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Spark Prize Celebration Salutes Brooklyn Nonprofits

A big thank-you to all who joined us on Thursday morning at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Palm House to honor the recipients of this year’s Spark Prize! 

The ceremony was attended by nearly 275 guests and emceed by actress and comedian Ana Gasteyer (Saturday Night Live, Mean Girls).

We created the Spark Prize to provide much needed funding and awareness for local organizations that have demonstrated excellence and impact in Brooklyn’s communities, with a focus on racial and social justice. This year’s winners of the $100,000 “no strings attached” prize are the Center for Law and Social Justice, Cave Canem, Exalt Youth, GRIOT Circle, and the Red Hook Initiative.

“We are thrilled that the Spark Prize and this event have become such an inspiring and uplifting celebration of Brooklyn nonprofits,” said Brooklyn Community Foundation President and CEO Cecilia Clarke. “There are so many incredible organizations and leaders across our borough that have worked tirelessly to make our communities stronger, more just, and more vibrant. We salute you and are honored to work alongside you and support you. Congratulations especially to this year’s Spark Prize winners and many thanks to the incomparable Hildy Simmons for her service to the Foundation and our city.”

The Spark Prize Celebration also paid tribute to the distinguished career of New York City philanthropic leader Hildy J. Simmons. In addition to her service on Board of Directors at Brooklyn Community Foundation, Mary J. Hutchins Foundation, Jerome L. Greene Foundation, and the Romanian American Foundation, she was the Managing Director and head of the Global Foundations Group at JPMorgan Private Bank, overseeing the grantmaking of more than 40 foundations. Hildy accepted her award from Fran Barrett, New York State’s Interagency Coordinator for Nonprofit Organizations, who also presented her with a commendation from Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Between laughs from Ana Gasteyer, representatives from each of the winning nonprofits gave guests a sense of the work they are doing to spark change in Brooklyn.

“Brooklyn Community Foundation’s investment in Cave Canem is an important validation of the necessary work we do in Brooklyn to democratize the literary field,” said Nicole Sealy, executive director of Cave Canem.

Cave Canem was founded in 1996 to remedy the under-representation and isolation of black poets. It has grown from a gathering of 26 poets to become an influential movement and artistic incubator based in Brooklyn with a high-achieving international fellowship of over 425, and a local workshop community of over 900 poets.

Established in 2016, the Spark Prize is named for Brooklyn Community Foundation’s mission to spark lasting change in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is home to over 2,000 nonprofits, yet less than 5% of New York City’s charitable giving goes to organizations based in the borough.

Esmerelda Simmons, Executive Director of the Center for Law and Social Justice (CLSJ), said, “Receiving this award is a tremendous honor and affirmation of the racial justice work we’ve been committed to for over 30 years. We are so proud to share this moment with organizations that are also dedicated to positively impacting the lives of fellow Brooklynites!”

Founded in Brooklyn in 1985 as a community service unit of Medgar Evers College to serve as an institutional response to pervasive racial injustices, CLSJ continues pushing for meaningful policy changes to stem the institutionalization of police brutality and systemic racism across New York City. In addition to promoting alternative community policing solutions, it is a leading advocate for the protection and integrity of voting rights and for racial equity in public education.

The 2017-18 Spark Prize application launched in May 2017 with an open call to Brooklyn nonprofits to submit a 1,000-word essay demonstrating their deep history in Brooklyn and continued service to the borough; commitment to equity and racial justice for all Brooklynites; strong organizational values; and vision for the future of their work in Brooklyn and beyond. To be eligible, organizations had to have annual operating budgets over $350,000 and be in operation for at least five years.

Since its founding in 2006 in Brooklyn, Exalt Youth (exalt) has worked with over 1200 youth ages 15-19 who have been involved in the criminal justice system. exalt equips youth with tools and experiences to avoid further criminal justice system involvement through structured classes for tangible skill development, individualized support to navigate the education and justice systems, placement in paid internships, and an alumni network of resources. Only 2% of program graduates have been re-convicted within two years; by comparison, 40% of youth released from New York juvenile detention return in two years.

“exalt is honored to be a recipient of the Spark Prize!” said Executive Director Gisele Castro. “We have created an organization that has transformed the lives of many young people, and this award has offered us the opportunity to celebrate our work and our youth. Thank you Brooklyn Community Foundation for your vision, vibrancy, and for making the community much stronger!”

GRIOT Circle was founded in 1996 by a group of LGBTQ elders of color living in Brooklyn to address the racial, social, and economic injustices that LGBTQ elders of color experience. It  now offers culturally-sensitive, innovative programming to over 400 members throughout the year, including case management services, a daily hot lunch, psycho/educational and recreational programs, a “Buddy-2-Buddy” program through which over 75 volunteers provide members with an array of services and mutual support, and New York City’s only HIV support group for men over 50.

“This an incredible game changer for a small but mighty organization like ours,” said Executive Director José Albino. “We will be able to continue to serve more people and meet the diverse needs and exploding growth of the LGBTQ elders of color community. It is an absolute honor to have received this award. There are many organizations in Brooklyn that are deserving of this recognition as well. We undoubtedly share this honor with them.”

Founded in 2002 as a program of a local hospital in response to the severity of health and social issues in Red Hook, Red Hook Initiative (RHI) has become a neighborhood stronghold and nationally recognized model for youth and community development, providing safe and enriching opportunities for young people ages 11- 24 primarily living in the Red Hook Houses—New York City’s largest NYCHA housing development. Youth development, community building, and community hiring—90% of staff is from the neighborhood—form the core of RHI’s approach to strengthening Red Hook’s future.

Jill Eisenhard, Executive Director of RHI, said, “RHI is honored to be one of the recipients of the 2018 Spark Prize alongside organizations serving our borough through vital social justice work. We are proud that Brooklyn Community Foundation recognizes the impact of RHI’s commitment to Red Hook over the last 16 years.”

This year we awarded over $600,000 through the Spark Prize program, including a $100,000 match on Giving Tuesday that helped raise over $365,000 for the 20 finalists in 24 hours. More than 130 Brooklyn nonprofits applied for the 2017-18 Spark Prize; the five winners were selected by a committee of Brooklyn civic, business, and neighborhood leaders following a 9-month long application and review process.

Congratulations to this year’s recipients!


Liane Stegmaier

Chief of Staff (She/Her/Hers)
We created the Spark Prize to provide much needed funding and awareness for local organizations that have demonstrated excellence and impact in Brooklyn’s communities, with a focus on racial and social justice.