Gala event honors Edna award winners at D.C. Press Club

Avila tells of her battle against 'broken systems that held us down.'
Front: Edna Award winner Avila (in white) with Award of Note winners (l. to r.) Viridiana Martinez, Nusrat Jerin Arifa & Lydia Edwards. Behind them: Berger-Marks Trustees, contest judges and other young finalists
Front: Edna Award winner Avila (in white) with Award of Note winners (l. to r.) Viridiana Martinez, Nusrat Jerin Arifa & Lydia Edwards. Behind them: Berger-Marks Trustees, contest judges and other young finalists

Veronica Avila, the first member of her family to graduate from high school, was startled when her proud parents praised her for not having gotten pregnant instead. She told that story at the Washington Press Club reception where she accepted, with humility and charm, the Berger-Marks Foundation’s $10,000 Edna Award for 2012.

Avila, who is 28 years old, said she can appreciate that her parents’ comment, though seemingly odd, “encapsulates the struggle that our community goes through — the struggles kids face, families face.” Theirs was a tough Chicago neighborhood “where parents really struggled and worked so much and so long just to barely stand still or creep centimeters forward,” she told the crowd gathered to honor her. It was a place of “unequal education” and gangs —where parents had to protect their kids from being hit by a stray bullet.

Avila was inspired that her parents “felt successful… that we had overcome the low standards that this country has for us, and that we were working to eradicate all these broken systems that held us down.”

Foley praises her for developing leadership in others

In Avila’s work organizing with Chicago’s Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), of which she is now Executive Director, she feels “privileged” to have a job organizing workers in the community and as head of the Chicago chapter, to be “at the forefront of their movement to lift industry standards, and to take back our city and address the injustices that low-wage workers face.” Her goal is to “really break down the system that holds them back.”

That compassion and humility are keys to her success, Berger-Marks President Linda Foley pointed out in presenting the award to Avila. “Her most enduring work was her ability to develop leadership from among the ranks of workers she helped organize, so that they — they — were able to lead volunteer organizing programs on their own.”

As Executive Director, Avila has recruited 700 members and activated the 250,000 workers who make up the Chicago restaurant workforce, and is now leading a national campaign against the Darden Restaurant group, the largest full-service restaurant corporation in the United States. Foley agrees with the ROC leader who recommended Avila for the award: “She is tough, resilient & impactful.”

Three young women presented Awards of Note

See Avila & finalists get award
See Avila & finalists get award

Three other impressive young women accepted Awards of Note, along with checks of $1000 each, at the same Washington reception, which was held Nov. 14. Berger-Marks Trustee Kitty Peddicord presented the first Award of Note to Nusrat Jerin Arifa Young, who chairs the National Organization for Women’s Young Feminist Task Force. Arifa began teaching literacy skills to homeless kids in her native Bangladesh at age 7, and her work reaches more than 5000 young people.

Next, Secretary-Treasurer Carolyn Jacobson presented an Award to 31-year-old Lydia Edwards who, through the Brazilian Immigration Center, runs a law and policy clinic to advance the labor rights of domestic workers. Edwards conceived and wrote the first legal manual in New England on the rights of domestic workers.

And finally, Trustee Kevin Burton presented an Award to Viridiana Martinez, an immigrant rights activist in NC who had herself been denied the opportunity to go to college because of her immigration status. Burton mentioned how at one point Martinez allowed herself to be detained so she could organize other incarcerated immigrants in the detention center.

One finalist is just 20 years old

Six other finalists in the Edna competition were also recognized at the reception and most were on hand — including one who, at the age of 20, is coordinating a program to aid victims of the big earthquake in Haiti.

Berger-Marks Chairperson Louise D. Walsh had kicked off the ceremony by telling the story of the Foundation’s birth and Edna Berger, the union organizer who inspired it.

Read more about it in “love and justice” blog by Michael Byrne..