While the surprise announcement of Jessica and Dirk Nowitzki‘s receiving the ProtectHer Award and the chat between award-winning Lupita Nyong’o and NBC 5’s Laura Harris may have highlighted New Friends New Life‘s hybrid luncheon at the Omni Dallas Hotel on Friday, October 8, it was the takeaway testimonials by the newly created Alumni Circle that proved to be the real memory maker. Here’s a report from the field:
Attendees of this year’s hybrid New Friends New Life luncheon not only benefited from the empowering words of Academy-Award Winner Lupita Nyong’o, but they also gained new perspective into the lives of those who are sex trafficked from the personal stories of five courageous graduates of the nonprofit’s program – each of whom was present at the luncheon. These women, now members of a new Alumni Circle, help ensure that survivors always have a voice while serving as mentors for the women and girls in NFNL’s program.
The a capella voices of Kings Return opened the program, setting the tone for what was to be a powerful day for guests including Kimberly Clifton, Katherine Coker, Angela and Brad Cheves, Elizabeth Gambrell, Tracey Nash-Huntley, Ashlee and Chris Kleinert, Wendy Messmann, Pat Schenkel, Beth Thoele, Dr. Melissa Tonn, Gail and Dr. Gerald Turner with daughter Jessica Turner-Waugh, Jennifer Norris and Katherine Wynne. Luncheon Co-Chairs Jan Osborn and Trina Terrell-Andrews introduced the video of the sex trafficking survivors, followed by remarks from NFNL CEO Bianca Davis.
Davis applauded each survivor for their courage, commitment, and successes while highlighting the importance of “community” and the organization’s transformational program. “This year, I listened to a member share that her first day at New Friends New Life was going to be the last day of her life,” shared Davis. “She had tried, and she was tired. But she didn’t end her life that day. In fact, she is about to enter Phase 4 of our program, and she is a star.”
Grantmakers for Girls of Color President/CEO Dr. Monique W. Morris was honored with the first ProtectHer Award for her work as a transformative voice for girls of color impacted by sex trafficking. She is an award-winning author and social justice scholar with three decades of experience in the areas of education, civil rights, and juvenile and social justice. Unable to attend in person, Dr. Morris shared her remarks in a recorded video. “I am honored to be in community with New Friends New Life and proud of the work we do to impact the lives of others. New Friends New Life is about transformation and reclamation, and it is beautiful.”
American Airlines Director/Senior Attorney Patrick Sanders accepted his company’s ProtectHer Award for its work in the fight against sex trafficking. Since January 2020, the company has provided awareness training for their team to recognize how human trafficking intersects with the travel industry; provided care kits for women in the program; and most recently provided pro-bono legal services, in partnership with Jones Day, to expunge criminal records of women in the NFNL program. “We continue to be so impressed by the work of New Friends New Life and the lives that are saved every day, and are truly grateful for this honor,” said Sanders. “To hear the personal stories of survival today, and to know we played a role in the expungement of one of those survivors was an emotional moment for me and our team here today.”
Honorary Co-Chairs Tonya and Charlie McKinney were invited to the stage to help introduce a surprise awardee. Charlie began by sharing that he was going off script and stated how much of an impact the program of NFNL has made on them. He specifically recognized the table of survivors who had just shared their personal stories and successes.
Jessica and Dirk Nowitzki were announced as the recipients of the third ProtectHer Award from the work of their foundation which focuses on the well-being, health, and education of children; their donations to critical social service agencies during the pandemic; and their understanding that social ills – including sex trafficking – are often the result of vulnerabilities of early childhood.
“This is a great honor for our foundation,” said Nowitzki. He then shared a personal story of his arrival 20 years ago in Dallas. “Exiting the plane, I was greeted by hundreds of fans with Dirk signs. I thought, they are already embracing me, and they don’t even know me. It was at that moment I knew I was going to do my best to do my part to make this a better community. It was years later I learned those were all Mavs employees, but the seed was already planted! We started the foundation in 2001, and we have been doing amazing work collaborating with amazing people. I’m excited to continue the work of the foundation and look forward to the next 20 years.”
Jessica continued, “Collaboration and partnership are key and what we have tried to do all of these years. Without sponsors and collaborators, we can’t do what we do in the community. New Friends New Life is one of the key components making a change in our city. Your presence today is so important. To make a difference we all have to do this together.”
NBC 5’s Laura Harris introduced virtual guest Lupita Nyong’o, a Kenyan actress, producer and author, known for her Academy Award-winning performance in 12 Years a Slave. She starred in Jordan Peel’s Us and is soon reprising her role in Marvel’s Black Panther 2. She executive produces the YouTube Originals family program, Super Sema, which depicts Africa’s first kid superhero and features her voice in a two-part episode. She is also a New York Times Bestselling author for her children’s book, “Sulwe,” which recently won an Emmy Award.
In a recorded conversation with Harris, Nyong’o shared her story and what empowers and motivates her. She was raised by parents who were involved in the world – her dad a politician fighting for democracy, and her mother, a world class humanitarian who takes on other people’s issues with a big heart.
“I observed them put people first and sacrifice themselves for a larger idea – those examples affected me, giving me the blueprint of what life is about. You have a life to lead – do what you want to do and what enriches the world you live in. This sense of purpose is in all of us – if you listen close enough.”
Nyong’o shared that she was not clear for a long time about what her purpose was but feels driven by a desire to change the narrative and offer a new perspective, especially in her role as an actor and storyteller. She continued by saying, “the pursuit of clarity is valid in and of itself.” After graduating with her undergraduate degree, she returned to Kenya to reflect, knew she wanted to act, and applied to graduate school.
“Reflection is such an important part of discovering what your purpose is,” Nyong’o added. “You can so easily get into the rut of living and just trying to survive that you forget to take a step back, take stock and design your life.”
She touched on her children’s book, “Sulwe,” which she referred to as an autobiography of her life with magic in it. “I grew up very uncomfortable with the color of my skin and experienced discrimination. I wrote a children’s book to affect the way children see themselves before the world tells them what their worth is. Ultimately, in our adult lives we are seeking to heal our childhood wounds, and this was one of the ways I went about healing my own.”
The actress also discussed her experience narrating Serengeti, a nature documentary shot in Kenya. She realized this was a watershed moment when she reflected on the fact that she had never heard a nature documentary done in an accent that was not British or American; she had never heard a female narrator; and she had never heard an African accent – even though filming was on that continent.
When asked about her workout videos, she shared she believes in a strong body, strong mind, and had a good role model as a child – her aunt played the Jane Fonda workout videos, and they exercised together every other day.
She described her Oscar moment, unsure if she heard her name called in her head or aloud, and then worried about falling as she walked up the stairs in 40 meters of fabric. “I was washed with gratitude – a girl from Kenya who had this dream that seemed so unattainable that my mother protected, and my father encouraged, and now it’s come to fruition.”
She emphasized that we don’t necessarily belong where we are from – that’s just a starting point. “The more we understand that the more we can do with it. We belong on this earth the second we get here.”
For her final remarks, she shared she had been thinking about the gift of curiosity. “When people are oppressed, the first thing taken away from them is freedom to be curious. I want to impart on people to hold on to your curiosity – it’s what keeps you engaged in life, youthful and growing, and when you let it go, that’s when you start to die. I am grateful for my career which forces me to be curious. When I start a role, I know nothing, and that exercise in being uncomfortable in what you don’t know and seeking to know it, keeps my brain sharp and my heart beating – it keeps me looking forward to a new day.”
Media sponsors were NBC5, PaperCity and The Dallas Morning News.
* Photo credit: Tamytha Cameron