In the day before Halloween, a more somber crowd gathered at 250 W 55th Street to honor the National Organization for Women’s Susan B. Anthony Award nominees. The 34th year of its presentation, this year’s crop of outstanding award winners joined the illustrious list of alumnae activists in New York City, including individuals such as Mary Lou Greenberg (2001), Olivia Greer (2008) and Michelle Cortez (2013). NOW also honors organizations like Women for Afghan Women, National Mobilization Against Sweatshops and Girls Learn International. The founding chapter of the National Organization for Women, NOW NYC has been advocating for the women and girls of New York City for more than forty years.
Hosted by Morrison & Foerster, this year’s ceremony was followed by music and a reception honoring five individuals and the organization of the NYC School Safety Agents and Teamsters Local 237. NOW-NYC President Sonia Ossorio welcomed attendants and thanked Lauren Field Champion Volunteer Awardee Abigail Grimshaw for her tireless efforts on behalf of the chapter, including the graphic designer’s rendering of the above logo, and encouraged the audience to vote in this month’s upcoming elections. She presented Bernice Christopher, Patricia Williams and Kangela Moore of Local 237 with an award commemorating their historic victory for equal pay between men and women, a fight they took all the way to the Mayor in City Hall. However, this year’s ceremony individually honored advocates against sexual assault, ranging from women who have given their whole lives to the cause to young women who have just started to speak up in big ways. Each honoree was preceded by an individual who has helped them along the way, including Brigadier General Loree Sutton, Commissioner, Mayor’s Office of Veteran Affairs and the Honorable Steven Bellone, Suffolk County Executive.
Natasha Alexenko received the Susan B. Anthony Award for her work as an activist, educator and founder of Natasha’s Justice Project, a nonprofit dedicated to eliminating the 400,000 untested sexual assault evidence kits throughout the country. Alexenko was raped and robbed at gunpoint at the age of 19 in New York City, but her kit sat on a shelf for sixteen years afterward while her attacker committed more heinous crimes. Since then, she has devoted all her time and energy to preventing such miscarriages of justice.
NOW-NYC honored Martha Bashford, the Chief of the Sex Crimes Unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, for her thirty-five years of service as a pioneering sex-crimes prosecutor who has tried nearly 100 felony cases, many of which involved serial sexual predators. Bashford recalled to the audience that when she started at the DA’s Sex Crimes Unit, there were six attorneys in her office. That number has now doubled several times over, but she still dreams of a world where there is no need for one.
Zoe Ridolfi-Starr and Emma Sulkowicz have garnered national attention for the federal Title IX action they and other students have filed against their school, Columbia University. Ridolfi-Starr, the driving force behind activist group No Red Tape, thanked her friends and family for supporting her during the aftermath of her rape and the ongoing struggle that she and other victims face every day as schools and universities fail to persecute rapists and undermine victims. Sulkowicz, a performance artist, spoke briefly on her current project of carrying the mattress she was raped on campus, all day every day until they graduate, or he is expelled. Sulkowicz’s story appeared in Time Magazine, and subsequently has launched several social media campaigns and protests globally, begging people to notice as victims “carry that weight.”
Anu Bhagwati closed the evening as the final recipient, former Marine Corps captain and mastermind behind the Service Women’s Action Network, or SWAN, an organization that has spearheaded national policy reform in response to the rampant sexual harassment, racism and homophobia she witnessed in the armed forces. Bhagwati was cautiously optimistic as she acknowledged how far in such a short time the organization has come, but also noted how very far there is to go, especially when it comes to the issues of domestic violence in the armed forces, as she invited budding activists and audience members to get involved. Her speech was followed by a performance from NYU’s Jewish A Cappella group, Ani V’ata.