Forest Hills is home to a nonprofit that recognizes and honors the work of young women in social justice and union leadership. The Berger-Marks Foundation is named for the late union organizer Edna Berger and her husband, Tin Pan Alley lyricist Gerald Marks (royalties from his songs help fund the foundation). Last August we ran an article calling for nominations for the foundation’s annual awards. Carolyn J. Jacobson, a longtime Forest Hills Connection contributor, is also the secretary-treasurer of the group. She reveals more about the winners:
by Carolyn J. Jacobson
At a November 13th awards ceremony at the National Press Club, immigrants’ rights activist Cristina Jimenez, managing director of United We Dream, accepted the Berger-Marks Foundation’s most prestigious award, the Edna Award, which comes with a $10,000 prize.
When she learned she won the award, Jimenez said she was humbled.
“Edna and other courageous leaders before me paved the way for young women like myself to find our voices and fearlessly fight for dignity and justice,” Jimenez said. “This award not only recognizes my experience as an undocumented immigrant woman, but also the struggle of millions of immigrants across the country, mothers, workers, youth, and children who live under the fear of deportation every day. I have been part of building a powerful movement of immigrant youth and I’m committed to following Edna’s example by continuing to empower others to raise their voices for the wellbeing of our communities.”
In her acceptance remarks, Jimenez reminded the assembled guests and luminaries of the hardships that immigrant workers face in the U.S.
“She was talking about her dad working at the car wash,” said Jennifer Clark, communications director for the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, “and he hadn’t been paid in a couple of months. He had to go home and ask his 14-year-old daughter to ask his boss, ‘Where is my paycheck?’”
Jimenez came to the U.S. from Ecuador at the age of 13 as an undocumented student. Since 2004, said Berger-Marks Foundation President Linda Foley, Jimenez has fought for the rights of immigrant youth and workers and for passage of the DREAM Act and other immigrant rights reforms. Her organizing work to pressure President Obama to act resulted in his issuing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows immigrant children who grew up Americans to remain Americans – the biggest immigration policy victory in almost 20 years.
This year, the Berger-Marks Foundation accepted nominees for a new prize, the Kate Mullany Courageous Worker Award. It is named for a young laundry worker who led a successful strike in 1864 when she was just 19. Since the nominees were so outstanding, the foundation trustees decided to give out three Kate Mullany awards, which come with a $1,000 prize and a special medal donated by the American Labor Studies Center, which is located the Kate Mullany House, a national historic site in Troy, New York.
The inaugural Kate Mullany winners were:
Ellen Brackeen, who was fired for organizing her fellow T-Mobile customer service agents at a call center in Wichita, KS. Ellen risked her livelihood to speak up about fair pay, improving workplace conditions and respect on the job.
Donyetta Hill, a former fast-food worker from Detroit who organized her coworkers to stage a walkout to protest the lack of raises. Donyetta highlighted the fact that many coworkers still made minimum wage after working there for more than five years.
Yesica Mendez, age 21, who was fired from her Mount Kisco, NY grocery store job for trying to organize a union. She and her coworkers decided to picket the store six days a week to raise awareness of the injustice. Yesica eventually won her job back with retroactive pay.
Two $1,000 Edna Awards of Distinction for social justice went to Victoria Alvarez, an organizer with the United Steelworkers union who has helped hundreds of Spanish-speaking workers organize a union; and Dessa Cosma-King, who helped to create the Economic Justice Alliance of Michigan and who now works as co-director of the Center for Progressive Leadership in Detroit.
The foundation is currently involved in a strategic planning process, with a focus on its annual grant-making. As a result, its grant priorities are likely to change, starting in 2015. The Edna and Kate Mullany Awards will continue to be presented annually. The call for nominations will be made in June, with award winners announced in September.
Anyone interested in keeping up with news on the foundation and about American working women – with a particular focus on union women – is welcome to sign up for monthly e-news alerts on the homepage, bergermarks.org.
Carolyn J. Jacobson, who lives in Forest Hills, is the Berger-Marks Foundation’s secretary-treasurer.