General Bankstreet News

Pemberton Society Honors Those Who Inspire Service

Posted by Nick Gray on November 15, 2011

Cheryl PembertonGrowing up, Cheryl Pemberton knew little of her aunt Priscilla’s work—only that whatever kept her so busy had something to do with service. What she did know was that her aunt’s expectation “was to be educated, to be involved, and to be committed to a cause to help improve the human condition.”

It was only as an adult that Cheryl (pictured) understood the scope of Priscilla Pemberton’s achievements. In her many roles during her years at Bank Street College—directing enrollment services, teaching early childhood education, nurturing an active alumni community, expanding diversity initiatives—Priscilla Pemberton helped to create countless opportunities for learning and success for service-minded young people. 

On November 10, Cheryl Pemberton joined distinguished guests at an annual benefit to honor her aunt’s legacy and to raise funds in support of Bank Street’s Priscilla E. Pemberton Society. Hosted by (School for Children parents) halley k. harrisburg and Michael Rosenfeld at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in midtown, the reception featured presentations of Leadership in Diversity Awards to five individuals who have brought an equally tireless dedication to promoting compassion and diversity in culture, education, and public service.

Honorees included Fern Khan, who for many years led Bank Street’s continuing education programs and now serves as a special advisor on community relations to President Elizabeth Dickey; the Honorable David Paterson, for his advocacy for the physically impaired and for his reform initiatives as governor of New York; his wife Michelle Paige Paterson, whose Healthy Steps to Albany plan influenced child-focused health initiatives nationwide; and Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee, who, in addition to their significant contributions to cinema and the arts, have recently authored a children’s book, "Giant Steps to Change the World."

Honorees Fern J. Kahn, Michelle Paige Paterson, the Honorable David Paterson

Photo: Honorees Fern J. Khan, Michelle Paige Paterson, the Honorable David Paterson.

“I believe in extending whatever resources we have to people who would not ordinarily come to Bank Street,” said Khan, “and to give them a taste of the best education possible so they can go out and influence hundreds of children and their fellow teachers. It’s like a ripple, and it spreads. Children benefit, adults benefit, and we all benefit. The Pemberton Society helps those students to succeed.”

Recognizing that students may struggle for any number of reasons, Khan sees much of her own philosophy reflected in the Pemberton Society’s initiatives—particularly in the Lucia Henley Jack Graduate School Writing Assistance Program for Bank Street graduate students.

Pemberton Society Founder and President Lucia Henley Jack, the writing program's namesake, marveled at how far the group had come in only six years since its founding. “I picked up the phone,” she said, “and called members of the Board, and I said, ‘I’ve got an idea. If you think it’s crazy, I’ll stop.’ And here we are. I never imagined it would become what it is.” 

Jack feels that the Pemberton Society is indicative of what is possible at Bank Street. “I worked at Bank Street for a long time. If the custodian had an idea, he felt comfortable talking about it with the president of the college. I always tell people no other place I worked was like that.”

Governor Paterson, whose humble, clever acceptance speech drew rounds of laughter, praised his wife Michelle for bringing attention to America’s challenges with child and adolescent health. “I did not realize the effect that a lack of real positive nourishment has on younger people until Michelle showed that to me and all of New York when she graced us as our first lady,” he said. “For all of you to recognize her efforts—and the fact that I’m married to her—is appreciated.”

In thanking the Pemberton Society, Governor Paterson also recognized Bank Street as “one of the more unique educational facilities I’ve ever been engaged with in 25 years of public service.”

Honoree Tonya Lewis Lee, Pemberton Steering Committee member Dwight Johnson, and Pemberton Society Founding President Lucia Henley JackPhoto: Honoree Tonya Lewis Lee, Pemberton Steering Committee member Dwight Johnson, and Pemberton Society Founding President Lucia Henley Jack.

Tonya Lewis Lee spoke about her background and her family’s commitment to service, which influenced her to write an empowering book for children along with her husband. “My parents grew up in segregated Virginia,” she said. “They were pioneers who left home and took risks to live the American dream. And in doing that, they realized that the American dream was only as good as the people they brought along with them. They taught me that service is just what you do.”

Reflecting upon the evening’s success, Cheryl Pemberton was struck by another memory from her childhood—her aunt Priscilla’s fierce love of the Mets.

Smiling, she said, “I always made the mistake of calling her when a Mets game was on, and when they were not winning, she was not happy. You see that passion in her love for sports, and you see that in her love for education. Right up until she died she was still mentoring people who were in school studying to be educators. If there’s anything that I’ve learned from my aunt, it’s that service is a lifetime commitment.”