If, by chance, you were idly wondering what Elizabeth Hurley, Heather Locklear and Miss USA 1999 might have to contribute to the struggle for community change, listen up.
At the 1999 “Do Something” awards gala in late October, sleek-haired ingenues in gauzy dresses floated amongst the pastries and big-donor pinstripes while organization founder Andrew Shue (Melrose Place’s Billy) delivered his introductory remarks. At first, Shue’s social commentary (“In certain streets, there is a pain and an agony,”) was drowned out by the chatter, but as soon as Joe Piscopo began to introduce the award winners, the crowd quieted down fast.
It might have merely been manners–but perhaps it was sheer astonishment, or maybe even a creeping sense of shame. These 10 award winners, all under 30, were selected for their “leadership, entrepreneurial skills, and long-term vision for their community,” and the scope of their successes would impress even the most single-minded young socialite. One honoree, for example, was a formerly homeless young man who put himself through college and started a mentoring program for Atlanta kids. Another ran a campaign in South Central Los Angeles that mobilized more than 6,000 students to push for increased school funding.
But best of all, two of the award winners were Brooklyn’s own: Brad Lander, wunderkind executive director of the powerhouse Fifth Avenue Committee, and Oona Chatterjee, co-founder of the scrappy Bushwick organization Make the Road by Walking. They, like the other award winners, will get $10,000 to use however they see fit; both also got to meet the Fugees’ Wyclef Jean.
“The awards ceremony was great, and the other people were very inspiring,” says Chatterjee, who won for her work organizing welfare recipients and neighborhood youth. Her organization will most likely use the money to expand space for its youth program.
As part of the award, the honorees spent a day in interviews and had a big dinner party, where they got to schmooze and talk shop with the other award winners. And while the brush with celebrity might have been kind of a kick, what really thrilled both Lander and Chatterjee was getting to know the grand prize recipient, Lucas Benitez of Immokalle, Florida. Benitez, only 23, recently secured the first wage increase for tomato pickers in 20 years, uncovered two slavery rings, and helped workers win $100,000 in back wages. “Lucas is an amazing guy,” says Lander. Agrees Chatterjee, “It doesn’t always get recognized, but the kind of work he does has a glorious heritage.”
And in case you’re worrying, the glitter didn’t turn their heads. “It’s funny to have seen people on the movie screen, and to know that I talked for two minutes and they listened to what I said,” says Chatterjee. “I don’t know if it means anything, but it was nice.”