This article was originally written by Ilene Angel and published by the Huffington Post. To see photos from the event click here and to read the official 2017 WhyHunger Chapin Awards press release click here.
Tuesday night, WhyHunger hosted its annual Chapin Awards dinner at the Edison Ballroom in New York City.
This year’s honorees included Jon Batiste, musical director and bandleader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, as well as WhyHunger’s grassroots partner, Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger.
Founded in 1975 by the late singer/songwriter Harry Chapin and his friend, radio DJ Bill Ayres, WhyHunger, now in its 42nd year, was created to end hunger by addressing the root causes of social injustice and poverty that perpetuate it and by creating community access to affordable, nutritious food.
Never has there been a time since the organization’s inception, when there was more need for that than now - a sentiment that was both palpable in the crowded ballroom and also noted by Pete Dominick, the talented and funny host for the evening.
The first award recipient, Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger, provided a staggering 3 million meals to New Yorkers last year alone. And its awe-inspiring founder, Dr. Melony Samuels, described how the grass roots organization went from a traditional food pantry to that, plus a mobile pantry, plus two urban farms, feeding 30,000 low income people each month.
Had there not been accompanying video, I myself would have been hard pressed to believe a thriving farm in the middle of such an urban setting. It was an inspiring testament to what is possible when committed people join together for the greater good of each other.
Jon Batiste, this year’s ASCAP Harry Chapin Award recipient, brought his band, Stay Human, with him and was introduced and joined by The Roots Questlove.
In his moving speech that preceded the music, Batiste said, “Music at its highest is of service.”
And Batiste means what he says, because earlier in the evening, he decided on the spot to auction off a private piano lesson to the highest bidder to raise money for the organization.
Then Batiste and his band, Stay Human, proceeded to “serve us” their beautiful blend of spirited song and instrumental music, venturing out into the ballroom and engaging everyone in song and dance.
The evening was capped off by the tradition of closing with members of the Chapin family and the award recipients leading everyone in attendance in a singalong of the late Harry Chapin’s “Circle” song.
As everyone departed in good spirits, it seemed to me that for all the challenges that this new America we are living in present to us, it also presents us with the opportunity to make a differences in unprecedented ways, as these award recipients did.
This unique time we are living in provides us with an opportunity to be part of the solution, to, once and for all change things systemically, and to be in community with one another while doing so.
Last month, Ripple Grove Press released their latest children’s book, Mr. Tanner, an illustrative adaption of Harry Chapin’s iconic 1973 song, “Mr. Tanner”, with a portion of proceeds benefitting WhyHunger. Harry Chapin was originally inspired to write the song after seeing a mediocre review of a baritone singer in the New York Times in the early 1970’s. The children’s story further draws on this inspiration, depicting a story of a dry cleaning bear, Mr. Tanner, from Dayton, Ohio, who dreams of changing his career to become a professional singer. Every day, Mr. Tanner greets customers by singing in his baritone voice. After being encouraged by friends to sing professionally, Mr. Tanner takes a chance and travels to New York City to try out his dream. Similar to the original story that inspired Chapin, the NYC music agents and critics aren’t interested in Mr. Tanner’s baritone voice and, feeling defeated, the bear returns back to Ohio to continue dry cleaning. However, he continues singing to his customers and friends, because singing is what brings him the most joy in life.
We spoke to the co-owner of Ripple Grove Press, Rob Broder, and illustrator of Mr. Tanner, Bryan Langdo, to gain a sense of what working on the children’s book meant for them:
How has working on this project, knowing WhyHunger’s mission and Harry Chapin’s involvement (as a co-founder of WhyHunger and lifelong activist), been different for you compared to other book projects you’ve worked on?
Rob Broder: It's definitely been a different experience working on this book. Taking song lyrics and laying it out was a fun project. Thankfully Harry's songs tell such a nice story, so breaking the spreads out can easily. Bryan's vision helped too.
Bryan Langdo: Working on this book, I felt a lot of pressure to get it right. It's obviously a well-loved song, and I wanted to make sure I did it justice. And honestly, I felt honored to be a part of something so much bigger than me.
What do you hope children take away from this book?
