Congratulations to 2021 Social Justice Youth Award Recipients

On January 19, The City Commission recognized nine extraordinary youth for their achievements and leadership towards racial and social justice. The Social Justice Youth Awards are given annually as part of Kalamazoo’s celebration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. These young leaders exemplify Dr. King’s values through their community service and volunteerism.

The awards are presented by each of the program’s sponsors: Consumers Energy, Fifth Third Bank, Life EMS, Dr. Betty and Mr. Tony Dennis, and Schupan & Sons. Additionally, three awards were presented this year by Dr. Lewis Walker,  a trailblazer for the progression of racial equity in Kalamazoo.

Congratulations to this year’s award recipients! Read about their accomplishments below (listed in order of presentation):

Ms. Syann Hollins, award presented by Consumers Energy

“Diversity is the state of being beautifully different and unapologetically diverse,” is just one of the often-repeated axioms of Syann Hollins. Syann’s leadership is very evident in her diverse experiences with the NAACP, Girl Scouts, Merze Tate Explorers and, Mt. Zion Baptist Church. She has logged hundreds of hours of community service, while serving as a peer mentor, academic tutor, and athlete.

As a Gull Lake High School student, Syann has proved to be a standout leader, serving as Vice President in the NAACP ACT-SO program, a youth advisory board member and writer for the Merze Tate Explorers, a mentee in Big Brothers, Big Sisters, and patriation in Usher and Praise Dance Ministries at Mt. Zion Baptist Church. She will make history as one of two young women in the Kalamazoo area to be the first ever to earn the Girl Scouts Gold Award, the highest honor in scouting. For her capstone project, she worked with the Kalamazoo Valley Museum to digitize a collection detailing the history and experience of African Americans.

Syann was nominated by her mentor Sadie Miles.

Ms. Cecilia Mireles Caballero, award presented by Fifth Third Bank

The list of volunteer activities of Cecilia Mireles Caballero is impressive and inspiring, including PeaceJam, DECA, and the National Honor Society.

Cecilia was nominated by Loy Norrix Economics teacher Sean Bergan who noted, “Cecilia can make other students feel good about themselves and bring up their level of productivity using her leadership skills. It is the sign of an incredible leader who is mature and caring.”

Mr. Jaleen Johnson, award presented by Kalamazoo Non-Violent Opponents of War (KNOW)

Jaleen Johnson is currently a senior at Kalamazoo Central High School. As a freshman he saw a presentation by Jeter’s Leaders that inspired him to apply for a competitive position on the team and he’s been a member ever since. He has also been a member of the National Honor Society of Highschool Scholars since his freshman year. Jaleen is also a member of the Giants football team, and his skills on the field have earned him scholarship offers at six universities.

As a member of Jeter’s Leaders, Jaleen helped facilitate Trunk n’ Treat Halloween events and basketball camps at Charlie’s P.L.A.C.E., a Kalamazoo Northside organization for kids in the neighborhood.

Jaleen credits two literary works for shaping his attitude towards social justice. One is the play To Kill A Mockingbird, which demonstrates racial inequality and the importance of standing up for what is right. The second is the film, Schindler’s List, depicting hatred and genocide but also the courage to intervene and save lives.

Jaleen has taken these lessons to heart. Most of his efforts promoting diversity and leadership have taken place at the Boys and Girls Club and Peace House, which is a free afterschool and summer program for students in the Eastside Neighborhood. The program helps prepare students to take advantage of the Kalamazoo Promise. Jaleen has mentored and tutored students in reading, math, history, English, and through other extracurricular activities. Peace House is a richly diverse environment in participants and volunteers, and Jaleen is always welcoming and encouraging people to join. He is also a member of the Youth Advisory Board, where other members look to him for leadership.

Mr. August O’Neil, award presented by Life EMS

August O’Neil is a compassionate young leader with a strong desire to help others in the Kalamazoo area. He demonstrates a strong commitment to the community through organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club, Special Olympics, and Jeter’s Leaders.

