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Brooklyn Paper: Brooklyn Org awards $100k to Spark Prize to five local nonprofits

In the News

Gabriele Holtermann

Published in Brooklyn Paper

Brooklyn Org announced the five 2024 winners of their no-strings-attached Spark Prize grant at the annual Spark Breakfast at the Brooklyn Museum on March 5.

The Spark Prize committee, comprised of civic leaders, activists, philanthropists, artists, and entrepreneurs, reviewed hundreds of applications and interviewed 20 finalists before awarding five organizations $100,000 each for their outstanding community work.

The winners are Sure We CanDrive ChangeNeighbors in ActionPower of Two, and Youth Design Center.

Dr. Jocelynne Rainey, President & CEO of the Brooklyn Org, said the organization seeks organizations focused on racial justice and eliminating structural racism. Rainey also pointed out that Brooklyn-based nonprofit organizations receive far less funding than those in other boroughs, like Manhattan.

“Nonprofits don’t always have the opportunity to dream,” Rainey said. “The money is always connected to some kind of outcome. [Our grant] is like, ‘What do you want to do for the people you serve that you know is right.’”

Sure We Can

Grant recipient Sure We Can is an East Williamsburg nonprofit recycling center, community space, and sustainability hub. Executive Director Ryan Castalia explained to Brooklyn Paper that the organization supports people who collect bottles and cans. With the grant, Sure We Can will be able to develop its new site and pour more resources into outreach engagement.

“[Canners] can bring their materials to us and get cash for it. They can earn more at our redemption center than most other places in the city,” Castalia said. “And they can also access community and programs that are designed to bring dignity and support visibility to this work that actually all New Yorkers really depend on, but really doesn’t get a lot of time in the spotlight because the people who do it are often stigmatized for the waste work we do.”

Josefa Marina, president of the Alliance of Independent Recyclers and Sure We Can board member, has been a recycler for over 20 years. She described Sure We Can as her second home.

“Thank you so much for this incredible recognition which we badly need,” Marina said. “The community of recyclers is not well recognized and not well supported. So a little bit of help goes a long way.”

Drive Change 

Kalilah Moon, executive director and CEO of Drive Change, said she cried when she learned that her organization received the Sparks Prize.

“I was thankful. I was joyful,” Moon said. “It felt like a sign that someone saw us and they recognized who we were and the impact that we were having in Brooklyn, and the impact that we were having in young people’s lives.”

Drive Change works with young people between 18 and 25 years old who have been impacted by the justice system, providing a four-month paid fellowship program in the culinary arts.

The program takes a holistic approach, and Moon shared that the organization’s mission was to teach fellows that they are more than their circumstances and can succeed.

“[Fellows] are learning technical skills and professional development and workforce development. Also, financial literacy,” Moon explained. “Everyone has access to mental health therapy, in addition to feeling-centered approaches to our work in terms of healing circles and restorative justice practices. From there, we help them get jobs within the hospitality space.”

Dupree Wilson, a Drive Change fellow turned staff member, accepted the award on behalf of the organization. The culinary associate had found himself at a crossroads a few years back, struggling to find employment and housing. Drive Change gave him the lifeline he needed to rebuild his sense of purpose and direction and to learn new skills.

“Today, I stand before you neither a statistic nor a stereotype but as a living testament to the power of opportunity,” Wilson said, addressing the crowd. “Thanks to Drive Change, I’m not just surviving; my family and I are flourishing.”

Neighbors in Action

Naomie Azor accepted the prize on behalf of Neighbors in Action, which provides neighbors in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights with conflict resolutions and provides residents with resources like education, parenting, housing, and immigration. Additionally, the organization promotes coalition-building to reduce shootings.

Azor credits NIA staff for her success, she said, because they saw something in her that she yet had to recognize herself. She applied to NIA’s youth program and was accepted.

“Over the course of those eight months,  as a participant, I developed my leadership skills and a passion for speaking out against injustices,” Azor said.

With the help of her mentors, Azor learned how to deal with the stress of college and helping her find her balance.

“They reminded me that I deserved everything coming to me and that I was more than capable of handling what was to come,” Azor said.

Power of Two

Lenis Ramos took the stage to accept the prize on behalf of Power of Two. In 2017, Ramos moved from Puerto Rico to New York City with her husband. Ramos said they felt lonely and isolated without the support of family and friends. They also had to navigate parenthood, and Ramos was battling postpartum depression. All this changed when she learned about Power of Two.

“The first thing that I loved about Power of Two was that the program was provided in my native language, Spanish. So many are not, and that really made me feel welcome in the midst of all the insecurity and fears,” Ramos said.

Power of Two’s mission is to reverse intergenerational trauma and adverse childhood experiences through parenting programs, teaching caregivers to nurture their children’s developing brains during the first 1,000 days of life and paving the road for strong, healthy children who thrive academically.

“Thanks to my participation in this program, I began to understand my daughter’s cues and needs on a deeper level, which helped me build a stronger bond with her,” Ramos, who now works as a senior engagement associate for Power of Two, said. “Armed with this knowledge, I am confident in my ability to navigate the challenges of parenting.”

Youth Design Center

Youth Design Center works with Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) youth from 14-24. The creative agency and innovation hub prepares young people to enter STEAM professions. Program participants learn graphic design, digital media, coding, video, and animation.

Ana Frink, board member of Youth Design Center, said that the grant would help the organization outfit its new space and amplify the center’s impact on young people in Brownsville. Frink shared that she found a sense of community and purpose at the Youth Design Center.

“Here, I found not only a career and networking opportunities but also a genuine sense of belonging,” Frink said. “Meeting people from my community who share my identity and succeed in their career paths that I had not thought was possible. And that inspired me to imagine more so myself.”

Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez also attended the event. He told Brooklyn Paper he was grateful to Brooklyn Org for sponsoring and uplifting nonprofits in the borough because the grants provided resources for communities in need, which helped curb crimes.

“This investment in not-for-profits helps me, as district attorney, move us into a safer way. Much of the crime is due to lack of resources and supporting our community,” Gonzalez said.

His office has honored Sure We Can and has worked with prior winners.

“Just a few years ago, Common Justice, which is a restorative justice program, was a Spark prize winner, and I brought them into my office to work with us after learning about them,” Gonzalez said.