RB: We hope children will enjoy the story and the beautiful illustrations, but we hope children take away that they should do what makes them feel good—regardless of what people say. Whether it’s to sing or to paint or play an instrument . . . do what makes you feel good inside. Do what makes you feel whole.
BL: I hope it shows kids that it's okay if things don't work out the way they want, or if they don't come in first. We often focus on people who are at the very top of their fields. But there are plenty of singers, actors, writers who might not be celebrities, but are still very successful, and more importantly, happy.
How do you think this book helps children understand the challenges when following their passions and the importance of finding joy from within?
RB: I think this book can open a discussion with your child on what makes them feel alive. What do they truly enjoy to do? Even though in the story it says Mr. Tanner "never sang again,” he does. Because he can't help it. It's inside him to sing and it makes him "feel so good." And at the end, we can see him singing in his shop, and his customers are outside listening to him and smiling. So you can choose how to take criticism, whether you want to listen to it or not, but at the end of the day you should follow your dreams and passion.
BL: It sends the message that you should follow your heart and keep doing what you love, even if it doesn't wind up being your job.
What about Harry Chapin’s “Mr. Tanner” compelled you to release the book under Ripple Grove, and why did you decide to donate a portion of the proceeds to WhyHunger?
RB: At Ripple Grove press we are always looking for that next story. A story that really captures a moment. And I have been listening to “Mr. Tanner” for decades. And one day it just struck me what a wonderful story this would be for children. The message of the story really spoke to me. So I reached out to the Chapin's and asked them if they would be interested in making it a picture book. We also started Ripple Grove Press to give something back, so when a childhood friend told me he's on the board of WhyHunger, it was a perfect match.
Why did you choose to illustrate Mr. Tanner as a bear?
BL: That was Rob's idea. He called and said he was going to send me a manuscript and that I should picture the main character as a bear. After reading through it, I knew that was a great idea. If Mr. Tanner had been illustrated as a person, the book might have felt too sad. Plus, he'd be an adult then, and kids have a much easier time relating to animals than they do adults.
How did Harry Chapin’s lyrics shape your vision for the book and what was your process in translating that onto paper?
BL: The song functions really well as a story, so for the most part, the process was just like that of any other book I've worked on. I didn't want to hide the fact that it was a song, though, so I made sure the three choruses stood out. The chorus spreads take a break from the narrative and feature Mr. Tanner "super-imposed" onto background images with dry-cleaning conveyors/music staves running behind him.
Ripple Grove Press will be donating a portion of the proceeds from Mr. Tanner to WhyHunger. The children’s book is available now at Ripple Grove Press.
I never met Harry Chapin, but because WhyHunger has been so profoundly shaped by Harry’s vision, values, energy, and music, sometimes it feels like I have. The more I learn about Harry, the more I see him everywhere—in ways both extraordinary and mundane.
When the WhyHunger staff gathers to fold and stuff thousands of thank you letters, someone always reminds us that Harry Chapin was the most efficient envelope-stuffer we’ve ever had. Despite his fame, Harry was never too important to lick stamps, give someone a ride, or invite folks to dinner. We hear this echoed over and over by all who met him - everyone seems to have a Harry story.
When the crowd rises from their seats at the end of WhyHunger’s annual Chapin Awards to link arms and join in a goosebump-inducing rendition of “Circle,” we remember the power of Harry's music to unite people, to tell the truth, and to move people to act.
When we see the movement growing and the tangible impact of WhyHunger's work, we hear Harry’s words echoing: “If we can get away from the uniquely American perception that if something can’t be done immediately it isn’t worth doing, then I think the hunger movement, this small but growing minority of us, can have a truly significant impact.”
As you may know, this Saturday marks the 35th anniversary of Harry’s passing, and we want to hear your memories of Harry: What did you love about him? How did he impact you? Which of his songs are the soundtrack to your life? Visit whyhunger.org/rememberharry to share your story.
We also invite you to help WhyHunger accomplish Harry’s vision by joining Harry’s Giving Circle, a special group of donors who understand that giving a little each month can make a big impact! In honor of this anniversary, we are asking 35 people to follow Harry’s philanthropic lead and join Harry’s Giving Circle.
We hope you will share with us in honoring Harry this weekend!