Annual Symposium Honorees
At the Annual Symposium, the honoree (or honorees) is presented with an award and acts as the keynote speaker at the plenary session.
Who They Are
Inspired by her own life experience and her work on the ground during the last presidential election, Sonja Sohn founded ReWired for Change in 2008. That year, Sohn and her colleagues from HBO's "The Wire" worked with National Urban League President Marc Morial on a voter empowerment campaign through Philadelphia and across Virginia and North Carolina. Sohn saw firsthand how celebrity could be used responsibly to inspire those who are often left out of the social equation.
After the election, Sohn galvanized the rest of "The Wire" cast and crew to use their creativity and media access as a force for change in the lives of disadvantaged individuals and families. In particular, Sohn envisioned an effort to take high-risk youth on a journey toward self-awareness and becoming productive citizens who contribute to the well-being of their communities.
For more information on ReWired for Change, please visit www.rewiredforchange.org.
A former high school and college basketball player, Bob Hurley is a highly involved community leader. He worked as a Hudson County probation officer for 28 years and received numerous awards before retiring in 2001. Subsequently, he became director of recreational services for Jersey City, N.J., and retired from that position in 2008.
Hurley has been the head coach for St. Anthony High School in Jersey City for 38 years. With a career record of 1017-110, he is the winningest high school coach in New Jersey history. In 2008, he entered the national record books with 25 all-time state titles and six undefeated seasons.
Hurley was inducted into the Jersey City, Hudson County and New Jersey Halls of Fame. Three times USA Today named him National High School Coach of the Year. He was the first-ever recipient of the Naismith National High School Coach of the Year award. In 2010, he became the second high school coach ever to be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. He achieved his 1000th win on February 2, 2011.
Coach Hurley has mentored 150 players who received college scholarships; five players have gone on to the NBA and two to major league baseball. He has spent a lifetime teaching, motivating and guiding young people in athletics and in life.
Hurley and his wife, Chris, have three children.
An actor and activist, Wendell Pierce is perhaps best known for his highly acclaimed performance as Detective Bunk Moreland in the award-winning HBO series "The Wire," and most recently for his role as trombone player Antoine Batiste in HBO's "Treme," set in post-Katrina New Orleans. He narrated the Spike Lee documentary "When the Levees Broke," which premeired on HBO in August 2006.
Pierce grew up in New Orleans's historic Pontchartrian Park, a section still suffering bitterly from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. His parents were residing there when the destruction played out.
In December 2007, Pierce issued a call-to-action to the residents of Pontchartrain Park in response to plans by the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority to release an RFP for reconstructing the area. Residents expressed their desire to participate in the planning and decisions that would affect their community.
Undeterred by bureaucratic delays and red tape, Pierce leveraged his visibility as a respected actor to launch a community-driven approach to rebuilding. He founded the nonprofit Pontchartrain Park Community Development Corporation (PPCDC) to construct eco- and budget-friendly replacement homes featuring solar and geothermal energy. The PPCDC opened its first model home in May 2010.
Pierce brings passion and commitment to the task of revitalizing his former neighborhood—one of the oldest African-American communities in New Orleans lost to the floods of Katrina.
Jennifer Ayers-Moore is one of three sisters of Nathaniel Anthony Ayers. She witnessed her brother’s deterioration from a Juilliard-trained classical musician into a homeless derelict as the result of schizophrenia. Ayers-Moore has been a constant source of support for Nathaniel throughout the years, although at times, she did not know where he was or even if he was alive. She attributes her strength to God and to her mother’s unfulfilled desire to find support for the mentally ill and their families. Ayers-Moore witnessed the stigma and misunderstanding of mental illness and struggled as she watched schizophrenia manifest in her brother. When their Mom passed away in 2000, keeping up with Nathaniel became seemingly impossible, but she remained steadfast.
Eventually, her ever-present compassion for the mentally ill led Ayers-Moore to create The Nathaniel Anthony Ayers Foundation (NAAF) in an effort to reach out to the mentally ill and their families. The NAAF (www.naayers.org) strives to spread the value of artistic expression in the advancement of wellness, through partnerships with health and arts organizations nationwide, in an effort to spearhead alternative treatment and STOP STIGMA. Watch the video on Nathaniel Anthony Ayers.
The unique relationship between Nathaniel Anthony Ayers and Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez is captured in Lopez's riveting novel, “The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music.” The book was made into a film starring Jamie Foxx, Robert Downey Jr. and LisaGay Hamilton.
