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Moving Forward, Looking Back

Falk College School of Social Work Celebrates Social Justice Award Winners
students and faculty lined up a classroom before awards ceremony

The annual Dan and Mary Lou Rubenstein Social Justice Award program was moderated by School of Social Work students who joined the award winners for this group photo. Front row, from left to right, School of Social Work Chair Carrie Smith and students Mary Claytor, Gianna Pezzino, and Magdalen Lynch. Back row, from left to right, student Gideon Casper, keynote speaker Dan Sieburg, award winners Eric Kingson and José Miguel Hernández Hurtado, Dan and Mary Lou Rubenstein’s son Matthew, and students Laysha Johnson, Taylor Koennecke, and Brenic Nam, a U.S. Army Sergeant who honored Alejandro Garcia’s military service.

Alejandro Garcia is no longer with us, but his kind and generous spirit filled 200 White Hall March 19, when the School of Social Work in Falk College presented its annual Dan and Mary Lou Rubenstein Social Justice Award program.

Garcia, Professor Emeritus of social work in Falk College and a founding faculty member of the social justice award, died Nov. 17, 2023, at age 83. From heartfelt memories to humorous anecdotes, Garcia was top of mind during the event from School of Social Work Chair Carrie Smith’s opening remarks to stories shared by Social Justice Award winners Eric Kingson and José Miguel Hernández Hurtado and keynote speaker Dan Sieburg.

The theme of the program, “Sankofa: Honoring the Past and Embracing the Future,” was inspired by a word from the Akan People of Ghana that means to move forward guided by the wisdom of the past.

“His was a beautiful life lived, against the odds, in the service of others,” Smith said of Garcia. “He will be missed, but always remembered. We will always look back to remember his life.”

Garcia was a staunch advocate of Falk’s social work students, and he would have been delighted that members of Social Workers United – the Social Work student organization – and graduate social work students moderated the event and added an enthusiastic student presence to the ceremony. The students who participated in the program included Mary Claytor, Gideon Casper, Laysha Johnson, Taylor Koennecke, Brenic Nam, and Gianna Pezzino.

The program, which was held in commemoration of national Social Work Month in March, honored Hurtado, founder and artistic director of La Joven Guardia del Teatro Latino, and Kingson, professor of social work at Syracuse University. The program also featured Sieburg, Chief Executive Officer of the Rescue Mission Alliance of Syracuse, followed by a reception in Wildhack Lounge.

Sieburg, Kingson and Hurtado all shared stories about Garcia and the enormous impact he had on their lives. Sieburg’s topic was “Investing in Human Capital,” another way of saying that we need to recognize the importance of human relationships. Sieburg shared how Garcia encouraged him to reach higher in his career and helped him become CEO at the Rescue Mission. In exchange, all Garcia wanted was a 50% off coupon to Rescue Mission stores, Sieburg explained, laughing.

During the program, Sieburg announced that the Rescue Mission’s youth shelter was being renamed the Alejandro Garcia Runaway & Homeless Youth House.

Sieburg shared that when he visited Garcia during his final days in the hospital, Kingson and Hurtado were often there, holding his hand, shaving his face, and advocating for his care. So, for Kingson and Hurtado, being honored on the same night as Garcia made the ceremony even more special.

“I’m delighted and appreciative. It means a lot to me,” said Kingson, who was friends with Garcia for more than 50 years. “It’s a recognition that we all have an obligation to follow Alejandro’s footsteps and advance the well-being of others.”

Presented for more than 30 years, the Rubenstein Social Justice Award is given in honor of the late professor Dan Rubenstein, a former faculty member in the School of Social Work, and his late wife, Mary Lou, a former school social worker. Recipients of this award are role models whose courage and strength inspire others to stand up—and step up—to advocate and be a voice in the Syracuse community. The values of social justice are integral to their daily lives. The work of honorees each year, by their individual and collective examples, represent the true spirit of the Rubenstein Social Justice Award.

Group of Social Justice Award winners standing in front of a classroom

Dan and Mary Lou Rubenstein Social Justice Award winners Eric Kingson (third from left) and José Miguel Hernández Hurtado (second from right) with, from left to right, School of Social Work Chair Carrie Smith, Dan and Mary Lou Rubenstein’s niece Alexandra Rubenstein, keynote speaker Dan Sieburg, and Dan and Mary Lou Rubenstein’s son Matthew Rubenstein.

Here’s a closer look at this year’s awardees:

Eric Kingson

Kingson’s 55-year career traces back to his involvement in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s. His work is grounded in ethical principles and values that promote human dignity, democracy, racial justice, service to others, self-determination, adequate wages and incomes, access to health care, affordable housing, and meaningful employment. In addition to holding faculty positions in social policy at three universities, Kingson is recognized nationally for his expertise in, and advocacy of, Social Security as an institution that advances economic security across generations. He served as advisor for two presidential commissions and the Social Security Administration’s 2008-2009 transition team.

In 2009, Kingson co-founded Social Security Works, a national organization with a mission to preserve and expand the Social Security system. His belief that politics can be an instrument of social justice led him to run as a congressional candidate in 2016 and serve as a New York State member of the 2016 Democratic National Convention Platform Committee. Professor Kingson has authored numerous articles, books, and commentaries with his research and writing focused on the politics and economics of aging, Social Security, cross-generational responsibilities, retirement, and caregiving across generations. His most recent book is Social Security Works for Everyone! (2021), co-authored with Nancy J. Altman.

José Miguel Hernández Hurtado

Hurtado is originally from Cuba and has lived in Syracuse since November 1997. In Cuba, Hurtado was selected as Best Male Actor in a national student competition. His first 17 years in Syracuse were spent as a physical therapy aide at Rosewood Heights Health. Simultaneously, Hurtado organized and directed a theater company that he founded in 1999 under the Spanish Action League, serving as artistic director and dance instructor. Currently he works at Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital in the Pediatric Emergency Department.

Hurtado has directed over 21 contemporary and classical Spanish children’s plays. He received the Excellence in Outstanding Achievement for Direction Award for directing several plays: Gabriel García Márquez’ “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” in 2008; Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s “Adventures of Don Quixote” in 2011; and in 2012 “The Enchanted Shrimp,” a version of the French Laboulaye written by José Martí. He adapted “The Enchanted Shrimp,” among others, for the stage. Hurtado’s work on the radio and in theater in Cuba carried over to his life in Syracuse. He has maintained his firm belief that every child needs and deserves an opportunity to reach for a better place in which to live, and to realize their dreams for a better future.

Dan Sieburg, Keynote Speaker

Keynote speaker Dan Sieburg is Chief Executive Officer of the Rescue Mission Alliance of Syracuse. For 25 years he has worked in the non-profit human services sector, and the last 16 have been dedicated to providing housing, shelter, food, and clothing for the hungry, homeless, and housing vulnerable in Central New York. Sieburg is a New York State Licensed Social Worker, a former adjunct professor in the School of Social Work, and an alumnus of Syracuse University’s Master of Social Work program. The Rescue Mission Alliance of Syracuse was the recipient of the 2018 Dan and Mary Lou Rubenstein Social Justice Award.