The power of macro social work practice was on display Wednesday evening at the second annual McSilver Awards at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) Fisher Building. Led by director Mary McKernan McKay, the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research at New York University’s Silver School of Social Work has become a force for social justice and societal change in New York and an example for the nation of the transformational power of social work. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, the only thing I can say is: you should have been there. Describing the energy and emotions that filled the evening would be difficult to do in this short post.
Five outstanding and deserving individuals were honored for their contributions to the effort to reduce poverty and its effects: Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr.; Jonathan P. Edwards, a training specialist with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene; Andrea Elliott, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter; Dr. Pedro A. Noguera, the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at NYU; and Rosemonde Pierre-Louis, commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence. What struck me about each honoree’s acceptance speech was how they spoke about their work with the McSilver Institute and their commitment to future projects with the institute. They were not just notable do-gooders who were being honored for their well-deserved individual accomplishments; they are part of a growing community of impressive social engineers brought together under the McSilver Institute umbrella.
At the center of the success of the McSilver Institute are Martin and Constance Silver, whose transformative gift to NYU gave birth to the institute. They were on hand to share in the festivities. Dr. Constance Silver earned her B.S. and M.S.W. degrees at NYU School of Social Work, taught as an adjunct and is now an NYU trustee. Silver School dean Lynn Videka drew applause from the audience when she spoke of the need to reaffirm social work’s commitment to social justice. Doctoral student Gary Parker, deputy director of the McSilver Institute; Ammu Kowolik, assistant director for communications and program development; and Dan Ferris, assistant director for policy and external affairs ensured the smooth sailing of the program along with other talented and energetic staff and interns assembled by Dr. McKay.
During the awards segment, Bronx BP Diaz talked about growing up in an economically-devastated Bronx neighborhood and having to pile discarded mattresses to create a makeshift playground apparatus and how proud he is now to be in position to generate more than $600 million to refurbish the borough’s parks and recreational facilities. When Connie Silver spoke about her husband Martin growing up in the Bronx and fishing in the Bronx River only to see it decay and become unusable, Diaz drew laughs when he pronounced its cleanup and revitalization and that it now has two beavers. On a more somber note, Pierre-Louis reminded the audience about the many forgotten victims of domestic violence and the need to understand who they are and find ways to redirect and restore their lives. Dr. Noguera recalled growing up in the Tilden Houses in Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood—one of the most neglected in New York City—and how that fueled a life-long commitment to finding ways to educate poor children. He reminded everyone that poverty is not a learning disability.
The most emotional acceptance speeches were from Jonathan Edwards and Andrea Elliott. Edwards spoke about how he overcame personal mental health challenges and that now as Director of Peer Services at Kings County Hospital Center he is helping people with mental health challenges overcome barriers and find meaningful employment. He choked back tears telling the story about how thrilled a 55-year-old man was to receive his first paycheck ever. Andrea Elliott drew the rapt attention of the audience as she recounted her investigative work with homeless 11-year-old Dasani that led to her award-winning NY Times series, Invisible Child. Chronicling Dasani’s life helped bring attention to the plight of the more than 22,000 homeless children in New York City and moved the city’s administration to close two dilapidated shelters and relocate its families. She brought with her Paula Holmes, principal of the Susan B. McKinney Secondary School of the Arts where Dasani attended.
That same day preceding the awards ceremony, the McSilver Institute conducted a symposium on food insecurity and homelessness. Concern for those experiencing poverty is at the heart of its research and policy agenda. CRISP is pleased to be a partner in that agenda, having co-sponsored a symposium on the Hill focusing on children’s mental health with the McSilver Institute in October of last year along with Social Justice Solutions. It is always a pleasure hanging out with my SJS partners Matthew Cohen, Courtney Kidd, Georgianna Dolan-Reilly and her hubby.
I have exceeded my usual 700 word limit for posts and there is still so much more I could write about the awards ceremony—those who introduced the honorees, the many disciplines in the NYU community who recognize and support this social work enterprise, and so many others in city government, the nonprofit sector, and the business community who get what they are doing and who admire the passion, creativity, and commitment of Dr. Mary M. McKay. Macro social work is alive and well at the McSilver Institute.
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