For 37 years, the YMCA of San Diego County has celebrated the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by honoring others who exemplify his spirit and humanitarian ideals.
The Jackie Robinson Family YMCA chooses individuals who strive to put King’s words into action today, said Executive Director Anna Arancibia, and on Thursday it chose health care advocate Dr. Suzanne Afflalo and real estate pioneer Theophilus Logan to receive the 37th annual Human Dignity Awards.
“It’s so important that we remember the contributions of Dr. King and what he lived and died for, especially now when so many things are still at risk,” said Dee Sanford, a past winner and chair of the event. “We want to make sure that we always keep his contributions at the forefront… remembering the importance of justice and equality.”
In her more than three-decade career in medicine, Afflalo has seen firsthand the disparities minorities and other under-served communities face in the health care system and has spent her career working to break down those barriers for hundreds in the San Diego community.
Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Afflalo grew up watching her mother become a registered nurse at the age of 50 after immigrating to the U.S.
“I was actually helping with her classes and doing flashcards and got exposed to medicine through her, so I was about 12 or 13 when she actually got her nursing degree,” said Afflalo. “During those middle (and) high school years was when I started volunteering, and that’s really where the passion came from.”
Afflalo, a family medicine physician, dedicated herself to implementing community programs to educate and empower people to make better decisions to improve their health.
For instance, she developed “A Healthier Me,” a program to decrease the illness and mortality rates of African Americans and other minorities with various cardiovascular risks, educating them on high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
Though she retired from her 26-year career with Kaiser Permanente in 2015, she delved further into volunteer work, and when the pandemic hit, she also began educating minorities on the importance of testing, vaccination and other safety measures.
“That’s really been my full-time job is to figure out how to continue to serve the community,” she said. “It’s such a passion to just see the faces of the community really appreciate the work that’s being done.”
Each month, Afflalo works with the YMCA to host a community health and resource fair, providing free health screenings, mammograms, numerous resources and fresh produce to the southeastern San Diego community.
Her impact in helping the community fight COVID is among the reasons the committee chose to recognize Afflalo, said Sanford.
“She’s probably as close to a Mother Teresa that I’ve seen in San Diego County as anybody,” added Michael Brunker, director emeritus of the Jackie Robinson Family YMCA.
At 104 years old, Theophilus Logan said he still considers himself a student of Martin Luther King Jr.’s, urging everyone to remember what King did for us all.
When King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Logan remembers he had just retired from the Army after serving for 20 years.
“I remember his sincerity in what he was doing,” Logan said. “He realized the situation in this country, and he did something about it. I think we need to understand what he gave up in order to help us improve our lives in this country.”
Similarly, Logan spent his career emulating King’s mission to help others, by providing homeownership opportunities to those in his community.
By the time King was assassinated in 1968, Logan had started a real estate business to help San Diegans in mostly Black Logan Heights and southeastern San Diego become homeowners.
It was a time of widespread redlining, when real estate agents and banks discriminated against Black people and other minorities, making it hard to get mortgages and segregating housing and communities.
However when commercial banks turned down loan applications, Logan looked elsewhere and was able to arrange FHA and VA loans.
Logan said he opened Logan Realty to encourage Black people and others who did not realize they were able to buy homes, giving them advice and guidance in real estate so they, too, could put roots down in their communities.
By 1978, he had become the first African American president of the San Diego Board of Realtors, now the Greater San Diego Association of Realtors.
“It was because of Theo that many people of color in San Diego County were able to buy their homes for the first time,” Brunker said.
Logan still lives in his condo in Bankers Hill, which he said represents remarkable progress from San Diego’s history of segregated housing.
Although it was virtual, attendance at Thursday’s event was comparable to the YMCA’s last in-person gathering of 1,800 at the MLK breakfast in 2020, before the pandemic, officials said.
Thursday’s event also featured several musical performances and a keynote speech by Rev. Arthur Lawrence Cribbs Jr., interim senior pastor at Little River United Church of Christ in Annandale, Virginia.
Cribbs said the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is a moment for the nation to slow down and reflect on King’s contribution in awakening the country to welcome people from all over the world. He asked the audience to pray and to remember the challenge to make the nation a country where every family can prosper.
“So while we look at Dr. King’s birthday, we are further reminded of the unfinished business that we are challenged to continue and prayerfully complete,” Cribbs said.
“We must move this nation from the ideals of America to a reality where all people, all people can live and thrive and experience the fullness of life in a country that truly honors and protects all of her people,” he said.