Last night, we joined the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Observance Committee of Bergen County to celebrate the 87th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with inspirational speakers, outstanding awards, and uplifting musical performances. This year, YWCA Bergen County received the Bergen County Martin Luther King Birthday Committee Lee Reid Award. We are so pleased and honored! Here are CEO Helen Archontou’s remarks upon accepting this distinction.
Thank you for this incredible honor. It is for us—the YWCA Bergen County—an opportunity and a humbling distinction. For me personally, this award is a signpost that says, “Yes, keep going! You’re on the right track.”
You see, four and half years ago, when I began as CEO of the YW, I adopted a mantra “live our name and live our mission.” I trusted that all the answers we needed for direction were right there.
Our mission “Eliminating Racism and Empowering Women”… leaves the YW with a hefty “to do” list. Back then I knew that we had some meaningful programs for a basis of growth in the area of encouraging and empowering women, but we really needed to do more to meet the challenge of that first part of our mission: Eliminating Racism.
But how do you tackle something as insidious and brutal as what Dr. King called “the starless midnight of racism.”?
After doing lots of research – looking at what was being done nationally, meeting with key individuals and organizations locally and getting involved with some statewide initiatives, we settled on something that may have seemed rather simplistic—talk about it—start the conversation.
I trusted that the path would become clear once we were able to get out the thoughts, the feelings…listen and really hear all points of view…and from there try to figure out next steps and make some plans with our community as an active participant in the process.
This was the start of our Courageous Conversation series, which brings together community members and thought leaders to discuss the various ways racism and bigotry express themselves in our lives. In just these few years, we have taken on conversations about health disparities, the juvenile justice system and white privilege. These conversations have allowed us to hear the struggles of our community and, when possible, have some resources to give some concrete support. Like connecting a parent with a case manager to help her advocate for her son in the juvenile detention center, or giving a woman information on a program to help her manage her diabetes.
Internally with our staff and board, we have dedicated time to look at our composition and services so that we are more representative and responsive to our community and the needs of our residents. We have created goals and are working toward them.
Our “talking about it” led to creating our annual Racial Justice Awards to call out and underscore the brave efforts of those in our community working toward healing, harmony and understanding. We need to celebrate what is being done to keep moving forward and inspire the next steps. I am proud to say the Third Annual event will be held on April 22 and we are accepting nominations for individuals and organizations that are living our mission.
Such measured actions don’t always seem revolutionary but they are crucial. There is no checklist here. We are never done. But for the YW the dialogue is key to lighting the path.
Which brings me back to this evening and this honor—a distinction that comes to us thanks to the hard work and dedication of our board, my staff and our community partners.
To be honored in this way, by this wonderful group, whose work we respect and admire, on a day that we all remember and celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. is so incredibly gratifying that is defies words…at least my words.
So, I’ll draw again from Dr. King’s words. He told us, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.”
This recognition will help us all keep straightening our backs to work for the peace, dignity, justice and freedom for all people.
The Lee Reid Award is given annually in memory of Reverend Lee Reid, organizer and first minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Palisades. She was also a valued member of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Observance Committee. Recipients of the award are recognized for their service to the community and how they reflect the teachings and vision of Dr. King.