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Miracles and Cures

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It is a graduation of sorts, when a three-year commitment comes to an end and it is time to let others participate in the work and the reward. This week, my time as a member of the selection panel for the Sloan Public Service Awards sponsored by the Fund for the City of New York reached its tenure. As a member of the group that reviewed nominations for what is affectionately and accurately called, the Oscars of Public Service, my appreciation for the depth of the commitment and skills of the 6 annual award winners increased each year.

A few facts to start with:

There are approximately 300,000 NYC government employees in departments and agencies including education, transit, housing authorities, parks, sanitation, corrections, police and fire, health and hospital corporation, CUNY, law offices, cultural affairs, environmental protection, public libraries and more, without whom our orderly urban lives would not be possible.

The Fund for the City of New York began honoring distinctive civil servants in 1973, for a total of 264 winners over a 41-year period. Winners can be traffic cops or university professors, bus drivers or engineers; what distinguishes them is their unique characteristics of leadership, creativity, dedication and outstanding performance that is deeply self-motivated. They define what it means to "go above and beyond" the call of duty.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has been supporting this program for the past 29 years. Colleagues and other individuals make nominations.

After the winners are selected from a group of nominees, the Fund organizes a bus tour to recognize the individuals at their workplaces. At the end of the day, a citywide celebration is held with all winners, elected officials, dignitaries, family members and colleagues at Cooper Union. But it is that day on the bus, traveling all around the city -- from the northern reaches of the Bronx to the mouth of the NYC harbor -- that creates the backdrop for understanding how diverse our city is in terms of neighborhoods, workplaces and population. As a multi-generation New Yorker, I found myself astonished by the places I hadn't seen, vowing always to return and learn a new neighborhood.

In years one and two I was mesmerized by the city and the tour, and caught up in learning about the range of city jobs, different communities and broad diversity of the winners. They are individuals from all walks of life, with divergent family stories and diverse personal challenges, who achieve a level of professional accomplishment unmatched by their peers. This year, my final year, I was captivated by the caliber of leadership each winner embodied. And though I knew who they were on paper, as I listened and watched them in person, they unfolded with their actual words, mannerisms, humor and humility. I learned even more.

This is what I observed in our winners:

  • They seek the path not taken -- their journeys are sometimes circuitous and often involve personal hardship.
  • Their voices are bold -- they use them for leading others and for making themselves heard. I love to hear their voices and see their mannerisms at last, when I encounter a determined, vocal and powerful advocate.
  • They are dynamic and immensely creative, attacking problems many prefer to avoid. Somehow, climbing those hills attracts them.
  • Clearly they have the admiration of their colleagues -- the genuine affection that I have seen in 2-dozen workplace visits is overwhelming. And why? While these unique individuals carve out their success, they give endlessly to their co-workers at the same time. They mentor others to a degree that is truly uncommon -- they redefine mentoring. They build teams -- these are not isolated individuals seeking recognition. They connect with patients, students, recipients, passengers, and colleagues. They change lives.

The 2014 winners:

Arnaldo Bernabe: Director of Public Safety, Hostos Community College, CUNY

A Hostos graduate, he oversees a campus of 7,000 students, utilizing the platform of public safety to create and enhance community.

Annie Fine, MD: Medical Director of Data Analysis and Reportable Disease Surveillance Unit, Bureau of Communicable Disease, Dept. of Health of Mental Hygiene

Dr. Fine keeps track of 73 communicable diseases and has created software to analyze data and identify trends. She lets us sleep at night.

Deborah Garner: Director of Consumer Services, Dept. of Consumer Affairs

A relentless advocate for consumers, she is a "managerial magician," creating efficiencies where none existed. Deborah is on the front line in an agency that receives over 30,000 complaints annually -- and moves to resolve them.

Janice Halloran: Network Senior Associate Director, Dept. of Emergency Medicine North Bronx Healthcare Network, NYC Health and Hospitals Corporation

With 24-hour responsibility for 2 major ERs, Jacobi and North Central Bronx, this amazing woman oversees tens of thousands of ER visits, making the system more efficient and effective.

Kathleen Hughes: Assistant Commissioner for Program Services, Dept. of Cultural Affairs

A city is the sum of its parts -- and the arts touch every community in ways we can never fully understand -- it is such a vital part of our humanity. Kathleen has worked relentlessly and passionately to ensure that cultural organizations thrive.

April Leong: Principal, Liberation Diploma Plus High School, Dept. of Education

The voices of her students, cheering for her, still ring in my ears. This petite, sassy, brilliant, unassuming woman, who thanked her mother for teaching her how "to be a warrior," summed it all up for me. "Use past hurts to make you better. Choose to live, learn and move forward." She posts positive thoughts all around the school walls. She is a woman who has chosen to give all of herself to her at-risk students, and in doing so is redirecting lives from failure to success.

Phil Weinberg, Deputy Chancellor, NYC Board of Education (and 2012 Public Service Winner as High School Principal himself -- and April's former high school English teacher) read to her from the poet Seamus Heaney:

History says, don't hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells.

I give up my seat on Mary McCormick's (the extraordinary President of the Fund for the City of New York) panel and bus for the next person. I have learned to see the city with new eyes, and with that perspective, have hope for the future. It will come from the efforts of many, perhaps led by our public servants, the unsung heroes/heroines of our vast and complex city. I smile to think about miracles and cures and know that it does happen.

Source for facts and statistics:

Fund for the City of New York

Previous posts on the Sloan Awards:

Our Town: Sloan Public Service Awards 2012

The Art of Public Service

Nominate an individual for next year's awards.