Since 2004, the Jane Bagley Lehman Award has recognized exemplary accomplishments in specific industries and areas of justice. Jane Bagley Lehman herself was a pioneering force behind the Tides Foundation and remained committed to social justice throughout her entire life.
This year’s JBL Awards sought out top organizers focused on empowering youth to change our collective future, with an emphasis on LGBTQI+ rights advocacy. The five winners and three runners-up have all shown dedication to mobilizing young voters, breaking barriers young people face while voting, and championing critical causes for younger demographics.
Whether it’s advocating for trans rights or teaching comprehensive sex education to middle school students, this year’s winners are out in the trenches, supporting young people and helping them get the information and resources they need.
The Tides Foundation presented the 2023 JBL Awards to: Peyton Rose Michelle, executive director of Louisiana Trans Advocates; Alex Birnel, director of advocacy, MOVE Texas; Maxx Fenning, executive director, PRISM Florida; Shakti Rambarran, advocacy director at Michigan Organization on Adolescent Sexual Health (MOASH); and Mary-Pat Hector, CEO of Rise.
Showcasing our belief in the power of community, the winners were selected based on nominations from their peers that highlighted each person’s service to youth advocacy. As part of the JBL Awards, each winner also received a personal monetary award.
We applaud this year’s five winners and look forward to seeing their continued impact on the youth of today and tomorrow. Read on to learn more about these impressive organizers and activists!
2023 JBL Award Winners
Peyton Rose Michelle, executive director of Louisiana Trans Advocates, LocALL Coalition, Louisiana
“I’m so incredibly honored to be chosen for this award, especially considering the qualifications of an ‘ideal nominee.’ I feel like our democratic system works best when policymakers are interwoven with folks working at the grassroots level. And though it happens infrequently these days, I’m grateful to be part of the movement to interconnect the different levels of advocacy to ensure we can move forward and better meet the needs of our communities. Additionally, it’s a privilege to feel seen by my advocacy peers, whom I look up to and am constantly thankful to be sharing space with.”
Peyton Rose Michelle has demonstrated tremendous bravery not only by living as a transgender woman in a small town in southern Louisiana, but also by deciding at age 22 to run for the Democrat State Central Committee — a position she won with two-thirds of the vote, despite being in one of the most conservative districts in Louisiana.
Louisiana is a state that, year over year, continues to see a rise in anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. When this trend began, Peyton was one of only a few people equipped to navigate the legislative process well enough to advocate for the people most affected: those under 18.
Today, due to her DSCC position and work as a co-leader of LocALL, the statewide LGBTQ+ policy and organizing coalition, almost 200 LGBTQ+ Louisianians and allies have been trained on the legislative process.
Peyton also works as the executive director of Louisiana Trans Advocates. Her tireless efforts in the community to maintain and distribute resources and information, whether census-, wellness-, or health-related, have not gone unnoticed, nor has her time spent running monthly support groups for TNGC people.
“Despite this long list of commitments,” one supporter noted, “it was only recently that Peyton began receiving compensation for her tenure as executive director. All of her efforts have been for love and not money. She pours her heart and soul into the work of making Louisiana a better place for all Louisianans and I believe she truly represents Jane Bagley Lehman’s spirit and commitment to social justice.”
Alex Birnel, director of advocacy and founding member, MOVE Texas
“Youth organizing has a long tradition in this country, from the streets straight to constitutional amendments. Some people spend their time debating whether things are possible. Young organizers tend to spend their time making things possible. It’s my fondness for that distinction that makes me love youth organizing, and it’s an honor to be recognized for something that you love.”
As a young Latino, Alex Birnel is passionate about making his hometown of San Antonio, and the state of Texas overall, more reflective of the people who live there. As one of his peers noted, “His ability to personably connect with young people, inspire them, and successfully train and mentor them into organizers will leave a lasting impact on Texas.”
Young adults — Latinos younger than 25 years old, specifically — make up the largest age demographic in Texas, so Alex’s efforts to protect and restore Texas college campus polling locations and bring polling locations to jails in the state’s largest counties makes a big difference and ensure that young people have a voice in Texas.
