Last Thursday evening, Avenues for Justice (AFJ), hosted our Second Chance Gala at the Altman Building. It was an evening of remembrance, celebration, and discussion. With board members, court advocates, program Participants and supporters in attendance, the gala celebrated 24-year-old Thomas Zapata as the 2023 Second Chance Award Recipient, and champion for justice, Khaliah Ali, for her activism.
Kicking off the evening with a cocktail hour and performance by R&B/Jazz duo Acute Inflections, attendees included Hon. Judge (ret.) Emily Goodman, former Connecticut State Senator, Will Haskell, and Joanna Sanchez, Assembly Member Epstein’s Director of Constituent Services, among others. The welcome reception paid tribute to two AFJ Participants, Menkie and Eliahs, who tragically lost their lives to gun violence. Court Advocate Brian shared a heartfelt spoken word poem to honor Menkie and Eliahs, and shed light on the injustices black and brown young adults are facing in the streets of New York City each day. An excerpt from the poem:
We are all incentivized
to minimize and misidentify this genocide while they gentrify the part of town
Where Black and Brown Youth ain’t even allowed to have a gentle side
They are criminalized and generalized
At AFJ we Strive to individualize
Each and every one
Of Their individual lives
During the second half of the evening, guests were welcomed with a video by NY State Attorney General, Letitia James, who offered her heartfelt congratulations and admiration for the “invaluable work” that the Avenues for Justice team has been doing. Attorney General James remarked how “the genius of the AFJ mission is that it not only allows individuals to gain closure after their time is served, it also gives them the ability and support necessary to avoid future criminal behavior.”
After dinner, attendees listened to a panel discussion on the individual journeys of AFJ Court Advocate, Elsie, along with the evening’s honored guest, Khaliah Ali. Moderated by ABC award-winning journalist, Chanteé Lans, Elsie and Khaliah discussed the current state of the criminal justice system, their hope for much needed change, and how others can support mission’s like AFJ, who have a 94% success rate of no reconviction after three years of enrollment in the program.
The evening also featured 2022 Andrew Glover Justice Award recipient, Jason Flom, who presented the award to his partner, Khaliah Ali, in honor of their joint passion for wrongful conviction prevention and rehabilitation over incarceration. Before presenting the award to Khaliah, Jason pledged $25,000 to AFJ’s mission in her name. In her acceptance speech, Khaliah remarked, “I will continue the walk and the fight with Avenues for Justice. This [award] is in my hands but it’s collectively for all of us tonight and moving forward let’s not stop the fight.”
Elsie and AFJ’s Co-founder and Executive Director, Angel, presented the Second Chance Award to Thomas. Angel shared how “[Thomas] has earned this position on the stage today. I have the pleasure of being part of that process and I couldn’t do it without Thomas putting in the strength and believing in himself.” During his acceptance speech, Thomas told the audience how it is “not easy but the support you give to us is making these kids' lives way better.”
Thomas’ perseverance and determination is what helped him successfully graduate our program in 2021. Raised by a single mother with two younger siblings, Zapata was originally arrested at 17 years old for attempted robbery. While mandated to AFJ, Thomas made progress in a drug treatment program, received his High School diploma and OSHA-30 certification, signed up for the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) to pursue a music production internship, and eventually landed a job in the restaurant industry. Tragically, just as Thomas was making great strides, his mother passed away. Although he was able to muster all the willpower to successfully graduate our program, it triggered a very somber period for Thomas. Then while planning for this year’s gala, Thomas’ father sadly passed away in September. During the award presentation, Thomas and guests were able to watch his success video which featured his father expressing how “Thomas, you make me proud. I’m never gonna forget that. May God bless you.”