Photo: Jim Harrison
Luis Garden Acosta &
5th Heinz Awards - 1999
Luis Garden Acosta and Frances Lucerna received the 5th Heinz Award in the Human Condition category for profoundly influencing the nature of community building and youth development through their creation of El Puente, “The Bridge.” A neighborhood center serving as a school and much, much more, El Puente represents a vision of a world where working for social justice is essential to individual growth.
In 1981, 48 young people lost their lives in “the killing fields” of the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. Williamsburg, recognized as the state’s most concentrated Latino community and one of its poorest, was also called the “gang capital of New York City.” Out of this mix emerged Luis Garden Acosta and Frances Lucerna, who gave up established careers as a hospital administrator and a dancer respectively to dedicate themselves to building an institution that might restore a battered community. Refusing to accept the community’s fate, Mr. Garden Acosta founded El Puente.
El Puente was more than a new human services organization working to prevent youth problems. Under the leadership of this charismatic and committed couple, it quickly became a catalyst for the development of the whole neighborhood and its residents. By working hand-in-hand with residents, they have helped to establish an array of opportunities designed to make Williamsburg a safe, healthy and stable community.
Mr. Garden Acosta is founder and president of El Puente, and Ms. Lucerna is founder and principal of its Academy for Peace and Justice. Together as husband and wife, they work diligently to ensure the over 10,000 members of their community access to the arts, medicine, education, sports, green spaces, communication and other activities that serve as “bridges” to the souls of young people and their families.
In the beginning, they realized the need to build a movement focused on development rather than treatment, and for the whole human being and the whole community. To achieve that integration, they worked to change the way institutions traditionally related to the community, building a bridge to the church, the hospital, the school and the home. Rather than looking at young people as simply being at-risk, they challenge young people to become artists, educators, scholars, health promoters, and leaders in their personal lives and the life of the community. The “bridge” concept was significant in still another way. It has come to mean that people could and should return to the village that nurtured them so that they, in turn, could help the next generation.
Mr. Garden Acosta and Ms. Lucerna work together in complementary ways, and the power of their shared commitment is evident in the sense of pride and self-respect that has blossomed in the diverse neighborhood they serve. Driven by the belief that principles, not personalities, should serve as the anchor for the organization, Luis Garden Acosta and Frances Lucerna have given hope to young people by helping them to become part of the resonating voice of a rising community.
Note: This profile was written at the time of the awards’ presentation.
Luis Garden Acosta passed away on January 9, 2019