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Grammy winner Nile Rodgers honors Steven Van Zandt at "We Are Family" gala

Nile Rodgers and Steven Van Zandt performing at the We Are Family Foundation Gala March 6th at the Manhattan Center in New York City.
Jeni Stepanek

Steven Van Zandt vowed that "the struggle against racism continues," as he received the Humanitarian Award from three-time Grammy award winner Nile Rodgers at the We Are Family Foundation Gala March 6, 2014, in New York City.

Van Zandt, a member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, was recognized for his ongoing activism, including founding the protest group Artists United Against Apartheid in 1985. Their single and album "Sun City," which featured several stars including Springsteen, Bono, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Ringo Starr, Peter Gabriel and Hall & Oates; brought worldwide attention to segregation in South Africa. He told the crowd at the Manhattan Center, "Now the new Jim Crow (racial segregation laws) is voter registration. What we were talking about then is an exaggerated version of what is going on now in the United States." He warned, "Unless there is a change, South Africa will have to do a record for us."

Rodgers founded the We Are Family Foundation (WAFF) in 2001 in the wake of 9/11. He says, "After which I asked the question, 'Can we organize for peace half as effectively as others do for hate?' "My song, 'We Are Family,' was the inspiration to bring people together, celebrate our differences and share ideas across borders in order to solve some of the bigger problems facing our world. We are inspired by each of our honorees this year because of their dedication and passion in making the world a better place – it is their lifelong missions."

Rodgers remembered how Van Zandt was one of the early supporters of the foundation when he funded the construction of WAFF's first school in Malawi in Southeast Africa. WAFF has built 17 schools in impoverished nations, including 14 in Mali (West Africa), one in Nepal (South Asia) and one in Nicaragua (Central America).

The theme of the We Are Family Foundation gala evening was a quote from the late Nelson Mandela, "It is music and dancing that make me at peace with the world." Rodgers recalled Mandela coming to New York City and describing hearing "We Are Family" in prison on a guard's radio. Mandela said the sound of "black girls singing" gave him hope that South Africa would eventually be "segregation free forever."

The program featured a tribute to the former South African President in a performance of "Sun City" with Rodgers and Van Zandt along with Nona Hendryx, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Melle Mel, who participated in the original recording.

A world music recording artist from Sudan who performed at Mandela's 90th birthday concert in London in 2008, Emmanuel Jal, was also recognized with the Mattie J.T. Stepanek Peacemaker Award, named for the peace advocate and best-selling poet who died in 2004 at the age of 13. Jal was born into the life of a child soldier, but emerged as an activist, dedicated to helping people overcome the effects of war and poverty. He founded the charity Gua Africa, which provides education for Sudanese war survivors. He received the award from Mattie's mother Jeni Stepanek, known as "Mama Peace."

Jal was praised via video by Alicia Keys, former President Jimmy Carter, former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and billionaire mogul Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group.

In accepting the honor, he said, "I am frustrated receiving the peace award because my country is still struggling with war. I am troubled because I am looking for people who are looking for peace." He continued, "My family members are dying. But I see this honor as an award of encouragement. It is like receiving fresh water while crossing the desert and almost giving up hope."

Husband and wife Matthew and Nicole Mellon were also honored with the foundation's Visionary Award for their continued support of their families' philanthropic legacies dedicated to exceptional education and preservation of the arts – The National Gallery of Art, Carnegie-Mellon University, Drexel University, The King's College of New York City and the Boys and Girls Clubs of New York.

The evening also spotlighted the We Are Family Foundation Global Teen Leaders (GTL) consisting of hundreds of the most brilliant teens from 40 countries and six continents, who are all partnered with adult mentors. These amazing young people have individually created programs addressing basic survival issues such as food, water, clothing, shelter, education, health, safety and the environment. 19 Global Teen Leaders were present at the gala, including 15-year-old LuLu Cerone, who awed the audience with her story of how she provided assistance for victims of the earthquake in Haiti and the tsunami in Japan. She is now helping to supply clean water for 7,000 people in Africa. Her dedication to serving the less fortunate began five years ago with a simple lemonade sale which launched her LemonAid Warriors campaign encouraging kids to make activism a part of their social lives.

Cerone says she is motivated by Mattie J.T. Stepanek's words, "Peace is possible if basic human needs are met." She has partnered with Mattel to promote LemonAID Warriors and her Philanthro-Parties. This precocious young lady, who received the 2012 President’s Volunteer Service Award, will join GTLs at their annual WAFF Just Peace Summit April 7-13 in New York City.

The Global Teen Leaders and Just Peace Summit are integral to WAFF's Three Dot Dash initiative that supports the youth around the world, promoting a more peaceful society. The foundation also organizes the annual TedxTeen conference which was held on March 1, 2014 in New York. The day-long forum featured amazing youth inventions, such as 16 year-old Jack Andraka's cancer detection test created from paper, and a radio station constructed from garbage by 14-year-old Kelvin Doe.

In addition to honoring humanitarians, peacemakers, and visionaries, the We Are Family Foundation gala is also a joyous celebration. The evening culminated with Rodgers and Chic bringing the crowd to its feet and dancing the night away to the incredible array of hits he’s produced and composed including Madonna's "Like A Virgin," David Bowie's "Let's Dance," and "I'm Coming Out" and "Upside Down," by Diana Ross. Of course, he rocked the house with his Chic standards "Le Freak" and "Good Times," as well as Sister Sledge's "He's The Greatest Dancer." As always, the magical evening ended with a euphoric finale as the stage filled with members of the audience joining Kathy Sledge performing the classic she recorded with Rodgers and Sister Sledge in 1979, the theme song that inspired the foundation's name, "We Are Family."

In 2012, the foundation was the victim of mother nature when Hurricane Sandy forced its October gala honoring Sting and his wife Trudie Styler to be moved to a later date. This year's gala was held six weeks late after a snowstorm caused a postponement on January 21. However, in the words of the 2014 Grammy Awards Record Of The Year featuring Rodgers, it was time for the We Are Family Foundation to "Get Lucky" with the weather. As WAFF President Nancy Hunt said in her opening remarks, "No snowstorm this time."

The power of family prevailed!