Mitchell Awards highlights champions of diversity
CHRISTIANA – More than 150 people attended the inaugural Mitchell Awards ceremony hosted by Delaware Business Times, Delaware Today and Delaware State University on Nov. 9.
The celebration recognized those who are making a difference in the state on issues of diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice, and honored the legacy of award namesakes Littleton and Jane Mitchell, who were barrier-breaking state employees and leaders of the state’s NAACP chapter through the civil rights era.
Keynote speaker Harry Williams, who serves as president & CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and is a previous president of DSU, commended the event partners for championing the cause.
“Congratulations to Delaware Business Times and Delaware Today for being bold and audacious, because people are afraid of the word diversity … And you’re saying that we’re going to celebrate excellence. We’re going to celebrate what we need to be celebrating and we’re not going to be afraid of it,” he said, noting many states that he works in would never dream to hold such an event right now. “Delaware has always been leading the way unapologetically.”
Williams recalled the legacy of Thurgood Marshall, who as the lead NAACP lawyer argued 32 times before the U.S. Supreme Court to break down Jim Crow laws and overturn public school segregation – a case that Littleton Mitchell helped start in Delaware.
“Equity is about fairness. It’s not about giving someone an advantage. It’s about doing the right thing and making it fair for all. Not one, but all,” he said.
The inaugural class of Mitchell Award honorees included lifelong educator and Black historian Reba Hollingsworth, youth development advocate Fayetta Blake, nonprofit leader Sheila Bravo, barrier-breaking Latino former State Sen. Ernie Lopez, LGBTQ+ advocates Drew Fennella and Lisa Goodman, and first Black Delaware poet laureates Al Mills and Nnamdi Chukwuocha.
Hollingsworth, who recently turned 97, grew up in segregated Delaware and was forced to leave home as a teen to get a high school education. She would go on to earn a doctorate in school counseling.
“If you look at your right hand and your left hand and you think they’re equal, you know they’re not. Just as we’re all different, but all a part of the body of humanity,” she said.
Blake, whose nonprofit Pathways to Success works with hundreds of at-risk children around the state to guide them toward graduation and a successful future, credited her dedication to the lessons taught by teachers and family.
“I stand on the shoulders of so many other people who came before me because before I learned how to walk, somebody crawled,” she said.
Bravo, who leads the Delaware Association for Nonprofit Advancement, the state’s largest advocacy group for nonprofits, and oversaw its work to compile a report on diversity in the state’s nonprofit leadership, said that she was excited to see the conversation around DE&I spurred by the Mitchell Awards.
“Here in Delaware, we’re very fortunate. My colleagues who are state association leaders in Florida, Texas, and other parts of the country are not even able to do some of the work that we do now,” she said.
For Lopez, a Puerto Rican immigrant who became the first Latino American elected to the State Senate a decade ago, the honor was representative of a life’s work in service to his community.
“My grandfather used to say as I spent my summers [in Puerto Rico], Dime con quién estás y te diré quién eres – tell me who you’re with and I will tell you who you are,” he said.
For Goodman and Fennell, who led the push for gay marriage in the state a decade ago and still advocate for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, the honor was a reminder that their community cuts across all minorities.
“We’ve been exquisitely aware of the intersectionality of our efforts, whether it’s Drew’s unbelievable work on prison reform and prison health care reform, or all of the things that she did the ACLU or the work for our trans brothers and sisters which are currently under attack – and that work is ongoing. As many awardees have said, that work is never done,” Goodman said.
Fennell, who as a former director of the state’s American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) chapter got to know Lit Mitchell before his passing, said his message today would be simple.
“I think he would tell us, if he were here, fight on,” she said.
Mills, who along with his brother has become a leader in the culture of Wilmington, recalled writing an early poem called, “Little Shane,” about a boy who was murdered in the city, but no one seemed to notice other than a spray-painted tribute on a wall.
“We didn’t want that to be the story of our neighborhoods. And we started telling these kids, ‘No, you matter. You have a place in this in this world.’ And we continue to this day to use our art to say just that,” he said.