BY NATHAN DUKE
The PRESS of Southeast Queens and Queens Tribune honored five individuals across a variety of professions who have given back to their community as part of the papers’ annual Black History Month awards ceremony and breakfast.
Honorees during the event—which was presented by Zwanger-Pesiri Radiology and held at Jamaica’s Greater Allen AME Church of New York—included NYPD Assistant Chief Juanita Holmes; Darryl Towns, the regional director of government affairs for American Airlines; Roger Milliner, the deputy executive director of marketing for MetroPlus; J-CAP (Just Caring About People) and its CEO, Diane Gonzalez; and Tanya Cunningham, an executive board member for Local Union 3, IBEW.
Queens Borough President Melinda Katz and city Public Advocate Letitia James spoke during the event, which was also attended by state Sen. Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans), Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Fresh Meadows) and City Council members Donovan Richards (D-Laurelton), I. Daneek Miller (D-St. Albans), Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills), Rory Lancman (D-Hillcrest) and Adrienne Adams (D-Jamaica).
During his opening comments, the Rev. Charles Norris said that a celebration of black history should not be confined to February.
“We should remove the misnomer of celebrating it once per year,” he said. “We should celebrate black history once per day every day, 365 days per year.”
Michael Nussbaum, the publisher of both the PRESS of Southeast Queens and Queens Tribune, noted that today’s children will be tomorrow’s leaders, as evidenced by a group of Parkland, Florida students who have taken on Congress and the National Rifle Association in the wake of last week’s school shooting. He noted that the event’s honorees could be considered today’s leaders.
“We’re honoring a distinguished group of people who have given back to their communities,” he said.
City Police Commissioner James O’Neill—a keynote speaker at the event—presented Holmes with her award and discussed how he believed neighborhood policing had led to the lowest crime rates in New York City since the 1950s.
“I think with neighborhood policing, we have it right,” he said. “It’s not perfect, and I’m not going to say that all 36,000 cops [in the NYPD] are perfect for the job. But we’re a reflection of society. To be a New York City cop is a privilege. We all have to work together to save lives.”
O’Neill praised Holmes for her outreach to the Queens communities she represents at Patrol Borough Queens North.
“You have to treat cops with respect,” O’Neill said. “She understands that. She understands that you have to have a relationship with the community.”
Upon accepting the award, Holmes thanked O’Neill for his role in her becoming the NYPD’s first African American woman to be a borough commander.
“Throughout history, African Americans have made their mark on the nation,” Holmes said. “The first African American patrolman was not appointed until 1911, the first African American woman in 1973. It’s pioneers like these who paved the way for me and others. The path of success is not always straight, we make mistakes. What defines us is not what we achieve, but what we overcome.”
Towns said that he grew up in Brooklyn, but spent a significant amount of time in Queens in his youth, since his grandparents lived in Hollis. He added that Queens has led the way for many city initiatives because its numerous communities often work together.
“It’s a great time to be a part of this community,” he said. “It’s not always been that way. Through good and bad times, one of the things that kept Queens being Queens was the essence of being able to work together. Everybody has to bring their talents for us to move forward.”
Nussbaum noted that Cunningham was the first African American woman to hold her current position in her union. Cunningham said that unions have helped to grow the American middle class and that they are currently under attack.
“If you go back half a century ago, diversity in the trade unions was slim to none,” she said. “We are all here today because of the ladders that were left for us to climb on. Union labor is what grew the middle class. That quality of life is under attack. We have companies that make millions by undercutting the workforce. Let’s rise together and leave the world a better place when we leave it.”
Gonzalez was not able to attend the event to accept the award for J-CAP, which was founded by former Councilman Thomas White Jr. and helps those dealing with drug and alcohol addiction acclimate to sobriety. J-CAP’s George Diaz accepted the award for the group.
“Diane spent 40 years dedicated to this community and dealing with drug addiction, giving hope and refuge to people who needed guidance and support,” he said.
Diaz also relayed a personal story regarding how he became involved in the organization.
“Transformation is possible and miracles are real,” he said. “Not so long ago, I was hooked on heroin. I was sleeping on a park bench. There was nothing left. J-CAP opened its doors and loved me when I couldn’t love myself. I’m no longer a client, I’m like the president.”
Milliner said that his work with MetroPlus Health Plan has enabled him to collaborate with such groups as the NAACP, New York Urban League, Caribbean Pride and 100 Black Men. During his acceptance speech, he quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Michelle Obama and Mae Carol Jemison, the first African American woman astronaut.
“Public service is something I’ve dedicated my life to—it is humbling and rewarding,” Milliner said. “We provide access to affordable, quality healthcare. We’re on the frontlines of the healthcare challenges for the African American community. We change the lives of many people who wouldn’t have health insurance without the Affordable Care Act.”
Katz noted that all five of the honorees “have changed people’s lives,” while James touted Southeast Queens’ contributions to New York City.
“I want to thank Southeast Queens for all it’s done in the city,” James said. “When people talk about the black middle class, they are talking about Southeast Queens.”
Sponsors for the event included Zwanger-Pesiri Radiology, American Airlines, MetroPlus Health Plan, AgeWell New York, Parker Jewish Institute, Local Union 3, IBEW, Con Edison and Patrick B. Jenkins & Associates.