Three Yalies win Yale-Jefferson Awards for public service
A Yale alumnus, graduate student, and undergraduate senior will be honored for their public service with Yale-Jefferson Awards.
Modeled after the national Jefferson Award (known as the “Nobel Prize for public service”), the Yale honor was established in 2012 by the Yale Alumni Association, Students and Alumni of Yale, and the Jefferson Awards for Public Service. The award recognizes those who inspire the Yale community through innovative, impactful, and sustained service for the greater good.
This year’s recipients — Keerthana Annamaneni ’20, Ariel Horowitz ’19 M.M., and Charles Best ’98 — will accept their awards on Friday, Nov. 22 at the Yale Alumni Assembly lunch at the Omni Hotel. Afterwards, honorees will hold a fireside chat at 3:30 p.m. in Nick Chapel Theater of Trumbull College.
Profiles of this year’s honorees follow:
Keerthana Annamaneni ’20
Growing up, Annamaneni was captivated by the childhood stories of her south Indian parents. Interested in direct service work, Annamaneni utilized the storytelling skills she had inherited from her parents to spotlight larger systemic problems, both as a journalist and as an intern at the Bronx Defenders, the New Haven federal defenders, and the Connecticut Innocence Project. At Yale, serving as editor for the student publication The Politic, she discovered Scott Lewis whose story was initially covered by another Politic writer, Sammy Westfall.
In 1991, Lewis had been wrongfully convicted of a double homicide. After 19 years in prison, Lewis was exonerated. Annamaneni worked as the producer of the film “120 Years,” winner of the Best Short Documentary Film at the 27th annual Pan African Film Festival. In collaboration with the film’s editors and directors, Matt Nadel and Lukas Cox, Annamaneni worked to raise awareness about the effects of incarceration. The film was most recently shown at the Connecticut Department of Children and Families to an audience of policymakers and government officials. As the film concluded, a politician asked Lewis about his thoughts on what could be done better to ease the burden of incarceration on families. Lewis replied, “Let fathers hug their sons.”
“That moment is exactly why this film is so important,” Annamaneni said. “It reminds us of the simple pleasures in life and precious rights that are removed when one is incarcerated — especially when that person is innocent.”
Ariel Horowitz ’19 M.M.
Horowitz began playing violin at the age of 3. Since then, she has premiered her musical compositions at the Kennedy Center, performed a few concertos by Bach in Germany, and in the midst of her studies at Yale School of Music, served as a violin professor at Mount Holyoke College.
Music has been at the forefront of her entire life, said Horowitz, taking her across oceans and allowing her to meet extraordinary individuals. But few are as extraordinary as the children she encountered in the summer of 2016, she said. “My mom was working as an education curriculum consultant on the Navajo Reservation at Navajo Technical University which is the largest tribal college on the reservation. One of the things that came up in a lot of their meetings was that there weren’t any sustainable arts education programs for kids in their community.” Horowitz was invited to teach music lessons that summer. “I thought it sounded fun,” she said.
That summer experience was the inspiration for The Heartbeat Music Project. Serving 60 students and their families, the program offers music education year-round. Its programming extends beyond classical music and features the historical and artistic influence of Navajo culture. “The Heartbeat Music Project supports young students who don’t care if a musical piece is perfectly in tune or stylistically correct. They are just excited to be creative,” Horowitz said, “That’s what it’s all about.”
Charles Best ’98
When Best was in high school, he wanted to be like his English teacher and wrestling coach, Mr. Buxton. At Yale, Best participated in a teaching prep program, taking part in fellowships at Wilbur Cross and Hillhouse high schools. Upon graduation, he earned his teaching license and taught history in the Bronx for five years. Best and his colleagues spent large portions of their paychecks on school supplies and printing. During their breaks, they daydreamed about books and field trips they wished their students had access to.
Best recalls thinking to himself, “What if we could create a website where teachers post classroom project ideas. And what if donors could choose the projects they wanted to support?” Thus, DonorsChoose.org was born.
In the early days, Best and his students would stay after school to run the organization. “For the first year or two we operated out of my classroom and my students were our staff numbers and marketing team,” Best said. “They would hand-address letters to people all over the country to inspire donations for the site’s proposed projects.” Today, more than 80% of all public schools in the United States have at least one teacher who has created a classroom project request on the website. Four million people have given more than $850 million to DonorsChoose.org.