Theatre has the potential to be transformative, allowing the viewer to learn more easily about themselves and the world around them without even realizing it.
PEOPLE and Investigation Discovery distributed awards for significant charity work to four celebrities and one “everyday hero” Thursday night at Dream Downtown. Padma Lakshmi, Julianna Margulies, Alonzo Mourning, and Gabrielle Union were among the celebrity recipients this year, along with a woman named Vanessa Russell, who is devoted to bringing awareness to child trafficking.
Each of the five honorees gave a speech detailing their passions in regards to their respective charities and foundations. Jess Cagle, editorial director for PEOPLE and Entertainment Weekly, and Henry Schleiff, Group President of the Investigation Discovery, American Heroes Channel, and Destination America portfolios, introduced each awardee.
“Media organizations, print or any other form, not only can play a critical role in making sure victims’ voices are heard, but they, in fact, actually have an obligation to do so,” Schleiff said. “Vision is the art of seeing the invisible. Tonight, ID is honored to be here with PEOPLE Magazine and with you to celebrate the amazing work of our celebrity honorees, and visionaries, and everyday hero who inspire a difference for those who often struggle to find a voice.”
PADMA LAKSHMI – AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION
Model, author, actress, and television host Padma Lakshmi was the first to accept her award on behalf of her work with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
“The ACLU, to me, is probably one of the most valuable institutions to our democracy. It is the one champion and defender – in a class of its own, in a league of its own – to protect our civil liberties, our civil rights, the laws and tenants of the constitution, the very bedrock of why America is, indeed, great.” Citing her own “horror…as our rights have been chipped away,” Lakshmi described her increasing and fervent efforts as an ambassador for women’s rights and immigration issues.
“Who here is an immigrant or the child of an immigrant? Who here is part of the LGBT community? Who here is a person of color? Who here is or knows someone with a disability? We should all defend the ACLU because they defend all of those people, and more,” she said. “I came here over forty years ago this week. I landed in New York when I was four, on Halloween Day. [My mom] literally sculpted out of the mist a way forward, in the way that people who don’t really have another choice often do.”
“My mom came here with one hundred dollars in her pocket. Not one penny more,” Lakshmi continued, acknowledging her own privilege that her mother spoke English and was skilled as a nurse. She related stories of children and single mothers struggling in detention camps on the border, seeking asylum and refuge.
“Our democracy is under attack,” she concluded. “They’re fighting for you, and for you, and for me, and for my daughter, and for all of our children.”
“We have always been a beacon of hope, and the thing that gives us our moral high ground, is that we say, give us your weak, give us your tired, give us your poor, that we will envelop them into our arms. Here in America, you can be part of us too, as long as you can peacefully work hard.
“Who do we as Americans want to be? Because collectively, our house is on fire. What are we going to do about it?
“A country is made of its people. And we, the people, are in charge.”
JULIANNA MARGULIES – ERIN’S LAW & THE BRADY CENTER TO PREVENT GUN VIOLENCE
Three-time Emmy winner and producer Julianna Margulies accepted her award for her work with Erin’s Law and the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. She spoke on the two, combining her dialogue to envelop the theme of “common sense.”
“I would like a safer world for all of us, but especially for our children,” she began. “I have been scratching my head for years wondering why these simple, common sense laws are so hard to pass. None of it makes sense to me. So that’s why I got involved.”
Margulies described the philosophy of “common sense background checks” in relation to gun violence, and said we need to think about Erin’s Law in the same way. She used the anecdote of seatbelts; when she was a child, there was no law to wear them. When she got her license, it changed to the passenger and driver’s seats. Then, in 1989, children under 14 had to wear belts in the backseats, as research proved fewer deaths when wearing them.
“I jump in a cab in New York City, and, because I’m old, I forget to put my seat belt on,” she quipped. “Then my son, who’s nine, goes, ‘Mom, why isn’t your seat belt on?’ Why? Because that’s what he knows, because we’re preventing accidents before they happen. That’s what we need to be doing with gun control and with Erin’s Law.”
Margulies reported that 90% of Americans – gun owners included – agree with common sense background checks.
“Vegas happened less than two months ago. Six weeks ago. Since then – honestly, since I was working on this speech – I kept having to change the number of deaths in this country. Since Las Vegas, over 900 people have died from gunshot wounds in our country. Think about that. What are we doing? Something has to change.”
Margulies then switched gears to telling the story of Erin Merryn, author of Erin’s Law, who was also in attendance. Merryn calls herself the “voice for the voiceless” and has dedicated herself fully to the activism and awareness surrounding child sexual assault. Merryn survived six years of sexual assault in her childhood, and when she was thirteen, finally came forward at a Children’s Advocacy Center. Since then, she has been dedicated to enforcing age-appropriate classes for children on what is okay and what is not okay. Erin’s Law has been passed so far in 31 states and is still pending in 15.
“Give them the tools, dear God, we should be giving our children every tool in the shed,” Margulies said. She then told a story about a nine-year-old girl in Maryland, where the law had passed, that came forward after a seminar on sexual abuse was presented to her fourth grade class. Tearfully, Margulies related her story, of abuse since she was three, by her mother’s boyfriend.
“It works, because he’s in jail for forty years,” Margulies said to applause. “It worked in Illinois as well, for an eight-year-old girl. He’s now behind bars. It gives kids the courage to come forward and say, I have a voice, and not live through these atrocities thinking they deserve it, or, they can’t do anything about it, so they just suffer through it.”
“Raise your voices, and we’ll be heard. We just have to raise them really loud right now.”