Ayers-Moore has appeared on “60 Minutes,” CNN, and other programs. She and her companions wore camouflage jackets to the film premiere of “The Soloist” in solidarity with Nathaniel in the battle to “STOP STIGMA.”
Born in New Mexico of Indio-Mexican descent, Jimmy Santiago Baca was raised at first by his grandmother, and later sent to an orphanage. A runaway at age 13, Baca was sentenced to five years in a maximum-security prison. The experience helped him turn his life around: Baca learned to read and write and discovered a passion for poetry. During a fateful conflict with another inmate, he was shaken by the voices of Neruda and Lorca, and made a choice that would alter his destiny. Instead of becoming a hardened criminal, he emerged from prison a writer. He sent three of his poems to Denise Levertov, the poetry editor of Mother Jones. The poems were published and became part of “Immigrants in Our Own Land,” published in 1979, the year he was released from prison. He earned his GED later the same year.
2007 » Victor Rivas Rivers
Victor Rivas Rivers, National family advocate, author, actor. Dubbed “the longest long shot” by the Miami Herald when he became the first Cuban-American to be given a two-season tryout with the Miami Dolphins, Victor Rivas Rivers is no stranger to adversity and triumph. A critically acclaimed actor and spokesman for the National Network to End Domestic Violence, Rivers survived horrific childhood abuse and witnessed family violence tantamount to torture. He chronicles his dramatic personal story in the New York Times best seller, “A Private Family Matter.”
Rivers arrived in America with his family at age 2, and by 15, he had taken what was then unprecedented legal action against his father, going on to live with a series of foster families. With the help of community intervention, Rivers transformed himself from teenage gangbanger to senior class president. He attended Florida State University on a football scholarship and became a free-agent draft pick with the Miami Dolphins. Today, Rivers is a versatile actor whose credits include more than two dozen films.
In his role as spokesman for the National Network to End Domestic Violence, Rivers uses his own harrowing story to raise awareness about what he considers our greatest, yet most curable disease. Rivers broke the cycle of violence to become a devoted husband, father, athlete, actor and family advocate. He has been described by director Taylor Hackford (“Blood In, Blood Out”) as “a big man in heart and soul.”
2006 » Erin Gruwell and Maria Reyes
Erin Gruwell, revolutionary educator, activist and celebrated author, landed her first job at Wilson High School in Long Beach, California, only to discover that many of her students had been written off as “unteachable.” As teenagers living in a racially divided urban community, they were already hardened by firsthand exposure to gang violence, juvenile detention and drugs. With Gruwell’s steadfast support, her students shattered stereotypes to become critical thinkers, aspiring college students and citizens for change. They dubbed themselves the “Freedom Writers”—an homage to the civil rights activists, the Freedom Riders —and published “The Freedom Writers Diary—How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them.” Through student entries and Gruwell’s narrative, the book chronicles their “eye-opening, spirit-raising odyssey against intolerance and misunderstanding.” Today Gruwell serves as president of the Erin Gruwell Education Project (EGEP), a nonprofit organization that promotes inclusion and provides scholarships for children in need.
Maria Reyes was involved in gangs and juvenile detention from the time she was 11 until she became one of Gruwell’s English students and original Freedom Writers. Since then, Reyes has traveled the country speaking out about the power of education and the need to give students a second chance. She earned a B.S. from California State University Long Beach in 2005. Along with Gruwell, Reyes and some of the other students have appeared on “Oprah,” ABC’s “The View,” C-SPAN’s “Book TV,” and numerous other television and radio programs. Paramount Pictures recently released the film “Freedom Writers” starring Hilary Swank.
2005 » Geoffrey Canada
Geoffrey Canada, President and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, is the acclaimed author of “Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun: a Personal History of Violence in America.” His second book, “Reaching Up for Manhood,” was published in January 1998. Canada has received numerous awards, including the prestigious McGraw Prize for Education and the first Heinz Award for the Human Condition in recognition of his selfless determination to make the lives of inner-city children safer and saner.
