The sixth annual Determined to Educate Gala kicked off early November with a room full of spirited, well-dressed revelers in Manhattan. Determined to Educate, a nonprofit founded by Cindy Senyah Baah, seeks to better communities by mentoring low-income youth and offering intergenerational support. Proceeds from this year’s gala will go to the Journal Project, an initiative that pairs young people with senior citizens to share and preserve life stories.
The evening was made possible partly by the efforts of the youth. Several of the servers on hand were Job Corps participants. As attendees participated in the cocktail hour and silent auction at the gala, violinist Shayshahn MacPherson (aka PhearNone) regaled the audience with his unique musicianship over popular contemporary hits like Luther Vandross’s “A House is Not a Home,” Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights” and Biggie’s “One More Chance.”
The host, actor and musician Chaz Lamar Shepherd, kept the evening’s itinerary flowing with his quick wit and humor. He also shared a bit of his vocal gifts by performing a rousing falsetto rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy Me.” The Rev. Nafisa Sharriff blessed the night’s festivities with a powerful prayer, and the gala’s five award recipients gave humble and appreciative speeches.
Writer, director and producer Malcolm Dee Lee (“The Best Man,” “Roll Bounce,” “Undercover Brother”) talked about his motivation for becoming a filmmaker. “I wanted to tell stories about Black men that reflected me and my experience. The ones I saw on TV, movies and music videos were false and hollow to me. I set out to redefine the image of Black men and Black masculinity,” said Lee, the recipient of the Vincent C. Munn Inspiration to Learn Award.
This year’s Corporate Citizen of the Year went to Ayala Donchin, owner of Evelyn’s Kitchen. The baked goods and catering company is named after Donchin’s late grandmother.
The Educator of the Year Award went to Dr. Brenda M. Greene, chair of the English department and executive director of the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College. Greene’s son rapper Talib Kweli Greene appeared in a video message congratulating his mother on her award. Her other son, Jamal Kwame Greene, a constitutional law professor at Columbia University, was on hand in person to offer praises to his mother. Greene’s husband was also in attendance.
During her speech, Greene mentioned the importance of the Center for Black Literature, which she founded in 2003. “We are currently the only center for Black literature that is focused on providing knowledge about Black literature to the general public and supporting Black writers,” said Greene, who also noted that her sons are her greatest motivation.
The Rev. Dr. Alfonso Wyatt, founding board member of the Harlem Children’s Zone’s Promise Academy Charter School, received the Mentor of the Year Award. “God has given me a gift and it is a gift that everybody can have. That is the ability to love. You might not be the greatest this or the greatest that, but you can be great at loving others,” said Wyatt after acknowledging his wife and family, who were in attendance.
The WellMet Group, an organization that has given over $2 million to New York City nonprofits, received an Award of Appreciation. All five award recipients left feeling appreciated, while the gala’s attendees left inspired to leave a positive impact on the world in the spirit of Determined to Educate.