Food for the Soul: The 4th Annual Madiba Humanitarian Awards

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Photo credit: Joyce Prado Almeida

A powerfully enriching and wonderfully entertaining evening was enjoyed by attendees at the Fourth Annual Madiba Humanitarian Awards at the Brooklyn Museum on Saturday, October 13th. Presented by the Bedford Stuyvesant Museum of African Art (BSMAA) and organized by its Founder and Executive Director Vira Lynn Jones, the event commemorated what would have been the 100th birthday of courageous human rights icon Nelson Mandela, known affectionately as “Madiba” in his native South Africa.

Performances from a variety of stellar talents made the evening magical. Broadway phenom Lillias White sang a tribute to Miriam Makeba and the song, “We Are One,” trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah played the South African freedom song, “Mayibuye,” the Bongi Gumboot Dancers, did a rare breakdown of the styles and meanings of this dance, the young women of the Dwana Smallwood Performing Arts Center were delightful, as was a dance duet by Sequoia Harris and Nathaniel Hall.

Honorees and Founder from left to right: Vira Lynn, Jones, Founder Bedford Stuyvesant Museum of African Art;
Minister Tony Muhammad, Ruth Carter, costume designer; James Shaw, Waffle House hero; Kevinee Gilmore,
Founder #FosterCare and Ron Garris, Founder Throwaway Kids Foundation. Photo credit: Joyce Prado Almeida

The evening began with rousing drum processional of the honorees by Heritage O.P. and an electrifying performance of the South African National Anthem byu Phindile Mkhize Wilson. It closed with a performance by a masked stilt-walker in remembrance of Ivorian dance ambassador Mamadou Dahoue.

All honorees chosen this year are representative of Mandela’s spirit and dedication. As their stories were told via video presentation, everyone was riveted; when they accepted their awards, some audience members were seen wiping away tears. At a time when cynicism and selfishness sometimes wins the day, bearing witness to the kindness and charity embodied by this remarkable selection of awardees was healing and uplifting.

Costume Designer Ruth E. Carter was the evening’s special honoree, recognized for her prodigious body of work in film, most of it on Black film projects. Her usual extensive research and imaginative prowess garnered rave reviews for the Black Panther costumes, particularly those seen on people gathered on the mountain in traditional dress from nations across the continent. Carter has done costume design for more than 40 films, including, Malcolm X, Selma, The Butler, Do the Right Thing, and Amistad (for which she received an Oscar nomination), among many others.

“Going in on a big Black Panther project is a big deal! Marvel’s like the CIA, you go in and doors mysteriously close behind you… But then I met with a young filmmaker named Ryan Coogler. And he kinda reminded me of a young Spike Lee. I wanna thank you for welcoming me home to Brooklyn. Cause when you talk about arts and education, I was educated right here. My first film was right here on Dekalb Avenue when I prepped School Daze for Spike Lee. And I had never done a movie before, but he trusted me. I had been educated in theater and I knew my craft. But he said, ‘Come on to Brooklyn. Come to the old firehouse.“

Rob Garris, a former amateur boxer has turned crusader for children in foster care, as he had once been. Through his Throwaway Kids Foundation Garris seeks to be a voice and a conduit to agency for these children nationwide. He’s monitoring the system and has paid for funerals for children who died in foster care. Garris also helps adults who’ve aged out of the system to gain employment and to find as much information as they can about their birth histories, which have medical significance.

“I’m shocked!” said Garris.” I’m not used to this. This is really special to share the stage with these people. I’m so touched and I feel blessed to be a part of this.”

People who’ve come through the foster-care system have another fierce advocate in Kevinee Gilmore. She was shuttled between 13 homes before aging out of the system at 18, when she was booted out, becoming instantly homeless. The founder of #FosterCare, Gimore takes on the $26 billion-dollar industry, created Foster Share House and intends to acquire 13 properties, (one for each of the homes she lived in), providing stable residences for aged-out youth. Gilmore delivered sobering news among the festivities – true to the advocate that she is:

“Seventy-six percent of girls who age out of foster care are mothers before their 21st birthday and they lose their children to the foster-care system. Fifty-four percent don’t have a high school diploma and 36% percent go to prison within the first year. In 2014, 60% of kids who aged out were human-trafficked. And less than 4% of kids get college degrees. I’m one of the 4 percent… So if you understand that culturally we’re all connected, you understand why it’s important for you to step up. The foster-care system is modern-day slavery.”

Minister Tony Muhammad inspired everyone present by what he’s achieved through unwavering commitment to ending gang violence. Over two decades he has brokered peace between the rival gangs of South Central Los Angeles, in the process, saving lives and safeguarding futures. He co-founded the United in Peace Movement, resulting in a historic truce – the Peace Treaty and Cease Fire Agreement between area Crips and Bloods and a reduction of violence by 40 percent. And his blueprint for taking this success national is breathtaking in scope and vision.

“They are the best generation we’ve ever produced,” he said of the young people. “All they need is guidance. Last year over 5,000 gang members came together who wanted to kill police officers. But God blessed me to change that by using two documents the Million Man March pledge and a pamphlet called “The Way of Happiness,” among other gang-intervention booklets. And it was so big that next year we’re going to the Coliseum with 100,000! The gang members want to live-stream it to the world, go to the stage and ask for forgiveness. It will be a day of edutainment headed up by none other than sister Beyonce and her husband.“

Honoree James Shaw, popularly known as “The Waffle House Hero,” disarmed a crazed gunman in Tennessee last spring, saving many lives while risking his own. Then to compound his act of service, he created a GoFundMe campaign seeking to raise $15,000 to support the families of those who lost their lives in the incident. He raised more than $400,000 and turned the money over to a financial services firm to be distributed.

“As I start my work to help people – all people – I realize that’s the only way I’m gonna pay my ticket here on Earth,” said Shaw. “When I was in that hallway by myself, there was nothing but optimism and God that got me put of that situation. Young men come to me in the street now for words of inspiration. And I want to thank Miss Vira for the award. The recognition and the encouragement help the heart to keep pushing.”

Vira Lynn Jones could not be more pleased with how the fourth annual awards turned out.

“I am excited that I could celebrate the legacy of Nelson “Madiba” Mandela by honoring individuals who embodied many of the principles he embodied in this life, especially his sacrifices toward helping humanity,” she said. “The BSMAA staff is so proud of the honorees this year. They bonded so well and admired what the other honorees were doing to improve the lives of others.”

Having the event take place at a venue such as the Brooklyn Museum was a milestone for Jones. “It really put BSMAA on many people’s radar. Most people did not realize that there’s an African art museum in Bedford Stuyvesant. And I’m still receiving text messages from people telling me how fantastic the show was!

The most incredible feedback was from the audience member who thanked me for picking such incredible honorees who were full of compassion and showed a deep dedication toward the things they were doing to improve society.”

This year, BSMAA was honored and delighted to receive official approval for the annual event from the Nelson Mandela Foundation in South Africa. (The Madiba Awards had previously been approved as an official event by the United Nations to be listed in its calendar from 2015 to 2024.)