ALONZO MOURNING – THE MOURNING FAMILY FOUNDATION
Alonzo “Zo” Mourning, NCAA, NBA, and Olympic basketball champion, received his award for his work with an organization he founded with his wife Tracy in 1997. The Mourning Family Foundation is dedicated to creating youth development programs, schools, facilities, and educational and extracurricular activities in South Florida.
“My life’s work is giving, and making a positive difference in other people’s lives. I humbly accept this award, but it feels pretty uncomfortable to receive an award for what you’re supposed to be doing. Something that we all have a responsibility to do – especially when you think about where you come from – to make a difference.”
“Our kids are coming into the world thirsty for information, for direction, and they count on us to give it to them. When we think about the problems that our kids have, we don’t have a kid problem. We have an adult problem.”
“It took these angels in my life,” Mourning said about his own childhood and adolescence. “It took my foster mom, who fostered 49 kids in her lifetime. It took coaches, it took teachers, it took family members, it took friends. It took a village to contribute to my overall development not only as a player, but as a person. It took all of that.”
The Mourning Family Foundation has helped thousands of children over the past twenty years in conjunction with Tracy Mourning’s organization, called Honey Shine, which mentors and fosters girls in the Miami area. Mourning spoke of his dedication to raising high-school graduation rates, which have gone from 50% to 85%. 100% of the children in after-school Mourning Family Foundation programs graduate from high school.
“We’re excited about the change, and we know that it’s contagious,” Mourning said.
“We can become the change that we wish to see in this world if we embrace the responsibility.”
GABRIELLE UNION – THE RAPE FOUNDATION
Actress Gabrielle Union has dedicated her energies to The Rape Foundation, founded in 1989.
“I was the perfect victim,” Union began. “I had the luxury of being raped in a wealthy community.” She stated that the under-worked police department, under-utilized rape crisis center, rapid therapy process, and supportive family and friends made her experience “painfully rare.”
“Whose pain and whose truth is tolerable? Whose pain and whose truth is intolerable? Whose pain and whose truth means direct action, right now. And who can wait?”
At age 19, Union was raped at gunpoint while working at her summer job at Payless. For the past 20 years, she has been speaking out as a sexual assault survivor.
“I have to keep reminding people that just because you might see someone look polished, or on a show, or in a movie, or a magazine – yeah, me too. You cannot price your way out of sexual violence or sexual harassment or sexual assault. All of us who keep moving further and further away from urban centers because we think we’re getting safer? I was raped at work, coming from a two-parent household where both my parents were college educated, I was the right kind of black person. And by that I mean, I laughed at racist jokes. I didn’t call people out on their shit. I was the non-threatening kind of black. You know, the cool one.
“So when I was raped, I was believed. But my dad fell into this very bizarre, dark hole, because my dad bought into the American Dream. My dad’s from the projects. And the horrors that he saw from the projects, he wasn’t supposed to see in the suburbs.
“I was the point guard. I dated the right kinds of boys. We were active in our Catholic church. He married the right kind of woman. We went to the right kind of schools and had the right kind of friends and I was still raped.
“Assimilation was supposed to pay. It was supposed to keep us safe. Me shrinking and hiding my blackness, that was supposed to mean something. And his child was raped, at gunpoint, at her after-school job in the summer. My dad thought he was teaching me work ethic, and how to not be entitled. My dad didn’t want me falling into the trappings of my very privileged friends. But what he and none of our parents realized is that you can’t out-run or out-price sexual violence.
“Sexual violence can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time, and nobody had it coming. Nobody is asking for it. If you had some cocktails, you’re not asking for it, no matter what you had on. I was at work, wearing a tunic and leggings. And a family female friend still asked what I had worn. And I was the perfect victim.”
Union then spoke about the current Harvey Weinstein’s victims and tasked the media to re-define what it means to be a “perfect victim.”
“Everyone’s truth deserves to be believed. Everyone’s pain should incite you to act.”
VANESSA RUSSELL – LOVE NEVER FAILS
This year’s “Everyday Hero” award was given to Vanessa Russell, who began as a dance teacher in 2000, teaching all genres of dance between ages 3 and 25. In 2010, she discovered that one of her 15-year-old students had been sold into human trafficking. Russell then realized, upon research and intense activism, that human trafficking, which she called “modern-day slavery,” is one of the nation’s largest yet most under-discussed emergencies.
The average ages of child victims range between 11 and 14. Russell cited the growing homelessness epidemic of San Francisco as an exacerbating factor of trafficking.
Russell founded Love Never Fails, which is dedicated to housing, educating, and protecting women and children involved in or at risk of becoming involved in domestic human trafficking. As a survivor of domestic assault herself, Russell, who lives in the Bay Area with her husband and seven children, believes firmly that human trafficking is something that can be fixed.
Inspire a Difference honorees over the past five years have included Rosario Dawson, Marcia Gray Harden, Stephanie March, Tamara Taylor, Angie Harmon, AnnaLynne McCord, and Grace Gealey.
For more information about the mentioned foundations, please see the links and phone numbers below:
ACLU: http://www.aclu.org/ – (212) 549-2500
Erin’s Law: http://www.erinslaw.org/
Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence: http://www.bradycampaign.org/ – (202) 370-8101
The Mourning Family Foundation: http://www.mourningfamilyfoundation.org/ – (305) 46-0095
The Rape Foundation: http://www.therapefoundation.org/ – (310) 451-0042
Love Never Fails: http://www.loveneverfailsus.com/ – (844) 249-2698