Executive Director of the immigrant resource organization Central American Resource Center Abel Núñez received the John Thompson Jr. Legacy of a Dream Award at the 15th annual “Let Freedom Ring Celebration” at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on Monday.
The John Thompson Jr. Legacy of a Dream Award, named for the Georgetown men’s basketball coach from 1972-1999, is given each year at the event to honor an individual whose work furthers Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy of social justice and tolerance.
The “Let Freedom Ring Celebration” is one of 18 events the university will host this year to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Georgetown will also confer an honorary degree on Lonnie Bunch III, the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture as part of the series.
The event featured performances from Grammy Award-winning singer Gladys Knight, the “Let Freedom Ring Celebration” Choir featuring Georgetown students and community members, the Georgetown Black Theatre Ensemble and the spoken word group Corpus Collective.
Knight sang hits such as “Midnight Train to Georgia,” several hymns and modern pieces such as Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me.”
Knight, whose family knew King when she was growing up in Atlanta, said King’s work had a profound impact on her life.
“Throughout my life, I walked with Dr. King, I supported him in his rallies, I’ve sung for him many times,” Knight said. “I think about his speech, ‘I Have a Dream,’ and to me, there was resolve in that speech. To me, he was ready, he was ready for the challenge.”
CARECEN provides a range of support services to the Latino community in the District, including citizenship courses and legal aid to recent immigrants. According to the CARECEN website, the organization has served over 87,000 Latino residents since 1981.
University President John J. DeGioia said Núñez’s work represented a contribution to a larger struggle for justice.
“In our nation and in our world, there are many great challenges and many persistent injustices that summon us to action, to answer the calling, to respond with hope, to engage with solidarity. Let us heed Dr. King’s call,” DeGioia said. “Tonight, we honor an individual who has dedicated himself to this beautiful struggle.”
DeGioia also remembered the 272 black slaves who, in 1838, were sold to a Louisiana plantation to benefit Georgetown University. All known descendants of the 272 were invited to the event.
“This year, as you have heard already tonight, we place a special recognition on our community’s efforts to reflect on our own past and the importance of remembrance,” DeGioia said.
Núñez said his primary inspiration to work in the Latino community came from his childhood.
As the first person in his family to learn English, he often found himself helping his parents and neighbors with tasks that required English-language skills. This experience showed him that connecting underserved communities to resources can be an important tool in aiding these populations.
“I want to make sure that the development that occurs in this city lifts all boats. You know, I see an incredible wealth and the incredible amenities that exist and not everyone has a chance to utilize them,” Núñez said. “What I want to be able to see, if I’m lucky enough to look back on my body of work, is a work that brought to people. I want to look back and see work that impacted a community and then took appropriate action to make that change, but it was systemic.”
Lauren Finkenthal (COL ’19), who performed in the choir, said she enjoyed working with the other choir members to honor King’s work.
“The community members were also fantastic. They completely anchored the entire group,” Finkenthal said. “It’s really great, and also, of course, it was for an amazing cause that I think we all feel really strong about.”
Ari Goldstein (COL ’18) said he appreciated Georgetown’s dedication to honoring the work of so many influential leaders in the District and across the nation.
“Gladys Knight’s performance was unreal. The work that Abel Núñez does in unreal, and so it’s a pretty spectacular combo as part of a really spectacular event that I’m really proud to say that Georgetown hosts every year,” Goldstein said. “It’s awesome that we get to do this.”
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