Former Grand Rapids Community College Board of Trustee member, Ellen James, received the Giants Among Giants Award Saturday night at the 36th annual Grand Rapids Giants Awards.
During the 1960’s, James worked to eliminate racism through her leadership in her Young Women Committed to Action group (YWCA). Later, she worked in the equal opportunity department for Grand Rapids for nearly 30 years.
James was a founding member of the GRCC board on which she served for 25 years. She was first elected to the board in 1991 and served four terms.
Aside from being on the GRCC Board, she was also a part of many other Grand Rapids boards including the Grand Rapids Police Chief’s Advisory Board, The Community Relations Committee, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Executive Board.
In addition to numerous awards, James has also been honored by Grand Rapids Magazine as one of its 10 leaders with a mission. She was also the first recipient of the Nelson Mandela Presidential Award from the National Organization of Law Enforcement Executives.
“I’m so lost for words,” James said. “I got my start working one hour a week at the YWCA and after that, I got more involved with the community. I can’t believe that small start has gotten me to where I am now.”
James also expressed in a post-speech interview why it’s important to be active in the community, even if a person has to start off small.
“If you are just sitting and thinking about making a difference but not doing anything to make it happen, then you won’t get anywhere,” she said. “Find something you’re passionate about and make a difference. These events are so important because it encourages young people to go out and make a positive impact in their community.”
At the beginning of the event, GRCC President Bill Pink addressed the audience and spoke of the importance of the event.
“I’m very grateful for Dr. Pulliam and Cedric Ward realizing that the city of Grand Rapids needed to have something where we recognize the accomplishments and the things in our community in terms of our African American people,” Pink said. “We are celebrating 36 years of this event of honoring those who have done extraordinary things in our community, and we are honored tonight to be able to come together to do such.”
Last year, the Giants Awards offered Junior Giants Awards to two outstanding Grand Rapids students and this year was no different.
The Junior Giants Dr. Patricia Pulliam Leadership Scholarship was received by GRCC’s own Deandre Bridgeman.
Bridgeman plans to transfer to Grand Valley State University or Ferris State University after attending GRCC and is working to get a bachelors in psychology and a master’s degree in higher education.
The Junior Giants Cedric Ward Leadership Scholarship was awarded to Binti Adbi, a senior at Grand Rapids Union High School.
Adbi plans to enlist in the military after graduating high school while taking online classes from Davenport University.
The rest of the night was spent honoring the 11 men and women who have contributed their energy and skills to better the Grand Rapids community.
In addition to Bridgeman, GRCC’s Director of Upward Bound, Rhondo Cooper was awarded the Phyllis Scott Activist Award.
Cooper has over 27 years of experience working with youth in need of mental health services, academic opportunities and re-entry after incarceration. Cooper believes that everyone should have a fair chance at life and works devotedly to help vulnerable people.
“Tonight I stand on the shoulders of giants before me and giants after me,” Cooper said to the audience via video screen. “I stand on the shoulders of both my mother and my grandmother, who taught me the lesson that service to others is ultimately a service to a living God.”
Cooper’s speech had audience members in awe, praising his words with “amen” and even laughing when his speech was interrupted by a phone call from Barack Obama asking about barbecuing clothes.
The other giants honored at the event were no less great than the ones honored before them with speeches from Bill Manns, President of Mercy Health Saint Mary’s and the first African American to lead a health system in West Michigan, and many others.
At the end of the event, those honored were congratulated by audience members who talked about their accomplishments and what they hope next year will bring.
“It was an amazing night with amazing people around us,” said audience member Marie Leonard, 46, of Grand Rapids. “I can’t wait to see what next year brings and I hope that people are inspired to make a change.”