Berger-Marks Foundation Gala Honors “Inspirational” Young Women Activists

Remarks from 2014 Edna Award Winner Cristina Jimenez.
Remarks from 2014 Edna Award Winner Cristina Jimenez.
Washington, DC—In a Nov. 13 awards ceremony for the Berger-Marks Foundation at the National Press Club, immigrants’ rights activist Cristina Jimenez accepted the foundation’s most prestigious award, the Edna Award, which carries a $10,000 prize. In her acceptance remarks, Jimenez reminded the assembled guests and luminaries of the hardships that immigrant workers face in the US. “She was talking about her Dad working at the carwash,” recalls Jennifer Clark, communications director for the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, “and he hadn’t been paid in a couple of months. He had to go home and ask his 14 year old daughter to ask his boss, ‘Where is my paycheck?'”

Jimenez came to the US from Ecuador at the age of 13 as an undocumented student. Since 2004, noted Berger-Marks Foundation President Linda Foley, she has fought for the rights of immigrant youth and workers and for passage of the DREAM Act and other immigrant rights reforms. Her organizing work to pressure President Obama to act resulted in his issuing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows immigrant children who grew up Americans to remain Americans – the biggest immigration policy victory in almost 20 years.

As she presented Jimenez with the award, Foley commended her for her “tireless work on behalf of immigrants and social justice.”

Honoring the Kate Mullany Courageous Young Worker Award Winners. From left: Yvette Herrera (Berger-Marks Trustee), Ellen Brackeen, Donyetta Hill, Yesica Mendez.
Honoring the Kate Mullany Courageous Young Worker Award Winners. From left: Yvette Herrera (Berger-Marks Trustee), Ellen Brackeen, Donyetta Hill, Yesica Mendez.

“The event was really inspiring,” said Carol Rosenblatt, Executive Director of the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW). Clark agreed. “It was inspirational and incredible to hear the stories of the award winners,” she added. “We had to dab our eyes a little bit.”

Other awards given out Nov. 13 included a new award for the Berger-Marks Foundation: the Kate Mullany Awards for Courageous Young Workers, named for a young laundry worker who led a successful strike in 1864 when she was just 19. These awards come with a $1000 prize. The inaugural Kate Mullany Winners were:

  • Ellen Brackeen, who was fired for organizing her fellow T-Mobile customer service agents at a call center in Wichita, KS. Ellen risked her livelihood to speak up about fair pay, improving workplace conditions and respect on the job.
  • Donyetta Hill, a former fast-food worker from Detroit who organized her coworkers to stage a walkout to protest the lack of raises. Donyetta highlighted the fact that many coworkers still made minimum wage after working there for more than five years.
  • Yesica Mendez, age 21, who was fired from her Mount Kisco, NY grocery store job for trying to organize a union. She and her coworkers decided to picket the store six days a week to raise awareness of the injustice. Yesica eventually won her job back with retroactive pay.

Michelle Wyvill, a staffer in the Transportation Department of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) said she was especially impressed by the bravery of the Kate Mullany winners and how they saw beyond their own circumstances to change their workplaces. “To actually do that and care about the other employees there and what was happening to them? That’s huge,” Wyvill said.

Edna and Kate Mullany award winners, judges, and finalists and the Berger-Marks Foundation trustees.
Edna and Kate Mullany award winners, judges, and finalists and the Berger-Marks Foundation trustees.

The Berger-Marks Foundation also gave another $1000 award—the Edna Award of Distinction for social justice work—to two people for 2014:

  • Victoria Alvarez, an organizer with the United Steelworkers union who has helped hundreds of Spanish-speaking workers organize a union; and
  • Dessa Cosma-King, who helped to create the Economic Justice Alliance of Michigan and who now works as co-director of the Center for Progressive Leadership in Detroit.

To close the evening, Berger-Marks Chairperson Louise Walsh invoked the spirits of the foundation’s namesakes, who cared deeply about empowering women in labor and other forms of activist organizing. “Edna Berger and Gerald Marks no doubt are beaming down on us with pride tonight,” Walsh said. “What a wonderful and courageous group of young women activists!”