'Unsung hereos' share spotlight
Two neighborhood people were hailed as "social entrepreneurs" in an awards banquet held on Monday evening in the South End. Courtney Grey, a Dorchester resident who directs the city's trauma response efforts, and Haitian-American activist Carline Desire each received $30,000 prizes as part of the recognition from The Philanthropic Initiative (TPI), which hosted the 19th annual Neighborhood Fellows event.
"It was in 1991 that TPI first began looking around the city of Boston, this beautiful City on Hill, for a certain kind of person, a special kind of person, someone who makes a big difference in a quiet way, what we have come to call unsung heroes," said Ellen Remmer, president of TPI, before presenting the awards. Sponsored by an anonymous donor, "spotters" around the city report individuals to TPI who are vetted and then voted upon. Six are chosen each year.
Desire is the executive director of the Fuller Street-based Association of Haitian Women in Boston. The organization, founded in 1988, focuses on domestic violence prevention and empowering immigrant women. Grey, a Philadelphia native who has called Dorchester home for the last four years, is director of trauma services at the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) and is co-author of the study "Pathways to Recurrent Trauma Among Young Black Men: Traumatic Stress, Substance Use, and the Code of the Street."
Desire recalled Monday that she was one of the founding members of the Association. Today, she serves as the executive director, overseeing a host of programs ranging from coalition building, immigration advocacy, and domestic violence education.
"I think over the years people have really shown appreciation for our work," Desire said. "Not necessarily because they believe 100 percent but because it is a way to move forward in America. They see we put all our might in it and that it is not about the money."
Desire worked solely as a volunteer for 10 years before she was asked to become a paid executive director in 1998, leaving her previous full time jobs within the Boston Public School system and the Department of Social Services. Now that the Association is facing tougher times than ever during this recession, Desire's salary arrives in haphazard, sometimes incomplete, installments. Still, she plans to donate the $30,000 unrestricted personal cash reward she received from TPI to the Association.
"The board is telling me to take the money but it's for the organization because they need it and because without them I wouldn't be able to do what I've done," Desire said.
Stretching a budget of $200,000, Desire set up counseling, connect victims with lawyers and police, convene support groups and offer referrals to health services. The association also is heavily involved in education and outreach within the greater Boston Haitian community, setting up special cultural workshops that confront domestic violence. They host a monthly radio show, set up tables at health fares, and hunt for speaking engagements, be they in churches or on TV, to get the word out about domestic violence.
"This is a human rights issue," Desire said. "From 1991-2009, we had 11 deaths in the Boston Haitian community from domestic homicide. That's a lot."
Despite the homicides and the more frequent assaults, Desire is hopeful that progress is being made. Churches are now inviting the Association to come speak.
"Ten years ago churches wouldn't open the door. Now they welcome us," Desire said. "I went to a wedding and the preacher was even talking about domestic violence. I said, 'Oh my God.' I wondered if this is really in his heart or if he saw me in the audience. I think he just did it from his heart."
When survivors from Hurricane Katrina landed at Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod, Courtney Grey was there. When someone is killed in the city, Courtney Grey is there. When a teen needs more structure in his or her life, Courtney Grey is there.
"Yeah, hey, I know Courtney Grey," Mayor Thomas Menino said soon after walking into banquet hall at City Year. "He gives families the help they need."
And that is exactly what he was doing when TPI called his cell phone to explain that he just won an award of $30,000. "I said, 'Sorry I can't talk right now. I have someone suffering right in front of me,'" Grey recounted when accepted the award.
Grey began his career in Boston shortly after graduating from MIT, working on a very different aspect of the health care field: installing the computer systems in Boston's major hospitals. Soon, though, the Boston University School of Medicine offered Grey a research position.
"We researched 120 men while they were in the hospital and then followed them, testing their exposure to post traumatic stress and violent incidents," Grey said. "While researching folk you're not really allowed to treat them but the men taught us exactly what services they needed."
Grey took the information he gathered as a researcher and applied it to his work at the BPHC. People wanted support after the shootings, Grey explained.
"We took a program that was used in suicides in South Boston, evaluated that system, and tweaked it into what we have today," Grey said.
Now, witnesses of violence - be it family, bystanders, friends - are able to tap into an incident command system. As director of the trauma services unit, Grey mobilizes basketball coaches, ministers, street workers, police and many others to work with the effected parties through the grief. Many of those involved receive direct training in psychological first aid from BPHC workshops.
He compares the work to containing a disease.
"[For instance] if someone gets Hepatitis A in a restaurant, they can connect to other people and pass it on. We have to identify all effected parties [of trauma] and stabilize care," Grey said. "If we don't, it can lead to very bad outcomes and symptoms can lead to more violence and victimization."
Following a natural death on BPS grounds this year, which was witnessed by 39 other students, Grey is hoping to expand his "psychological first aid" further into the schools. "We're trying to get a critical amount of people who understand post traumatic stress," Grey said. "[That incident] started a focus on the schools. It's about compassionate care and showing up authentically to serve."
For Grey serving doesn't stop at the end of the workday, he spends three nights a week teaching Kilombo Novo, an Afro-Brazilian martial arts dance. The dance is based on ritualized fighting, involving slow kicks and deliberate movements. Grey describes it as a combination between "fighting and break dancing."
"It's always been my understanding that people who take discipline systems like martial arts tend to be more resilient to violence," Grey said. "The objective is to de-escalate and be in line with spiritual practices."