In an evening seeping with inspiration and wisdom, five resident leaders who have made a lasting impact in their communities received NeighborWorks America's Dorothy Richardson Award for Resident Leadership. The honorees accepted their medals during a ceremony last weekend in front of nearly 500 other resident leaders and staff from NeighborWorks network organizations across the country, D.C. and Puerto Rico.
From left to right: NeighborWorks President & CEO Marietta Rodriguez with Gladys Muhammad, James Page Jr., Genesis Ulloa, Jacklyne Ortiz Velez, Consuelo Ramires and Gertrude "Naeema" Gilyard.
The award is linked to NeighborWorks America's founding, emulating Dorothy Mae Richardson's
work as a leader who, with her neighbors, brought everyone to the table to save a community that had seen disinvestment and decay. The award is also a reflection of NeighborWorks' commitment today, working with 247 organizations that know residents are the foundation to creating community and overcoming challenges. This year's ceremony was part of the yearlong celebration of NeighborWorks' 45th anniversary.
As Marietta Rodriguez, president & CEO of NeighborWorks, said in her introduction, "Community is something we feel strongly in promoting and that's why we're here today. You are the cornerstone of NeighborWorks America's mission of building strong and thriving communities. Over the years, you stand together with thousands of resident leaders who have come together in solidarity to learn new ways of working with neighbors and new ways of bringing positive community change."
Rodriguez said she had seen personally the results of NeighborWorks' Community Leadership Institute, not just in training for leaders, but in "tangible projects that have improved neighborhoods and the lives of those who lived there." The ceremony included 10-year-old Genesis Ulloa, who delivered a poem about immigrant families like her own, and the importance of not being silent — even if you feel like a stranger. "I will raise my voice
and fear I will no longer have," she said.
, nominated by Avenue
for her civic engagement, bringing together domestic workers, caring for the elderly and helping others raise their voices, said through a Spanish interpreter that her vision is for a safe community. "We are here for our children, for our communities and for our families," said Ramires, who lives in Houston, Texas. She dedicated the award to her daughter, who she said might have missed her at events and important dates because "I was working on being empowered. I also want to thank every single one of us who are doing the work in our communities to provide for each of the residents a roof over their heads and a safe community."
Jacklyne Ortiz Velez
, switching between Spanish and English, told the audience, "I have a fear about public speaking, but that doesn't mean I don't fight for the community." She was nominated for the award for her work resuscitating and expanding a community library in Puerto Rico, which became the heart of her small community. She was accompanied by the executive director of Ponce NHS
, the organization that nominated her, and a former student who attributed her support and "mothering" to helping him earn his high school diploma.
"It's hard," Ortiz Velez said of community development. "Everyone knows it's a hard journey to be able to accomplish something." But it's a journey that is possible.
, who has worked to solve problems in South Bend, Indiana, for her whole life, said her goal, and the goal of other affordable housing community development workers, is to "move our people from a place called hell to a place called heaven. It's our right and it's our work and that work becomes our life."
She told the audience that she knows "you are tired and stay up at night wondering how you can make change occur. Don't ever think you're alone. We're all here with you. We understand. Some people don't get it. And you can't give it them if they don't get it."
People may question why you're doing this work, she said. But they're the ones who are misguided if they think "we're going to continue to live with violences, with prejudices, with systemic racism. We're not going to do that." Muhammad was nominated by South Bend Heritage Foundation.
And Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership's
honoree, Gertrude "Naeema" Gilyard
, said that in the nation and world, people are focusing too much on the things that separate us, rather than what we all have in common. "When you start fighting about being so different — whether it's religion or culture or whatever — makes you want to fight and when you fight, you can't solve problems.
"I just want to encourage you to be loving as you go out into the community and remember one thing: If you can't love yourself, you can't love anyone else. That is the key to you being able to be successful out there. I'm going to be there until I take my last breath. I have to; I've been called to."
James Page Jr.'s
work revolved around lessons he learned from his own addiction and supporting the community without judgement. From Minneapolis, Minnesota and nominated by Aeon
, he also delivered a poem, called "A Man."
"I am a man, and I can see injustice in this land," went one part. "What's holding this world up? What's holding freedom down? And as the world goes around, why can't love be found?" went another.
Page's wisdom? "Part of that is taking responsibility for what you do and not finding a way to blame it on somebody else," he said. "Another part of it — you've probably heard me talk about dignity? I wanted to create my own. Because we are able to create our own dignity. When you create it, it's in here. You own it."
Following a weekend of learning and training, the leaders returned to their home communities where they will continue the working of developing – and connecting – community. As they all said over the course of the event: "I'm going to keep fighting."