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Gothamist: 5 women in Brooklyn to receive racial justice honors, ‘no strings’ cash prizes

In the News

Arya Sundaram

Published in Gothamist

For decades, rainwater would flood the streets of the low-lying neighborhood known as the Hole, which straddles the Brooklyn-Queens border. Basements routinely flooded, septic tanks overflowed, and residents in the perpetually distressed community were left stranded in their homes, unable to traverse the streets without hip-boots or boats.

Debra Ack, 64, a special project coordinator and co-founder of the East New York Community Land Trust, has helped change that, following repeated failed fixes. Ack and the land trust set up biweekly meetings with residents and the city Department of Environmental Protection. That led to new storm sewers and catch basins being installed at problematic intersections last spring. Now when it rains, Ack said, you can finally see the street.

“The residents,” Ack said, “would tell the agencies what it is that they needed to thrive, to live, to survive in their community,” nestled between East New York and Howard Beach. “And this area has been neglected for over 50 years.”

Ack is among the five inaugural winners chosen to receive the “Just Brooklyn Prize,” awarded to borough residents identified as change-makers fighting for racial justice. The honors include a $20,000, no-strings-attached award for each.

The prize is presented by the Brooklyn Community Foundation, which serves the borough’s philanthropies, and the Brooklyn-based Social Justice Fund created by the billionaire couple Joe Tsai and Clara Wu Tsai, who own the Brooklyn Nets, New York Liberty and Barclays Center.

Leaders of both organizations noted the importance of the award’s focus on Brooklyn—and how social justice groups in the borough, and those recognized with the prize, can be exemplars for other cities.

If Brooklyn were its own city, it’d be the third most populous in the country. And although 30% of the city’s nonprofits are based in Brooklyn, the borough’s share of nonprofit budgets across the city is just 7.6%, according to data from a 2021 CUNY Baruch College report.

“As goes Brooklyn, goes the world,” said Jocelynne Rainey, president and CEO of Brooklyn Community Foundation. “We are showing how this can be done at scale.”

“All politics is local, right?” said Gregg Bishop, executive director of the Social Justice Fund, and former commissioner of the city’s Department of Small Business Services. “And I think all change starts local.”

Besides Ack, other winners include La’Shawn Allen-Muhammad, executive director of the Central Brooklyn Economic Development Corporation; Samora Coles, founder of the Alex House Project, which supports young low-income parents; C. Zawadi Morris, founder of the digital news organization BK Reader; and Chanel Porchia-Albert, the founder of Ancient Song Doula Services.

Ack, a full-time volunteer, said she plans to use the money to take a trip with her daughter, who she said she neglected while pursuing her organizing work.

Allen-Muhammad – who is working to open a business school in Brownsville, and the neighborhood’s first business center – said she plans to use some of the money for professional development opportunities, like an economic development certification at Harvard Business School.

“As you can imagine in grassroots organizations, even though we’re pretty old, we still have very limited resources. We’re not able to invest in ourselves,” said Allen-Muhammad. “Because we have to be in the room where it happens.”

The prize is also part of the Tsai family’s commitment to invest $50 million over 10 years on initiatives benefiting people of color, particularly the Black community, with a focus on Brooklyn.

“The Just Brooklyn Prize recipients are on the ground combating some of the most pressing social justice issues of our time, from every angle, right here in Brooklyn,” said Clara Wu Tsai, in a statement. “They lead by example and we are pleased to support their work.”

The award ceremony will take place at Barclays Center on Sept. 18, with a keynote by Patrick Gaspard, president and CEO of the Center for American Progress.