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BK Reader: 2024 Spark Prize Honors Brooklyn’s Equity Champions

In the News

Hannah Berman

Published in BK Reader

Dr. Jocelynne Rainey, president and chief executive officer of Brooklyn Org, a philanthropy organization, kicked off the annual Spark Breakfast celebration by reminding the crowd the vision for the future of Brooklyn.

“We want to make Brooklyn a beacon for the world,” she announced. “Not just in style, but in equity and justice.”

The annual breakfast at the Brooklyn Munseum Tuesday commemorated the Spark Prize, awarded yearly to five Brooklyn-based nonprofit organizations that receive $100,000 in funding.

The five winners were selected from a list of 20 finalists by a committee of Brooklyn residents. Janeisha Farquharson, a member of the Spark committee and a financial services advisor and insurance agent at New York Life Securities, told BK Reader that the experience of selecting winners was eye-opening.

“I got to find out about so many non-profits, especially in the Brooklyn area, that I didn’t know about before and are doing such amazing work,” Farquharson said. “I was taken aback by their tenacity — how much they give back — and their mission and their passion for what they’re doing.”

This year, the five Spark Prize-winning organizations were Sure We Can, Neighbors in Action, Youth Design Center, Power of Two, and Drive Change.

Sure We Can is a nonprofit that works to support and uplift canners, the people who collect cans and bottles and recycle them for cash. Executive Director Ryan Castalia accepted the prize with Josefa Marin, the president of the NYC canning association and a 20-year canner.

Castalia told BK Reader that the funding from the Spark Prize will help the organization open a new center in East New York, and double down on its focus to reach asylum-seekers.

“We want to be more connected with people who are already out doing this work, which is one of the most low-barrier ways to earn income, especially if you’re from another country, or there are other things that make it harder for you to get traditional employment,” said Castalia. “​​For the canners who work tirelessly every day to keep the streets clean and to drive recycling, and so often get no recognition for it, [this prize is] just overwhelmingly meaningful.”

Neighbors in Action, a project by the Center for Justice Innovation, focuses on developing alternatives to violence for youth and nearby residents in Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant. The 25-year-old organization operates a community center that connects the community with resources and assistance; it also houses Save Our Streets (S.O.S.), which identifies the community members most vulnerable to gun violence and works with them to reduce shootings.

The prize was accepted by Naomie Azor, a youth programs coordinator, who she said she learned through the organization’s programming how to honor her mother’s legacy of “ambition, joy, growth, [and] enthusiasm.”

The Youth Design Center is a Brownsville-based group that empowers young people to explore creative careers by providing arts education. Its mission is to bridge what the organization refers to as the “inexperience gap” between Brownsville creators and their more privileged peers.

Ana Frink, who now sits on the board of the organization, said she now works as a freelance design consultant thanks to coaching from the center, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.

Power of Two is a seven-year-old nonprofit geared towards supporting parents through the first few years of parenthood. The organization provides holistic care for new parents by making coaching and mental health care accessible for Black and Brown families in the city.  Lenis Ramos, a program graduate and mother of two, accepted the award for the organization.

Finally, Drive Change is a food justice organization that empowers formerly-incarcerated youth to work in the hospitality industry, while also fighting food insecurity. Dupree Wilson, an alum of the program and a kitchen operations associate, shared how the organization changed his life when he was at a crossroads, dealing with the challenges of new fatherhood.

“Thank you to Brooklyn, the best borough there is,” Wilson closed, to a standing ovation.