the-new-york-times logoJamal Joseph stood helplessly on a Harlem sidewalk. He was outside his apartment building watching a circle of women trying to console the mother of a 16-year-old boy who had been fatally shot.

“He was a good kid, who was defending his sister,” recalled Mr. Joseph, 62, a film professor at Columbia University. “There were several other men with me, and all we could do is watch the women cry,” he said. “I thought, I have got to do something right here in this community to make a change.”

The year was 1997, and Harlem was like “a prison without bars,” Mr. Joseph said. “The crack epidemic was ravaging the community and buildings were crumbling,” he said. “And that was when I decided to create an organization to help young people understand there are other ways out, other options, other tools.”

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In response to the wrenching scene that day, Mr. Joseph co-founded the Impact Repertory Theater, a nonprofit performing arts group for teenagers, with his wife, Joyce, the screenwriter Alice Arlen and Voza Rivers, the executive producer and founding member of the New Heritage Theater Group, the oldest black nonprofit theater company in New York City.

Photo of Jamal Joseph courtesy of
Photo of Jamal Joseph courtesy of

On Friday, Mr. Joseph was awarded a $25,000 prize in recognition and support of his work.

He is one of six recipients of the 2015 Purpose Prize for Americans 60 and older, created by, a nonprofit group that is building a movement to tap the skills and experience of people in midlife and beyond to improve communities.

Now in its 10th year, the Purpose Prize granted $100,000 to one winner and $25,000 each to five others this year. In addition, 41 Purpose Prize fellows were honored for their innovative work.

The awards have been financed since their inception by Atlantic Philanthropies and the John Templeton Foundation; this year, the Eisner Foundation and MetLife Foundation have sponsored special category prizes as well.

“What characterizes so many of the Purpose Prize winners,” said Marc Freedman, founder and chief executive of, “is not only entrepreneurial thinking, but they’re also pragmatic problem-solvers, as opposed to wild-eyed idealists.”

When the Purpose Prize was started, “our informal motto quickly became: It is the opposite of a lifetime achievement award; rather, it’s an investment in what somebody 60 years or older will do next,” Mr. Freedman said.

“Originally, the group set out to defy the notion of ‘greedy geezers,’” he added. “We wanted to show that this wasn’t just senior volunteerism, but people who were really trying to do things that defied the stereotype of older people as kindly blue-haired candy stripers.”

Much of the story line at the beginning involved “counterposing older people and younger people,” Mr. Freedman said. “Everyone was talking about how innovative and entrepreneurial young people were. We wanted to show there was an undiscovered continent of innovation and idealism in the older population that could be just a powerful force for society as the work being done by people in their 20s.”
Ten years later, Mr. Freedman sees a coming together of the generations as older people connect with young people “to do this work together.”

For example, another of this year’s winners is Belle Mickelson, 67, a science teacher-turned Episcopal priest who lives in Cordova, Alaska. Ms. Mickelson is devoted to playing the fiddle and to teaching, which inspired her to start a nonprofit in 2006, Dancing with the Spirit, that aims to connect children and elders through music.

photo of Belle Mickelson provided by
photo of Belle Mickelson provided by

Her frequent collaborator and partner in the project is her 32-year-old son, Mike, a bluegrass musician. Ms. Mickelson’s traveling music program reaches around 700 young people a year who live in 29 of the most remote villages across Alaska. They learn to play indigenous songs, like “Eagle Island Blues,” a traditional Athabaskan love song, and tunes like “Keep on the Sunny Side,” and “Jambalaya,” a song written and recorded by the country music singer Hank Williams.

She will receive a $25,000 Purpose Prize for Intergenerational Impact, sponsored by the Eisner Foundation.

Ms. Mickelson ran an alternative high school for two years and taught sixth grade. She ran a commercial fisheries program at the high school and college in Cordova and taught a workshop on marine education at the University of Alaska.

Photo of Belle Mickelson courtesy of
Photo of Belle Mickelson courtesy of

One day she visited Galena, a remote Athabaskan village with a population of about 500, to conduct a fisheries workshop. Afterward, she was invited to an elder’s house for a jam session to play guitar and fiddle. “They told me how depressed and sad they were,” she said. “There were so many teen suicides in the community.”

“At that point I thought what could I do — one person?”

Healing with music was a natural for her. “I always thought of it as a kind of hobby, until as a science teacher I looked at the impact music had on kids, especially in the high school where I taught,” she said. “Almost every kid had had some major tragedy in his or her lives. We got them back on track with music and art. We taught them to play the ukulele, to play the guitar. Once they gained confidence with music, then they could tackle English and math.”

But before she could start her traveling music camp, Ms. Mickelson made a personal career change, which led to her becoming the rector at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Cordova with a congregation of 65.

It gave her a calling card to visit the villages. Her ultimate goal, she said, was to beat back the depression among teenagers, often caused or masked by alcohol and drug abuse. “You can’t just say don’t do something, you need to replace it with something,” Ms. Mickelson said.

Photo of Jamal Joseph provided by

Mr. Joseph’s organization grew from his firsthand knowledge of how brutal life could be on the streets. He grew up in foster care, and was a 15-year-old Bronx honor student when he joined the Black Panthers in Harlem in 1968.

Six months later he was in a group of Panthers who were accused of conspiring to blow up police station houses and the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. Mr. Joseph’s case was separated from the others because he was a minor, and he was not tried on the charges.


In 1981, however, he was convicted of helping to hide a man who had taken part in the robbery of a Brink’s armored car in Rockland County where two police officers and a guard were killed.

In the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan., where he served five and a half years, Mr. Joseph wrote his first play, earned two degrees and started a theater group. He said he witnessed how plays brought together prisoners from all parts of the yard, who were previously segregated along racial lines.

After his release, he embarked on a career as a filmmaker and playwright. He began teaching when he got out, eventually joined the faculty at Columbia and for a time was chairman of the film division at the School of the Arts.

His concept was to provide a safe place that emphasized discipline and dedication, where young people could talk and write about their lives and the all-too-common progression from bullying to gangs to violence and drugs. In turn, participants would discover ways to convert their experiences into dance movements, plays, poems, rap and songs. More broadly they would learn how to use their imagination as a tool to change their neighborhood.

Nine young people came to the first meeting in a basement of a community center in Harlem.

Since that gathering, more than 1,500 young people have participated in Impact workshops, performances and community service in New York, while thousands more have taken part in Impact-led workshops at schools and community centers in Philadelphia, Atlanta and Paterson, N.J.

Students audition to join the group. Upon acceptance, they attend a mandatory three-month boot camp that teaches leadership skills, conflict resolution and time management. Campers do community service, exercise, maintain good grades and keep daily journals. “We’re not looking for talent, but kids who are willing to try,” Mr. Joseph said.

His latest effort is the Generations Project, a program drawing in older adults in Harlem to regularly meet and connect with the Impact students to share experiences. They will perform together for the first time next year.

“A lot of these kids are being raised by grandparents, so it makes sense to learn from each other, share stories and moments of inspiration,” said Mr. Joseph, who is not paid for his work.

For Mr. Joseph, receiving the prize confirms some advice he gleaned decades ago from his own mentor, Harry Belafonte, the 88-year-old singer, actor and activist.

“I was young and worried about a script I was writing and raising the money for it,” he said. “Mr. Belafonte said: ‘Don’t worry about the money. Do good work, and what’s supposed to follow will follow.’ ”


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