August’s caring nature allows him to work well with others in a wide variety of roles that involve leadership, guidance and support. August is never afraid to engage in discussions on controversial topics with his peers, allowing others to express their opinions freely while keeping the dialogue focused, productive and healthy. These traits led to him being selected as the senior representative for the executive council of Jeter’s Leaders and class president for Kalamazoo Central High School.

August radiates an authentic energy that promotes equal opportunity and social justice.  This was demonstrated in 2020 through his participation in a national conference in Philadelphia on hot button topics including racism and gender inequality.  Later that same year, August became involved in local protests after the nationwide uproar over the tragic death of George Floyd.

While seeking conscious action in the Kalamazoo area, August continues to teach others important life lessons through thought provoking and engaging lesson plans created under the auspices of the Jeter’s Leaders program.  Through a strong desire to help others, the lessons led by August allow others to realize their voices and find a common ground from which to better our world.

He was nominated by Dr. Harold T. Swift of the Turn 2 Foundation / Jeter’s Leaders.

 Ms. Sierra Ward, award presented by Lodge-Dennis

Sierra is a definite leader in our community. She is the president of the Merze Tate Explorers, in Girl Scouts, an athlete, and extremely active at Loy Norrix High School. Her work and love for her fellow KPS students was evident when she partnered with KPS and had motivational bookmarks inserted in the diploma packets for each student at Loy Norrix, Kalamazoo Central, and Phoenix high schools. She created the bookmarks and the quotes to inspire the graduating seniors to continue their journey toward success and see the pandemic as a part of that journey and not an end to what they could accomplish in life.

Sierra also initiated a bottle drive that included dozens of parents, students, and New Day Church. That drive raised nearly $800 in 4 hours! The drive funded scholarship for girls in the U.S. and Tanzania. She also represented Kalamazoo as the youth delegate for our sister city, Numazu, Japan. Sierra is committed to her faith and understands that when she does something for her community, her school, and for others, she is serving her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.   

Ms. Keyara Price, award presented by Schupan & Sons

Keyara is a youth ambassador in our community and enjoys bringing people together. She strongly believes in setting an example as a leader and quickly recognizes and responds to opportunities to help at her school, Loy Norrix High School, and at organizations in our community like the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission. Keyara also volunteers at Loaves & Fishes Food Bank packing food boxes and is a youth mentor at the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Kalamazoo.

Other organizations Keyara supports include the Upward Bound Trio program and the Suicide Squad Dance Team as an A team dancer which requires responsible leadership for other youth also involved.

Keyara has made her voice heard while marching in several BLM protests in town too. She demonstrates leadership and is well-respected for sharing her opinions with others in a polite way. Keyara enjoys interacting with and learning from people from different cultures and religions.

Ms. Makayla Bolton, Ms. Jamillah Clark, and Ms. Maya Daniels award presented by Dr. Lewis Walker

Makayla Bolton, Jamillah Clark, and Maya Daniels have demonstrated exemplary community and civic engagement as students at Portage Northern High School. As leaders in their school, for four years these young ladies fueled the Empowered Club, an organization designed to support students of color academically and socially within the school environment and to make the school a more inclusive place for students of all backgrounds. They were also four-year members of the Black History Month Assembly cast where they served in various leadership roles elevating black awareness and honoring black excellence both in the middle and high schools. This year, the ladies coordinated and hosted the first ever (and now annual) Juneteenth Celebration and Black Lives Matter Event which included a solidarity march.

The ladies were also instrumental in creating two training videos for Portage Public School staff on diversity, inclusion, justice and equity in the classroom. Outside of school, the ladies have served at a variety of events with their church and the Boys and Girls Club of Kalamazoo.

Mses. Bolton, Clark, and Daniels were nominated by Dr. Amanda Thorpe and Justin Sims Sr., who explained they are a trio of fierce social justice advocates and bold leaders. They have left a legacy of hope and created a path forward for a future of change.  Maya Daniels received a second nomination, submitted by Mount Zion’s Youth Director, Morris Brooks.  The nomination echoes the accolades already presented, characterizing Maya as a harmonizing specialist, key leader and model teenager with strong character.

Congratulations to all this year’s recipients! You can watch the award presentation as part of the January 19, 2021 City Commission meeting here.

City of Kalamazoo

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