The third annual Joseph E. Mohbat Prize for Writing in Memory of Verdery Knights was awarded to Kafilah Ali muhammad, a senior at Benjamin Banneker Academy for Community Development in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, at the school’s graduation ceremonies on June 26, 2014.
The Mohbat Prize for Writing, recognizes a talented and motivated Brooklyn public high school student who has demonstrated a gift of self-expression through the written word. It was established in 2011 as a fund of the Brooklyn Community Foundation to honor Joseph Mohbat
, a well-known journalist, lawyer and long-time Brooklyn resident who died in August 2011, and Verdery Knights, an outstanding student at Benjamin Banneker Academy, whose untimely death occurred in 2008. Mr. Mohbat served as a close friend and mentor to Ms. Knights, who had a passion for poetry and journalism.
The 2014 Mohbat Prize winner, Kafilah Ali muhammad, accepted her award at the Benjamin Banneker Academy graduation ceremony before students, parents and friends at Brooklyn College. As part of the $2,500 award, Ms. Ali muhammad received a $1,500 check and will benefit from a writing/editorial internship thanks to the Harnisch Journalism Projects at Baruch College. Three finalists, Xaria A. Anderson, Cherilyn Beckles and Courtney Small were also recognized with a certificate.
Kafilah lives in the Williamsburgh neighborhood of Brooklyn and will be attending Wesleyan University in the fall on scholarship. She was in the top 15% of her class academically at Benjamin Banneker Academy.
Applicants for the Mohbat Prize were required to submit an essay on “What is Special to Me about Brooklyn?” along with a writing sample from an existing portfolio. Ms. Ali muhammad’s outstanding essay in prose and rap expressed her special feelings about the borough through dynamic snapshots of her evolving impressions of life in Brooklyn at ages 5, 10 and 14.
A selection committee of five judges with backgrounds in writing identified the winner. The judges were Dolores Barclay, former Arts & Entertainment Editor at the Associated Press and currently an adjunct Professor at Columbia Journalism School; Marcia Cantarella, former teacher at Princeton University and published writer; Mitchell Pacelle, an award winning journalist with the Wall Street Journal; Jo Anne Simon, NYS Committeewoman, Democratic District Leader (52nd AD), civil rights attorney and educator; and Joanna Underwood, president of Energy Vision and a well-known environmental writer.
Nancy Schuh, Joseph Mohbat’s widow, established the award with the goal of encouraging and nurturing good writing. “We were delighted to receive a number of high quality submissions from which to choose. This year’s winning essay was selected after a spirited discussion among the judges. All were impressed by the compelling personal stories some applicants told either in their essays or in their accompanying writing,” commented Ms. Schuh. She added, “The prize process seeks to bring out the students' individual voices and reward the applicants for their efforts in many unexpected ways. Our hope is that it will serve as a prestigious credential that speaks to students’ skills, talents and ambitions. Ultimately we expect the Mohbat Prize to be an honor that will accompany the winners throughout their lives.”
Background on the Joseph E. Mohbat Prize for Writing in Memory of Verdery Knights
In 2011, Nancy Schuh established the Joseph E. Mohbat Prize for Writing in Memory of Verdery Knights to honor her husband of 35 years as a “wonderful and fitting tribute to someone with extraordinary writing talent coupled with a keen interest in learning about language.” Joe Mohbat had become a great mentor to Verdery Knights, as well as to his colleagues within the New York City Law Department, where he spent the last decade of his career as a trial lawyer and senior counsel.
As a journalist, Joe Mohbat reached the pinnacle of his profession as a prize-winning, investigative reporter for the Associated Press. He was selected by the AP for one of journalism’s highest honors – a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University.
As a young AP reporter in Washington, D.C., Mohbat’s articles about major legislative issues of the day, including the battle surrounding the passage of the Voting Rights Act, attracted considerable attention. His colorful profiles of famous public figures such as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Attorney General and later presidential candidate, Robert F. Kennedy, were recognized as witty and compelling. Joe later became the chief political reporter for the AP in Washington and was assigned to cover the presidential campaign of Robert Kennedy with whom he developed a close bond of mutual respect.
Verdery Knights came to Brooklyn from Trinidad, the only child of a single mother who was trying to make it on her own in a strange place. Unlike other young people in similar circumstances, who are often lost attempting to navigate the complexities of a new world, Verdery Knights clearly intended to follow a different path. At Banneker, she not only began to write poems of great insight and beauty, but she also found creative expression in music, excelled in athletics, and was recognized as a class leader. This story of personal achievement and promise ended tragically when she died from complications due to a blood clot at age 17.
Members of the Mohbat Prize Award committee include Nancy Schuh, Richard Anderson, Betty Lawrence Lewis, Jo Anne Simon, John and Nancy Stewart and Joanna Underwood.
The Joseph E. Mohbat Prize for Writing in Memory of Verdery Knights has been established as a fund of the Brooklyn Community Foundation. The Foundation ensures the proper management of all tax-deductible gifts and provides experienced leadership in selecting deserving students. The Foundation also assists the Mohbat Prize to achieve the visibility and recognition that will lead to continued growth of resources and an expanded capacity to help Brooklyn students of exceptional promise in the creative arts. For more information, visit www.BrooklynCommunityFoundation.org.