JM Kaplan Fund receives double amount of applicants for Innovation Prize this year

2021 JMK Awardees
2021 JMK Awardees
J.M. Kaplan Fund
2021 JMK Awardees

JM Kaplan Fund receives double amount of applicants for Innovation Prize this year

The J.M.K. Innovation Prize received a record of 2,826 applications from all 50 states. The prize seeks to elevate innovators transforming social justice.
December 28, 2021

This year, the J.M. Kaplan Fund received a record breaking 2,826 applicants for their Innovation Prize Fund. This jump in applicants appears amidst a global pandemic and increased racial tensions across the country. While the country is still recovering from serious trauma, many innovators who applied for the prize hope to bring the country to a place of healing.

“I hope it infuses hope, opportunity and optimism. Right at a moment where I think a lot of us don't feel very optimistic and don't feel very hopeful, go through the 10 innovation prize winners on our website and just listen to their stories,” Amy Freitag, Executive Director of the J.M. Kaplan Fund told NYN Media. “The work that they're doing is so inspirational and encouraging that change can happen, both incrementally and locally, but also systematically impactful, and truly nationally impactful.”

This year is the fourth cycle of the Innovation Prize, which awards 10 visionaries and their organizations $175,000 over three years in the program areas of social justice, the environment and heritage conservation. 

The J.M. Kaplan Fund’s report, “Building Pathways to Collective Power,” highlights trends, exciting projects, and reflections on the prize’s impacts.

“Every year, it surprises us, and it tells us about things that are happening in the country that maybe we weren't really aware of, or maybe none of us have heard enough about,” Freitag said. 

One innovation prize winner, Shelley Halstead, founded Black Women Build in Baltimore, Maryland, where she helps women learn valuable construction trades and become owners of the properties they’ve renovated. 

“As a fairly young organization, I have played the role of CEO to janitor. The J.M. Kaplan Fund's Innovation Prize has allowed me to hire support staff so we can grow and meet the needs of our community without burning out. Winning the prize reinforced my belief that our work is vital and unique, and that others will see it as such.” Halstead told NYN Media.

Esperanza Dillard and Talila “YL” Lewis, co-founders of HEARD, center language and disability justice by developing sign language signs for words that currently have no sign equivalents, such as “mass incarceration” and “abolition.” HEARD provides peer support, direct services, and harm reduction education and currently has staff who are formerly incarcerated that serve as peer educators and community interpreters.

Funded under the heritage conservation program, Wikitongues, founded by Daniel Bogre Udell and Kristen Tcherneshoff, equips people to document, teach and promote their languages. Wikitongues hopes to build a “language revitalization accelerator” that allows marginalized populations the resources to launch mother-tongue projects within their communities. 

The prize not only hopes to give early-stage projects a platform and access to philanthropy, but it also hopes to lift up leaders that can speak directly to the issues through their own experiences and create ingenuity with their solutions. 

“The idea of the prize was always trying to get to people that might otherwise not have the opportunity to lift up their innovation. And often, that's historically underrepresented voters, historically underfunded populations.” 

Although the country is facing a multitude of challenges, these innovators hope to tackle the country’s most pressing challenges with the help of the J.M. Kaplan Fund innovation prize.

“It can be pretty depressing reading the newspaper these days, but this group of 10 people and honestly the 2,865 people that applied all had something important they were passionate about. And it kind of reminds you how extraordinary a place we live in and the opportunities we have to work in partnership with our neighbors.” says Freitag.

Angelique Molina-Mangaroo
previously founded and was executive director of The Wealthy Youth Project, a financial literacy organization interested in addressing issues faced by women and girls of color. She also was a reporter for the Hunts Point Express in the Bronx, served as a Young Women’s Advisory Council Member on the New York City Council, and has worked with several nonprofit organizations, among them Planned Parenthood of New York City and the Legal Aid Society.