New York City activists, residents awarded $1M prize

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In this Oct. 4, 2021, photo provided by Coothill Nelson, Fela Barclift poses for a photo in New York. Barclift is one of the winners of the year's David Prize. (Coothill Nelson via AP)

Fela Barclift recalls the day in 1981 when she left her Brooklyn brownstone to search for childcare for her daughter. Racial representation is important for Barclift, who is Black, so she went to nearly 10 different childcare centers to look for the perfect fit. But she couldn’t find any that had Black dolls, or even photos of Black people, she said.

So Barclift converted one floor of her home into a daycare facility for her daughter and invited others to join. That led to the launch of Little Sun People, a preschool that aims to foster self-esteem in children by teaching them about their African heritage.

“I see the difference when we teach our children about having pride in themselves, their family, their community and who they are,” said Barclift, who's now 70. “It creates such a strong sense of self-assurance, and a sense of confidence and belonging.”

On Tuesday, Barclift was named one of the winners of this year’s David Prize, an annual $1 million award for select New York City residents. The prize is named after billionaire real estate developer David C. Walentas and financed by his Brooklyn-based family foundation. The Walentas family and their real estate group, Two Trees Management Company, is known for redeveloping Brooklyn's Dumbo neighborhood, which has brought praise and criticism for advancing the neighborhood's gentrification.

The money from the Walentas doesn't come with any strings attached, similar to MacArthur Foundation’s “genius grant,” — a philanthropic grant for people, instead of programs. Erika Boll, the executive director of The David Prize, says they were inspired by the success of the MacArthur grants and wanted to do something similar, but with a “New York flavor.”

This year's winners were selected from a pool of 5,000 people, Boll said. Along with Barclift, they include Five Mualimm-ak, a former inmate turned prison reform advocate; Felicia Wilson, a nonprofit worker aiming to help youth aging out of foster care; Jaime-Jin Lewis, the founder of a company that aims to help home-based child care workers and Cesar Vargas, a former undocumented immigrant and activist who now serves as the deputy chief of staff for New York City Council Member Carlos Menchaca.

Each of them will receive $200,000 over the course of two years to get some of their ideas off the ground or continue work they're already doing. Barclift plans to create an Afro-centric curriculum guide she can share with other educators, and finish writing a book of affirmations for children of African descent.

Vargas, who also works as an immigration attorney and serves in the United States Army Reserve, says he will use the money create an organization that aims to help undocumented immigrants in the military dealing with immigration challenges.

A spokesperson for the David Prize says Vargas will receive the money after he leaves his government job with City Council in December, and will recuse himself from any possible business involving the Walentas family or Two Trees Management Company until then. “His immediate supervisors, and council member, knows about it and supports it," the spokesperson said. The city's Conflict of Interest Board declined a request for comment.

Vargas, 38, emigrated with his family from Mexico when he was five years old, and recalls a life full of challenges due to his immigration status — from difficulties enrolling in college, he said, to almost being kicked out of college after not being able to hand over a Social Security number.

He ultimately became a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a federal program that shields immigrants who came to the United States as young children from deportation, and was able to get his citizenship through his spouse.

For others, the money will allow them to avoid stress about their own income while pursuing their activism.

Mualimm-ak says he was incarcerated for nearly 12 years on weapons charges, and spent many years in solitary confinement. After his release in 2012, he became a prison reform advocate and was able to get grant funding for projects he's pursued with his organization, Incarcerated Nation Network. But, he says, he hasn't been able to give himself a paycheck.

“A lot of people didn’t know I was homeless doing this work,” said Mualimm-ak, who lived in a shelter and was ultimately able to get supportive housing. “People thought I was successful, but I was really struggling to make things happen.”

Mualimm-ak says he will use the funding to hire himself full-time, and expand work he's doing on a project that aims to help youth who've been incarcerated or detained.

Lewis, the CEO of Wiggle Room, says the funding will allow her to hire herself full-time, too. She had been doing consulting work to supplement her income while also working on Wiggle Room, a public benefit corporation that aims to help in-home child care providers in the city standardize their operations and run stronger businesses.

The other winner, Wilson, says she will use the grant to strengthen the infrastructure of her organization, What About Us. The nonprofit aims to help youth transitioning out of foster care, a passion project for Wilson, who's lived in 63 foster homes from age 4 to 21 after her mother died of an overdose. One plan, she says, is to connect foster youth with mentors who have also grown up in foster care.

“I’m just happy that I can be a part of bringing in what these young people have been asking for - which is someone that looks like them, someone that understands the struggle," she said. “But also someone that really knows the process, and what it takes to get success or create success - whatever they think success is. Not what I feel it should be.”


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