Raised in the South Bronx, Canada has dedicated his life to helping children from similar circumstances secure educational and economic opportunities. His many efforts include the Harlem Children’s Zone’s Beacon Schools, the Harlem Peacemakers Program, the Community Pride Initiative, and, most recently, the Harlem Children’s Zone Project. In 1983, he founded the Chang Moo Kwan Martial Arts School, which has become a nationally recognized model for violence prevention. Canada is also the East Coast regional coordinator for the Black Community Crusade for Children—a nationwide effort organized by Marian Wright Edelman and the Children's Defense Fund. A much sought-after speaker, Canada enjoys a national reputation as an advocate for and expert on issues concerning violence, children and community redevelopment. He has appeared on “CBS This Morning,” “Good Morning America,” “The Today Show,” “Nightline,” and other network and cable television programs. In May 1994, he hosted the national PBS special “Jobs: A Way Out?”
2004 » Salome Thomas-EL
Author and educator Salome Thomas-EL was an inner-city kid born and raised in Philadelphia. He began working in the Philadelphia School District in 1987 and received national acclaim as a teacher and chess coach at Vaux Middle School, where his students went on to win world recognition as eight-time National Chess Champions.
Thomas-El is the author of “I Choose to Stay” (Kensington, 2003). The book is based on a choice he made in 1997 to turn down a promotion and remain at Vaux Middle School despite a $25,000 raise and the power to influence a greater number of students. Now, as the principal of John F. Reynolds Elementary School in North Philadelphia, he is one block from Vaux, which allows him to continue his inspiring chess program there. At Reynolds, he established reading and breakfast programs and a Saturday morning tutoring program.
“I Choose To Stay” received the 2004 Silver Angel Award in the print category from Excellence in Media (EIM). The book has also garnered the attention of Walt Disney Pictures, which agreed to distribute a movie based on Thomas-EL’s life. Thomas-El has also received a Making a Difference award from KYW-CBS Television and was honored with the Marcus A. Foster Award as the outstanding School District Administrator in Philadelphia. He was named “A Future Black History Maker” by “The Philadelphia Daily News” and has received the University of Pennsylvania’s distinguished Martin Luther King Award.
2003 » Jonathan Kozol and The Rev. Martha Rollins Overall
Jonathan Kozol is an educator and author of several books, including “Amazing Grace” and “Ordinary Resurrections” that focus on race, poverty and education. He has devoted over three decades to issues of education, civil rights and social justice in America. He came to know St. Ann's Church and its priest, The Rev. Martha Rollins Overall, and the children of Mott Haven in 1993. The struggles of the neighborhood of Mott Haven and the trials that the children and community endure parallel those of many disenfranchised poor minority communities all over the United States, where the disparities between the wealthy and the poor increase exponentially each year.
The Rev. Martha Rollins Overall— Mother Martha, as she is known to those close to her— received her law degree in 1976 and practiced law for 13 years. She entered the Episcopal priesthood in 1991. Since 1993, she has been the priest at St. Ann's Church in Mott Haven, whose 48,000 residents occupy in the poorest congressional district in the country. Mother Martha's church and the community there were the focus of Kozol's 1995 book, “Amazing Grace,” and his 2000 book, “Ordinary Resurrections.”
2002 » Michael Patrick MacDonald
When anti-violence activist and author Michael Patrick MacDonald was seven years old, he, his mother, and seven older siblings moved into the Old Colony housing project in South Boston. “We thought we were in the best place in the world in this neighborhood,” he writes, “in these all-Irish housing projects where everyone claimed to be Irish even if their name was Spinoli.” But after three of his brothers died and his sister suffered brain damage as a result of being pushed off a roof, “Southie” no longer seemed like the best place in the world. Drugs, crime, murder, suicide, corruption—things Southie residents thought of as Black problems—were claiming lives in their own neighborhood. And nobody wanted to talk about it.
In his memoir, “ALL SOULS: A Family Story from Southie,” MacDonald describes life in a big Irish family, growing up in a neighborhood with the highest concentration of poor whites in America. His story takes readers into an insular world of “us” and “them” with room for little in between. It is a place where huge Irish shamrocks adorn liquor stores and where church bazaars, christenings, and weddings co-exist with mob murders, heroin addictions, teen pregnancy, and far too many funerals for young people.
In 1999, MacDonald moved back to Southie, a place he says he can’t help but love. He works there as an activist. MacDonald helped launch Boston’s successful gun-buyback program and is founder of the South Boston Vigil Group.
2001 » Geoffrey Canada
2000 » Cleve Jones
1999 » Morris Dees
1998 » Lonise Bias
1997 » James McBride
1996 » Byllye Avery
1995 » Henry Foster
1994 » Ramon del Castillo and Fr. Paul Washington
1993 » Joycelyn Elders
1992 » Arthur Kaufman
1991 » Harriet Dichter
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