Omega School will receive $50,000 thanks to a national award received by the adult education school’s executive director for his local work in response to the pandemic and protests for racial justice.
Oscar Mireles received the “Love Takes Action” award, which was presented by the New York Life Foundation in celebration of the New York Life Insurance Company’s 175th anniversary.
The company asked its agents and employees to nominate individuals who “embody the value of selfless love and are serving their communities in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic,” and 35 winners were selected from the 130 nominees.
Mireles was nominated by Alex Aderman, a Madison-based senior development manager for the company and one of a handful of young people Mireles mentors. Aderman told the Cap Times he’d been impressed with Omega School since meeting Mireles at a networking event in 2013. He’s since volunteered and helped organize a backpack drive in 2019.
When the company announced the competition in spring, “the first person that popped in my head was Oscar,” Aderman said. “I thought it would be an amazing opportunity to help, beyond the volunteer time, and be able to provide financial impact for him.”
In addition to keeping Omega School running through the pandemic by moving its high school equivalency classes online, Mireles worked to help the city respond to local protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May.
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When some people, after the first Madison protest, broke windows and vandalized businesses on State Street, Mireles was one of hundreds of volunteers who showed up early the next morning to clean up. He then spent the day helping MMOCA, where he is vice president of the board of trustees, repair the damage to its store.
Later, as the Madison Arts Commission and local businesses commissioned murals for the plywood covering State Street windows, Mireles convinced MMOCA and the Overture Center, where he’s also a board member, to invite murals on their boarded windows too, even if it defied some norms.
“I talked to the board president and said, ‘You know, this is kind of a fluid moment … We need to be a part of it.’ Sometimes there's a jury process and you select the artists and approve the artwork,” Mireles said. “This is not that time.”
And, when people started asking what might happen to the murals once the boards came down, Mireles worked with UMOJA, a Madison magazine focused on positive news about African Americans, to plan a special issue featuring photos of the art, produced with funding from Overture Center donors. Now, he’s teaming up with teachers to create educational materials based on the murals.
Meanwhile, as convener and cofounder of the Latino Consortium for Action, Mireles gathered the nonprofit leaders who were planning efforts to help local Latinos weather the pandemic, including a $640,000 fund offering financial relief to small immigrant-owned businesses and undocumented individuals.
Mireles learned in October that he’d won, but the funders initially asked winners not to announce the news publicly.
Other winners include a hospital chaplain who continued to minister in-person to the spiritual needs of people of all faiths to ensure that “no one dies alone,” an immigrant pizzeria owner who offered free food to people without reliable access to food or housing, and a volunteer board member who helped turn a thrift shop into a drive-thru providing food and hygiene supplies.
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Each recipient was asked to choose a nonprofit organization to receive the $50,000 grant. “Fortunately I love Omega,” Mireles laughed. “If not, I’d probably give it to someone else!”
He’s no stranger to awards. He wrapped up a second term as poet laureate for the city of Madison in January, and he’s received the Dane County’s Martin Luther King Jr. Community Service award, Wisconsin Literacy’s Literacy Advocate of the Year award and 100 Black Men of Madison’s “Outstanding Educator Award,” among others.
But this award has a distinct advantage. “Plaques and certificates — those are good. You know, you put them up on the wall,” Mireles said. “But $50,000, for a smaller organization like Omega, can make a big difference.”
Mireles said the funds, marked for general support, could help Omega with any number of ongoing efforts, including purchasing laptops for students who need them for virtual school, or the ongoing renovations of the school’s 28-year-old building.
He knows, from his previous awards, what to expect with this kind of recognition. “There’s the excitement and then you get the responsibility,” he said.
At 65, he’s looking ahead toward retirement, and he wants to leave Omega better than he found it, and make Madison the best it can be. “It just makes me kind of want to dig deeper and do more,” he said.
Next week, he’ll pose for a photo with a huge check. And then he’ll get back to work.