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The Ella Baker Center honors three visionaries

on November 13, 2009

The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights honored three Bay Area visionaries at its end-of-the-year fundraiser Thursday night in downtown Oakland.

“Beautiful people, beautiful people, beautiful people,” said Abel Habtegeorgis, the media relations manager for the center and emcee for the night. “Like a good friend of mine from Brooklyn once said, ‘You could have been anywhere in the world tonight, but you’re here with me.’ And I appreciate it.”

Dim lighting and candles on each table set a reserved mood for the fundraiser — but the audience of around 400 people just wanted to party. Samba music played in the background. The Ella Baker staff danced on stage. People in the audience clapped their hands to the music.

The center gave awards to Lateefah Simon, the executive director of Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights, Lynne Twist, the president of the Soul of Money Institute, and Carl Anthony, the co-founder of Breakthrough Communities. Habtegeorgis said all three were being honored for their efforts to break down “the walls of hate and prejudice” through social and environmental justice.

The Ella Baker Center held the fundraiser to support its programs, including “Books not Bars,” a campaign to change the youth prison system, and the “Green-Collar Jobs Campaign,” which creates green-job opportunities for low-income communities and people of color. An Oakland-based nonprofit founded in 1996, the center was named for Ella Jo Baker, a human and civil rights activist who began her career in the 1940s, became involved in bus boycotts and the fight against Jim Crow laws, and continued to work until her death in 1986. The awards presented Thursday were a way for the center to recognize “the visionaries of our time.”

Zachary Morris, of the Ella Baker staff, said honoree Lateefah Simon is “about the business of freeing our people.” Simon is in charge at the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco, a national nonprofit organization that provides free legal service to people on civil rights matters, such as immigration or discrimination, with special attention to African-Americans.

At 19, Simon became the executive director of San Francisco’s Center for Young Women’s Development, making her one of the youngest leaders of social justice in the country. In 2007, she was named in “O” Magazine’s “Power List” as one of the top 20 most powerful women.

“It Takes Two To Make a Thing Go Right,” blared from the speakers as Simon ran up the stage steps to receive her award. “You must believe in young people because they have the courage where we fail,” said Simon, reciting a quote from Ella Jo Baker.

Lynne Twist was honored for being a best-selling author — her book is called The Soul of Money — and entrepreneur. Her company, Soul of Money Institute, has educational programs that help people organize their finances. “Move away from fear and toward love,” Twist said. “The Ella Baker Center gives birth to greatness on the streets.”

Carl Anthony, the other honoree, was pushing for environmental justice long before it was popular to do so. In 1962, he organized the Harlem Neighborhood Commons, one of New York’s first vest pocket parks, which is a small park that is accessible to the general public in urban downtown areas. In 2009, he co-founded Breakthrough Communities, an organization that promotes community involvement in city development.

Anthony, whose father worked with Ella Baker during the 1930s, is still involved in the Ella Baker Center as a staff mentor. “I want to celebrate the fact that you’re uplifting Oakland,” Anthony said.

The night continued with a performance from Hadeel Ramadan, a 19-year-old poet. Ramadan, who is originally from Chicago, is part of Youth Speaks, a high school poetry slam group, which was featured on HBO’s documentary “Brave New Voices.” She wrote a poem about the Oscar Grant shooting and compared it to other tragedies around the world. “We teach our children they are U.S. citizens before human beings,” she said. “My name is Hadeel Ramadan and I am starving for humanity.”

As the evening ended, Jakada Imani, the executive director of the Ella Baker Center, thanked the honorees and the audience for being a part of the Ella Baker Center’s celebration. “When you give colored folks a chance we can do something,” he said. “Look around the room, this is the diversity of Oakland.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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