NAACP celebrates the 'doers'

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Oct. 16—WILKES-BARRE — The Wilkes-Barre branch of the NAACP held its annual Freedom Fund Banquet on Friday night, reminding attendees that the path to freedom requires "Always Fighting Forward."

Held at Genetti's Hotel & Conference Center, the fundraising dinner filled the conference center's banquet hall with folks looking to honor — as keynote speaker State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, said — the people who are the "doers."

Much of the night was centered around presenting a number of awards to those "doers," the first of whom being the Rev. Jennifer "Jo" VonRue. VonRue, a white woman, was the one who first created the Wilkes-Barre Black Lives Matter Facebook group in the summer of 2016 following the shooting death of Philando Castile, a Black man who was fatally shot by a Minnesota police officer in 2016 during a traffic stop after Castile notified the officer he had a concealed weapons permit.

According to executive committee member Ronald Felton, who presented VonRue with the award, she had been dedicated to working quietly in the background, so as not to take attention away from Black community leaders. But Felton said she deserved to be recognized for her organizational efforts, presenting her with the Audrey Spence Community Service Award.

VonRue said it is important for white people like herself to not just be non-racist, but to be actively anti-racist.

"You can't just sit around, you can't just pay money to go to a wonderful banquet," she said specifically to white listeners. "You have to be an active anti-racist in this moment. You have to talk to people and have hard conversations, because if the only people who are talking about race are white Nazi racists, then we're never going to change the movement."

Francisco Gonzalez, who has been running Franchesca General Services Inc. for 12 years to help assist the area's Hispanic community with a number of services, was also presented with the same community service award. Gonzalez, himself an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, said that he didn't need the recognition, because in his heart, doing what he loves for the community is enough.

The NAACP President's Award went to the Wilkes-Barre Wolverines Youth Football team, a group that says it is dedicated to providing structure to kids' lives, making them take a number of oaths to behave in school and respect adults so as to be able to continue to play.

Felton also presented what he called the night's most prestigious award, the Diversity Leadership Award, to Constance Wynn, a past president of the Wilkes-Barre NAACP from 1992 to 1994, and was instrumental in the group's founding.

Wynn thanked the NAACP for the award, saying the organization has meant so much to her and her family. Her sister Audrey Spence reactivated the organization in 1984 after a long period of absence, with its original founding occurring in 1930.

"I'm just grateful that Ron and the group have stayed together," she said, thanking Felton for his 20 years of service to the group.

She then turned her attention to Jimel Calliste, the youngest president in the group's history at only 28.

"Jimel, you got your work cut out for you," she said with a laugh. "But I love it, because you've got that youthful exuberance, and that's what's going to take us forward."

In a booming keynote address, Kenyatta exuded some of that same youthful exuberance. Kenyatta — the first openly gay Black man to be a member of the General Assembly, and a candidate for the U.S. Senate seat currently occupied by Sen. Pat Toomey — encouraged those at the dinner to become "doers" themselves.

"If you're looking for the future of this country, I want you to find a mirror," he said. "Because there are no heroes. There are only doers.

"And this is a moment where God knows we need some doers," he went on. "The good Lord knows we need some people who aren't deterred by hard work, who aren't perturbed by the idea that we have to roll up our sleeves and organize together."

Kenyatta's passionate delivery invoked that of a preacher as he boomed the end of his keynote.

"Doing the hard things is what's going to ensure that freedom and justice and fairness are things that happen," he said. "No matter where you're from, no matter what you look like, no matter who you love, no matter how you worship, we have to do it together.

"I don't need you to believe in nobody but you; I don't need you to believe in nothing but the future you think you deserve," he finished. "Then let's go out and do it."

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