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Honoring Brooklyn’s Unsung Heroes

Dr. Jocelynne Rainey

Kings Against Violence Initiative (KAVI) 2023 Spark Prize winners

What does leadership look like? Here in Brooklyn, we tend to reject the idea that our leaders have to look or act a certain way.

We know that the people who make our communities work, who run the block, who tend to the gardens, who keep an eye on our children—they don’t always fit the mold. But they hold real power and influence, even without the formal titles and recognitions. They are our caretakers, our teachers, our advocates, our healers – and most importantly they are our changemakers.

Back in 2016, we wanted to capture this spirit of community-led change through the creation of our Spark Prize to honor and showcase the unsung heroes in Brooklyn’s nonprofit sector. The Spark Prize shines a spotlight on organizations doing essential, life-changing racial justice work that deserve more investments and financial backing than they often receive.

Given its track record developing programs targeted at addressing the most pressing needs of the community, partnering with Brooklyn Org for the Just Brooklyn Prize makes perfect sense. Gregg Bishop, Executive Director of the Joe and Clara Tsai Foundation’s Social Justice Fund

In the years since launching the Spark Prize we have awarded over $3.6 million to celebrate dozens of incredible nonprofit changemakers. Now, we are thrilled to announce a new partnership with the Joe and Clara Tsai Foundation’s Social Justice Fund that builds on this purpose and extends the spotlight to individual leaders.

The Just Brooklyn Prize will award a total of $100,000 annually to five BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) changemakers who are rolling up their sleeves and making big personal investments to help Brooklyn become a more fair and just place for all who call it home.

“Brooklyn Org truly understands the needs of Brooklyn’s nonprofits as well as the wider Brooklyn community,” says Gregg Bishop, Executive Director of the Joe and Clara Tsai Foundation’s Social Justice Fund. “Given its track record developing programs targeted at addressing the most pressing needs of the community, partnering with BKO for the Just Brooklyn Prize makes perfect sense. Together, we are excited to honor unheralded Brooklynites who are doing amazing things every day, often out of their own pockets, but never ask for acknowledgement or recognition. This is our way of saying, ‘We see you and we thank you.’”

Our President & CEO Dr. Jocelynne Rainey, Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso, and Executive Director of the Joe and Clara Tsai Foundation’s Social Justice Fund Gregg Bishop

So far, over 1,000 nominations have come in for the inaugural prize, but lucky for Gregg and me, we don’t have the impossible job of choosing the winners. That will fall to The Just Brooklyn Prize Selection Committee, an impressive group of Brooklynites who know what authentic leadership looks like, including:

  • Dr. Uché Blackstock, Founder and CEO, Advancing Health Equity
  • Sharon Daughtry, Executive Director, Downtown Brooklyn Neighborhood Alliance
  • Rev. Emma Jordan-Simpson, President, Auburn Theological Seminary
  • Randy Peers, President & CEO, Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce
  • Antonio Reynoso, Brooklyn Borough President
  • Ouigi Theodore, Founder, The Brooklyn Circus
  • Maya Wiley, President & CEO, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
  • Angela Yee, Host, Way Up With Angela Yee
  • Jo-Ann Yoo, Executive Director, Asian American Federation

There are important changes afoot in our neighborhoods and our nation. But there are still strongholds of injustice that need to be dismantled—from our criminal justice system that can be everything except “just,” to a healthcare system that leaves under-invested communities shackled by chronic illnesses.

We’re especially honored by the committee members’ willingness to share their unique insights and gifts to support this important initiative.

Committee member Dr. Uché Blackstock was raised in Crown Heights and continues to call Brooklyn her home–leaving only to attend Harvard. Next January she’ll release her memoir, “Legacy, A Black Physician Reckons with Racism in Medicine,” which chronicles her experience as a second-generation Black woman physician grappling with the persistent racial inequities in healthcare—and the double standards for Black women physicians.

“Black American have helped build this country, and our economic contributions are in the billions,” says Dr. Blackstock. “But we’re still living in chronically underinvested communities where we struggle against every risk factor imaginable. To change this once and for all, we need to talk about measures such as reparations and investments in every resource that affects healthcare in our communities. Things are happening at the local level across the country. But we need to have a national conversation.”

Dr. Uché Blackstock
Dr. Uché Blackstock, Selection Committee Member for The Just Brooklyn Prize

Not only is Dr. Blackstock a dynamic thought leader on racial disparities in healthcare, she’s also a 2020 Black Voices for Black Justice recipient, supported by The Social Justice Fund. In her commitment to paying it forward, Dr. Blackstock used the grant to partner with two Brooklyn-based organizations—Ancient Song Doula and 2022 Spark Prize winner Brooklyn Movement Center—to help counter the sinister impact that health inequities have had on Black and brown people.

“When I was growing up in Crown Heights, the thing I loved most was feeling like we were part of a community,” reflects Dr. Blackstock. “As the nomination process kicks into full swing, I’m really looking forward to learning more about the leaders that are helping to keep our Brooklyn community the diverse, vibrant and culturally dynamic place that I’ve always known and loved.”

If you’d like to nominate any “nose-to-the-grindstone” leaders in your community that deserve recognition for their dedication and hard work, submit their names by Monday, May 15th at

And for any deserving nonprofits that would like to apply for the 2024 Spark Prize, applications are accepted through June 28th at  

And for everyone else, we are committed to the programming and partnerships to help SPARK real change in Brooklyn. We cannot do this work without your support. We hope you will continue to partner with us as we expand our investments in racial justice for Brooklyn. Please give today.