Lifting Black Voices: 5 Leaders Awarded Grants To Help Tackle Racial Disparities In Brooklyn

Lifting Black Voices: 5 Leaders Awarded Grants To Help Tackle Racial Disparities In Brooklyn
The recipients of the grant. (Alford, top left; Dr. Blackstock, bottom left; Dr. Johnson, middle; Kalam Id-Din II, top right; and Smith, bottom right)

BARCLAYS CENTER – Five Black Brooklyn community leaders are the first recipients of the Joe and Clara Tsai Foundation Social Justice Fund, which aims to support social justice and equality initiatives that benefit Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color. The recipients are Brooklynites who have devoted their lives to tackling racial disparities in healthcare, climate policy, education, journalism, and the criminal justice system.

Clara Wu Tsai and Joe Tsai, owners of the Brooklyn Nets, New York Liberty, and Barclays Center, have committed $50 million over ten years through their Social Justice Fund to address racial disparities in education, health, and wealth, with a priority focus on Brooklyn. The recipients, Dr. Uché Blackstock, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, Natasha S. Alford, Rafiq Kalam Id-Din II, and Michael “Zaki” Smith, were each awarded a grant between $20,000 to $50,000. Their work will also be amplified through the Black Voices for Black Justice Fund, which supports Black leaders addressing systemic racism at the national and community level.

“When it comes to dismantling systemic racism and economic inequality in our communities, we want to lead by example. That’s why it is so important to us to invest in the Black leaders combating racial injustice from every angle right here in Brooklyn,” Wu Tsai said.

“They are on the ground day in and day out— working to eliminate racial disparities in our healthcare system, advocating for environmental justice, amplifying the untold stories of Black Americans, mentoring young people of color, and fighting on the front lines of the most pressing social justice issues of our time. We are honored to support their anti-racist work and to invest in creating a more just and inclusive Brooklyn through scalable, proven initiatives.”

Kalam Id-Din II, one of the recipients, is the founder of Ember Charter Schools, a Black-led charter school in Bed-Stuy focused on African and African-American culture and dedicated to anti-racism and justice for Black students. He is a leader in the charter school movement and the founder of the #BlackLedSchoolsMatter initiative. He told Bklyner he was humbled and surprised to have been selected and recognized as one of the first five recipients of this grant. He said he hopes this will empower Black leaders and spark a broader movement in philanthropy.

In March, he got sick with COVID-19. Since this was during the beginning of the coronavirus, he was not expecting what was to come next.

“… It would utterly ravage our community here in BedStuy and Central Brooklyn. Over those next several weeks, our school community would lose dozens of people—parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.—the losses were sudden and spiritually incalculable,” he told Bklyner.

“Add to all of this the devastating impact of the closure of school buildings, for so many children and youth one of the most safe and supportive places in their lives, and the result has been a tsunami of trauma for our community. We have so much healing to support, and we’ll need all the help we can get.”

This grant will go toward supporting his work at his charter school, which works primarily with low-income Black and Brown children to  “transform the racist and ineffective traditional ‘test prep’ public school experience into one focused on their holistic human development, with a goal of empowering our students with the agency, mind, and skill sets necessary to become the leaders, social entrepreneurs, and engineers who will change the world,” he told Bklyner.

“Given the deep and pervasive trauma and generational poverty experienced by so many of the young people we serve, in many ways our work is laser-focused on confronting and disrupting the pandemic of systemic racism and the gargantuan equity gap it has produced and continues to expand.”

Natasha S. Alford is a journalist and storyteller who is committed to amplifying untold stories impacting Black America. She is also the Senior Correspondent and VP of Digital Content for TheGrio. She will be using her grant to start a scholarship fund for student journalists of color in her hometowns of Syracuse and Rochester, and in Brooklyn. When she first found out she won, she was shocked and confused.

“I actually misunderstood the initial email and thought it was a request for coverage of someone else winning the award (ever the journalist :)). I am always looking for others to cover, realizing people were watching my work was affirming,” she told Bklyner over email. “There are so many deserving leaders on the front lines of the fight for racial equity, I am beyond honored and humbled to be recognized. The award motivates me to open up pathways for other up-and-coming journalists who may be discouraged from going into race coverage.”

“Too often, the media industry is seen as a difficult field to break into and financially unviable for students from low-income and working-class families,” she said. As a result, many of the stories and issues in these communities tend to be overlooked in an industry that has an essential responsibility to highlight racial inequity. That’s why I plan to start a scholarship fund for student journalists of color, which will target youth in my hometowns of Syracuse and Rochester and my current borough of Brooklyn. These young people deserve the support to enter an industry that desperately needs their voices, talent, and diversity.”

Michael “Zaki” Smith is an activist and policy expert who is working to dismantle the barriers in employment, education, and housing that prevent formerly incarcerated Americans like himself from fully reintegrating into society. He is also a barber and is often inspired by the conversations at his barbershop. He will use his grant toward “exposing the racialized history of how we got here and how legal discrimination keeps New Yorkers from restarting their lives,” he said.

“As a formerly incarcerated person, I know what it’s like to deal with ongoing collateral consequences due to your past with the justice system even after you serve your time,” Smith said. “This is the silent life sentence that many people in Brooklyn suffer through. It denies them a fair second chance and restricts access to employment, education, and housing.”

Dr. Uché Blackstock is an ER doctor who worked out of a Brooklyn urgent care center at the height of COVID-19. She is also the founder and CEO of Advancing Health Equity, which partners with healthcare organizations to combat bias and structural racism in the healthcare system. She will be using her grant to support the Brooklyn Movement Center and Ancient Song Doula Services, two Brooklyn, Black-led organizations committed to reducing racial health inequities.

“This award has immense value when it comes to advancing racial equity,” Dr.Blackstock said. “The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated pre-existing racialized health disparities… To achieve health equity, we need to confront the ways structural factors and structural racism influence health outcomes.”

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is the founder of Urban Ocean Lab, which is dedicated to advancing equitable climate policies in coastal cities. She is also a policy expert and author of the Blue New Deal. Her work focuses on reimagining the future of coastal cities and how to handle the risk coastal communities like Red Hook from sea level rise. Receiving this grant is an honor for her, too.

“As a Brooklyn native, marine biologist, and climate policy nerd, I understand that addressing our climate crisis and addressing injustices are inextricably linked,” Dr. Johnson said. “Unsurprisingly and unfortunately, it is communities of color who are often most at risk from climate impacts, such as rising sea levels and pollution. The Tsai Foundation’s grant will benefit Urban Ocean Lab’s work to shape policy for coastal cities that are livable and just.”

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