National awards go to five who seek to cure social ills

$100,000 Purpose Prizes reward over-60 set for not slowing down

September 05, 2006|By Larry Gordon | Larry Gordon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

To a San Francisco-based think tank, life begins at 60. So does eligibility for its new cash-laden national prize being announced today that rewards Americans who work to solve society's problems and encourages them not to slow down with age.

The inaugural Purpose Prizes provide $100,000 each to five individuals and teams who were selected as role models for the huge cohort of baby boomers about to plunge into their seventh decade, as both President Bush and former President Bill Clinton recently did with some joking and bemoaning.

While some people over the age of 60 are devoting their time to golf or bridge, the Purpose winners are part of "a growing cadre of individuals who are harvesting their midlife experience and using it in creative and innovative ways," said Marc Freedman, president of the Civic Ventures think tank, which sponsors the prize.

Among the winners are University of California, Los Angeles computer science professor Judea Pearl and American University professor Akbar Ahmed, who are partners in promoting Muslim-Jewish understanding in the wake of the murder of Pearl's son, journalist Daniel Pearl, in 2002. The two men speak at colleges and other public forums around the United States, tackling such issues as how to encourage peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

The prize "reminds me of something that I tend to forget: that I am over 60," Pearl, who turned 70 yesterday, said in an interview before the award was publicly announced.

Pearl said he will devote his $50,000 to the Daniel Pearl Foundation, which the family founded in honor of the late Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and killed by Islamic militants in Pakistan. The organization sponsors such activities as fellowships for international journalists and a world music festival.

Ahmed, 63, a former Pakistani diplomat who now is the department chairman of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, said the award is a good counterbalance to the youth obsession of American secular culture.

"Muslim culture is somewhat different. The older you are, the wiser you are considered, the more status and more authority you have. There is no conflict with people doing remarkable things at this age," he said in a telephone interview.

The prize also reflects "American generosity and friendship in reaching out to Muslims" at a time of tension between the United States and the Muslim world, said Ahmed. He expects to use the stipend to defray research travel costs and to try to launch younger speakers on more forums of the "Daniel Pearl Dialogues for Muslim-Jewish Understanding."

The other winners are: Conchy Bretos, 61, a former Florida state official who now helps bring assisted-living services to senior citizens; Charles Dey, 75, a Connecticut activist who created a program of workplace internships for disabled high school students; Marilyn Gaston, 67, and Gayle Porter, 60, of Potomac, who started a group to promote better health for black women; and W. Wilson Goode Sr., 68, the former Philadelphia mayor who now heads a nonprofit that aids children with parents in prison.

They all share "an overarching sense of optimism, idealism and purpose. They have a tremendous desire to have a sense of direction in their lives and reasons for getting up in the morning," said Freedman, 48, who wrote a 1999 book titled Prime Time: How Baby Boomers will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America.

He founded Civic Ventures in 1998 in anticipation of such changes. "Our whole focus is on the aging of American society and how to best use the talent of aging boomers, particularly in ways that benefit the wider community," Freedman said. The organization also sponsors the Experience Corps, which sends tutors over age 55 to volunteer in urban schools.

From about 1,200 nominations, Purpose Prize judges selected 15 finalists. A separate jury headed by Sherry Lansing, the former chair of Paramount Pictures, chose the five big winners. The John Templeton Foundation and the Atlantic Philanthropies funded the prizes.

The 10 finalists who did not make the final cut will receive $10,000 each and can apply for additional grants.

The 15 finalists and about 55 more Purpose Prize nominees are expected to attend a three-day conference starting Thursday at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., held by the Center for Social Innovation at Stanford's Graduate School of Business.

Larry Gordon writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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