstanding work many, many of these people do. The recognition of these fine, formerly incarcerated men and women was a validation of all formerly incarcerated that have returned to their communities and never been welcomed back. Without exception, this was the most important event my husband and I have attended since he came home from prison over five years ago. It felt as if we were being awarded too!
Equally prestigious community members made the presentations to the eight recipients.
Wanda Best-DeVeaux presented the Fannie Lou Hammer Award for Social Action to Dawn Bryant, Bob Steed presented the Harriet Tubman Freedom Award to Julio Medina, Michelle Fine presented the W.E.B. Duboise Award for Research and Scholarship to Dr. Kathy Boudin, Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry presented the Thurgood Marshall Advocate of the Year Award to Glenn Martin, Mary Washington presented the Mary McLeod Bethune Award for Leadership in Education to Vivian D. Nixon, Imam Talib Abdur Rashid presented the Malcom X Award for Spiritual Leadership to Imam Umar Abdul Jalil, Alfonso Wyatt presented the Ralph Bunche Bridge Award to Willam Eric Waters, and finally, all of the above presented the Martin Luther King Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award to Eddie Ellis. .
The speech Eddie Ellis made upon receiving his award focused on Larry White, a man that Eddie called his mentor, that was released earlier this year after serving 35 years in prison. Of particular pride for us was Eric Waters, a vice-president of CPR that has been with the organization since day one. What stuck with me was when he said “I am humbled by being awarded. This honor is measured against the harm I have done”. For whatever reason, these words made me pause.