Alex also represented MOVE Texas on a coalition that put pressure on CPS Energy to close a coal-powered plant 30 years early — and succeeded. Other wins due to his efforts include Bexar County adopting Countywide Polling and San Marcos becoming the first city in Texas to adopt a “cite and release” policy for a range of misdemeanors. Alex has also helped organizations through the unionization process and advocated to ensure paid sick time is available for workers.
Maxx Fenning, executive director, PRISM Florida
“We sit at the front lines of the war on both public education and academic freedom and queer people that has swept across the country. Being LGBTQ and a student in my state is harder than ever. Every day is a fight for our right to exist. So, I am so grateful to receive the JBL Award because it shows not just a recognition that Gen Z is the future, but a commitment to ensuring that young people like me have the resources to make sure that future is one we can be proud of.”
Despite still being a student, Maxx Fenning’s already got more than six years of experience under his belt. He began youth civic engagement work in high school, where he helped young people pre-register to vote — and he hasn’t slowed down since.
Maxx fully understands that the work he does is dangerous in Florida’s political climate; it’s not uncommon for groups like Proud Boys to show up at events.
But that hasn’t stopped Maxx. Most recently, he led a mass mobilization to a local school board meeting, where he continued his work lobbying school board members to recognize October as LGBTQ History Month — a move that would allow schools to teach LGBTQ+ history in schools, despite the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Though the resolution hasn’t passed, more board members are coming around with each vote, which is progress.
One of Maxx’s greatest strengths is creating a “causes in common” culture, meaning he encourages people to support across different causes and not work in silos. He’s also a big-picture thinker. As one of his peers told us, “He is always thinking both about immediate needs and a long-term strategy. I’m telling you: This kid might take over the world!”
Shakti Rambarran, advocacy director at Michigan Organization on Adolescent Sexual Health (MOASH)
“It has been such a privilege to support and amplify young people’s efforts to further blossom into bold, visionary, compassionate, and skilled activists. Despite being constantly underestimated and infantilized, they maintain growing fires in their bellies to create safer and more just societies for themselves and their peers. I feel deeply grateful for this award — especially because I hope it encourages more folks to invest in and listen to youth activists.”
“Shakti Rambarran operates on the principle that learning how to become an activist isn’t just about the grand gestures — communing on Capitol Hill, making an Instagram infographic, or coming up with catchy rallying cries at a protest — it can truly just be exchanging ideas with your community,” one of her nominators explains.
Shakti tracks and addresses legislation aimed at access to sexual and reproductive health services, sex ed, interpersonal violence, and consent culture, among other timely topics. She provides guidance and education on policies that touch on these issues and helps empower young people to speak up about hard, vulnerable topics.
Shakti has also organized and led meetings for the Michigan Coalition on Adolescent Sexual Health (MiCASH), a statewide group of 70+ professionals who gather to advocate for best practice policies for local youth.
Further, as a queer, Jamaican-Indian woman, Shakti upholds intersectionality in her work; she believes failure to do so only furthers harm against historically marginalized groups.
Mary-Pat Hector, CEO, Rise
“Since I was 13, I have been committed to addressing issues that impact those at the margins. To be recognized for my service through this award is a true honor for me.”
With 10 years in the youth voter engagement sector, Mary-Pat Hector has a wealth of experience organizing on student economic issues, like food access and college affordability.
She has truly worked her way up at Rise, an organization that trains students to organize campaigns, beginning as a fellowship alum and recently being appointed CEO.
As Rise’s Georgia State Director, Mary-Pat mobilized 100,000 young voters and built a 400-person team for the 2022 elections. Her entire career has centered around shifting power to young people, and her work to organize HBCU students to meet with senior White House officials was key in shaping President Joe Biden’s student debt relief program.
Mary-Pat is also a champion of paid opportunities for civic engagement, a model that encourages young people without wealth to get involved in causes they care about and allows people to give back while still meeting their personal financial needs.
Congratulations to this year’s winners!
The JBL Awards would also like to highlight/celebrate three additional nominees for their outstanding work: Rae Martinez, executive director, Texas Youth Power Alliance; Vanessa Velazquez, organizing director, Detroit Action; and Arekia Bennett, executive director, Mississippi Votes.