The Robert Kennedy Human Rights Organization celebrated 50 years at its annual “Ripple of Hope” awards dinner at the Hilton on Wednesday December 13, 2017 with cocktails beginning at 5:30 PM. Last year the dinner had a funereal atmosphere as the liberal crowd was still trying to come to grips with the outcome of the presidential election. This year there was certainly some angst but the crowd was reinvigorated by the defeat of Roy Moore in the Alabama election. The Hilton has become an increasingly popular venue for large 1,000 person dinners such as this. However, this midtown hotspot can take hours to get to during the Christmas season. As my taxi stood on the same block for twenty minutes I found myself walking in the cold for a good six avenue blocks-I needed to vent a little.
The turnout this evening was truly miraculous with celebrities: Tony Bennett, Usher, Gloria Steinem, Lena Olin, Alfre Woodward, Peter Frampton, Whoopi Goldberg, Keegan Michael Key, Danny Glover, Van Jones, Chris Matthews, host Alec Baldwin and honoree Harry Belafonte gracing the event with enthusiasm. The attendee who received the most attention was anthem kneeler Colin Kaepernick whose wild hairdo and significant height made him easy to spot. Everyone wanted a picture with Colin and he was more than happy to oblige. Alec Baldwin was a rather docile emcee; whereas last year he had the crowd in stitches with his Donald Trump impersonation this year he kept it pretty tame except for remarking numerous times that Fox News had a bulletin that Brad Pitt and Jennifer Lawrence were dating-something I have still not confirmed. Alec’s wife Hilaria is pregnant and she sat with Hope Smith-wife of Chairman of the Board Robert Smith.
The center table contained all the glitterati and was comprised of about fifty people with Harry Belafonte in the corner with Ethel Kennedy screaming that my purse was open-he seemed horrified at this happenstance. Alec Baldwin enumerated the list of prominent attendees and then asked guests to tweet pledge their donations which would appear on screen-he meant text pledge. Last year there was a live auction where he offered to do a Trump impersonation but this year a silent auction was held. Kerry Kennedy, President of the Robert Kennedy Human Rights organization then spoke about the horrible situation at Riker’s where 1,200 teenagers are left to flounder in cages because they cannot afford to post bail. She spoke emphatically about getting rid of pretrial incarceration, cash bail and ending violence against women in these perplexing times. One of those teenagers left in Riker’s, Pedro Hernandez, who was wrongfully accused of attempted murder spoke eloquently about how the Robert Kennedy organization saved him from incarceration.
The highlight of the evening was the speech of Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya who recalled viewing a defunct yogurt factory in 2005 and deciding to buy the factory after its 50 workers were laid off. Ulukaya spoke to his lawyer Mario who tried to discourage the broke Ulukaya who knew nothing about yogurt. Ululkaya decided to purchase the factory anyway and after two years of perfecting his recipe he started Chobani yogurt which now has over $1 billion in sales and employs over 2,000 people. Ulukaya had the crowd in stitches as he recalled his first cup of Greek yogurt being sold to a Jewish deli while currently being honored by the Irish Kennedy clan, “what could be more American than that” he joked.
Thirty percent of the Chobani workforce is made up of immigrants and refugees and the company recently distributed ten percent of its ownership stake to employees. Ulukaya said it was time for Americans to stop fighting one another and start rooting for each other-a much appreciated sentiment.
After receiving a standing ovation, honoree Alex Gorsky, CEO of Johnson and Johnson was called to the stage to receive his Ripple of Hope award. Gorky delivered a lengthy speech on the progress being made in the pharmaceutical industry which was currently testing an HIV vaccine and was proud to receive his award on behalf of his 135,000 employees. Robert Kennedy has been a hero to Gorsky since he was in High School where he wrote a paper on his impact.
Gorsky an employee at Johnson and Johnson for 30 years who is in impeccable health told me he exercises one hour every single day and eats a small meal every three to five hours. He was hopeful that cures would be found for cancer and HIV but said prevention of disease was the best antidote. He was also excited about the advances in personalized medicine which was moving things from the treatment stage to concrete cures. Whoopi Goldberg introduced Harry Belafonte with a couple of lapses in her speech which had her claiming she had two or three things on her brain at the same time. A video was then shown documenting Belafonte’s activism in the Civil Rights Movement.
When Ethel Kennedy presented Belafonte with the award he spoke from his seat remarking that, “the best of us is still in front of us” and thanked Bobby Kennedy for leaving his beautiful family Ethel and Kerry. We were then treated to the smash hit 1985 song “We Are The World” which Belafonte organized and which Usher and Gloria Reuben helped sing this evening while celebrities joined hands on stage. Alec Baldwin told the crowd to save next December 12th when Bill Gates, Barack Obama and David Zaslav would be honored by the Robert Kennedy foundation-that sounds awesome. At 10:30 PM the crowd headed to the dessert table to enjoy the petit fours and socialize. On my way out I bumped into Gloria Steinem who complimented my pants and remarked that everything is important; even fashion.