BY NATHAN DUKE
The Queens Tribune and PRESS of Southeast Queens honored seven individuals for their work with the southeast Queens community during the papers’ fourth annual Black History Month event on Tuesday.
More than 300 people packed into Jamaica’s Greater Allen AME Church of New York for the event, where guest speakers included city Police Commissioner James O’Neill and Queens Borough President Melinda Katz.
This year’s honorees included York College President Marcia Keizs, Resorts World Casino public relations director Michelle Stoddart, NYPD Patrol Borough Queens South Deputy Chief Kristel Johnson, Jamaica Performing Arts Center general manager Courtney Ffrench, Long Island African American Chamber of Commerce President Phil Andrews, actress and TV show host Colby Christina and Patrick B. Jenkins, a partner at Patrick B. Jenkins & Associates. The event’s theme was “Ambassadors for Change.”
“Each year, we celebrate individuals from the community,” said Michael Nussbaum, publisher of the Queens Tribune. “There’s so many great things that happen here.”
The event kicked off with a prayer by Rev. Floyd Flake, senior pastor of Allen AME, while Katz discussed the diversity of Queens.
“We’re a borough that’s united,” she said. “We love our diversity. We’re here not only celebrating the shoulders of the great leaders we stand on, but also those in our communities who teach our children. The real definition of success is that you bring others up with you.”
Councilman Donovan Richards (D-Laurelton) said that the work by young people, police officers and community advocates in Queens provides a counterpoint to President Donald Trump’s comments during the presidential election campaign season about the nation’s black communities.
“We’ve heard President Trump say that people walk down the street in their community and get shot,” he said. “When we hear these innuendos, we know that’s not what’s happening here. The black middle class exists and we are exceeding expectations across the country. It’s important that here, in this neighborhood, blacks are earning more than other places in this city and country. But we have a long way to go.”
O’Neill touted the success of neighborhood policing, which has been one of the cornerstones of his tenure as the city’s top cop.
“Our approach to public safety is what we’ve used to drive crime down to historic lows,” he said. “When you talk about trust, it’s when you call 911 or 311 or flag down a police officer and that person will see you as a human being and treat you with dignity. We’re evolving and will continue to. We’re not done yet, it’s certainly not mission accomplished. We have a lot of work to do.”
O’Neill, who intends to expand neighborhood policing from the 35 existing precincts where it is practiced to a citywide initiative, said crime was down four percent in the city, while shootings have dropped by a whopping 12 percent in 2016.
The commissioner also addressed the recent fear among immigrant communities regarding national efforts by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to round up and deport undocumented people.
“The NYPD is committed to making this city welcome to all immigrants,” he said. “We don’t ask about immigration status for persons coming to ask for our help. We don’t conduct civil immigration enforcement. We honor requests from the federal government, but only when there’s a significant risk to public safety – for example, people on terrorist watch lists. But we won’t run around the streets to see if people have overstayed their visas.”
Robert Capers, the U.S. attorney for New York’s eastern district, said that for law enforcement to work in the five boroughs, agencies need to work closely with the communities they represent.
“We protect and serve, but we also need to act as a bridge to increase the trust with the community,” he said.
In between the keynote speakers and bestowal of awards for this year’s nominees, attendees watched two dance performances from Vissi Dance Theatre, a company founded by Ffrench. Upon being presented with his award, Ffrench emphasized the importance of having support from his family.
“To affect change, you have to bring your own family with you,” he said. “We need to embrace the family of the human community.”
In presenting the award to Andrews, Nussbaum said that the chamber of commerce president had long worked to secure internships and career prospects for minorities in Queens.
“Being engaged with the community is very important,” Andrews said. “Every day that we do the right thing and live with integrity, we make our communities better.”
Upon accepting her award, Keizs noted that York College was offering new programs in social sciences, health and aviation and that the school was fundraising to construct a new 60,000-square-foot building. She quoted author James Baldwin as an inspiration for her community work.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing will be changed until it’s faced,” she said.
Stoddart said that one of the things about which she is most proud regarding her work is that Resorts World Casino has donated to education, Boys and Girls clubs, the Queens Economic Development Corp. and Jamaica Hospital.
“We’re proud to give back to the community we call home,” she said. “Black History Month is a time for greater learning and understanding of how our ancestors paved the way for us. We don’t know how history will remember our time on Earth, but we should always strive to leave a mark that will benefit all mankind.”
Jenkins said that he hoped his work would help to revitalize southeast Queens, where he was born and raised and has worked all his life.
“I stand on the shoulders of so many leaders and I look forward to being here for the coming years to bring southeast Queens back to being the jewel that it once was,” he said.
Nussbaum noted that Johnson, who first joined the NYPD in 1986, had the ability to retire years ago, but has remained with the police force as a means of giving back to her community.
“Ambassadors for change can also be called ‘representatives for making a difference,’” said Johnson, who became the first African American woman to become a captain in the NYPD and the second to command a precinct. “I’d like to believe that I’ve made a difference in the lives of the people I’ve come into contact with.”
And Colby Christina, the event’s final award recipient, was noted not only for her accomplishments as an entertainer and motivational speaker, but also that she is a mere 15 years of age.
“I am truly humbled and grateful,” Christina said of receiving the award. “Continue to think big, dream big and soar.”