Wilmers Integrity Prize Awarded to Refuge America Founder

Edafe Okporo leads illustrious group of finalists, earning $50,000 prize to further the impact of aiding displaced people

NEW YORK, NY, March 7, 2024The Robert G. Wilmers Integrity Prize, which honors individuals striving to better our world, has been awarded to Edafe Okporo, founder of Refuge America, a nonprofit committed to strengthening America as a welcome place for displaced LGBTQ+ people. Offered each year, the Prize is a no-strings-attached cash award of $50,000.

This recognition was announced at a reception for 65 inaugural donors to the Wilmers Integrity Prize, a nonprofit established in 2019 to support individuals working in the United States with exceptional integrity to better our world through their actions and advocacy. Integrity in leadership and service to the community are at the forefront of the Prize’s search, and individuals working in the arts, education, environment, law, medicine, nutrition, social justice, and social reform are eligible.

“Named for the late chairman and CEO of M&T Bank, the Prize honors leadership and service to community – values that Bob himself pursued rigorously through his enduring commitment to enrich and uplift the communities where he lived and worked,” said Jennifer Trainer Thompson, Executive Director of the Wilmers Integrity Prize. “We’re looking for those unsung heroes who have the catalytic force to drive positive change in our society. We’re committed to recognizing and investing in leaders doing good work. Edafe Okporo earned this year’s Wilmers Integrity Prize for his inspiring work to transform the lives of refugees and asylum seekers who have been able to find safety, support, and a fresh start.”

In receiving the Wilmers Integrity Prize, Okporo led an accomplished group of finalists who have all launched innovative programs to address inequity and drive positive change. Finalists include:

  • Cheri Garcia, Founder and CEO, Cornbread Hustle. One out of three American adults has a criminal record, but their punishment often extends beyond prison, as many are unable to find work if background checks show an arrest or conviction. In 2016, Cherie Garcia created Cornbread Hustle, a passionate voice in fair-chance/second chance hiring, offering meaningful work to people returning from incarceration or in recovery. Based in Dallas, the agency has helped 2500 people in Texas just out of prison or in recovery find meaningful employment.
  • Karen Mack, Founder and CEO, LA Commons. Twenty-three years ago, Karen Mack had an idea: use art as a vehicle for building a stronger sense of community in Los Angeles by engaging disparate communities in artistic expression that fostered dialogue, activism, and empowerment. No one understood what she was doing, and she had no money, but she persevered, believing there’s logic in the world, and that if you’re on your path, things happen. She also believed that you could have plans to do any number of things, but you have to start doing it to make your idea real. Today LA Commons has developed 80+ initiatives, engaging thousands of artists, youth, and community in grassroots cultural discovery, deepening everyone’s sense of belonging.

Edafe Okporo migrated to the U.S. from Nigeria in 2016 as an asylum seeker and is now a refugee. He helped found New York City’s first full-time shelter that offers transitional refuge for migrants fleeing violence and persecution abroad, and is the founder of Refuge America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping refugees and asylum seekers reconstruct their lives, find security, and create a fresh start. A global gay rights activist and artist, Okporo’s work offers a lifeline to those who’ve been compelled to escape their homelands due to persecution and other hardships. Okporo is the author of Asylum (Simon & Schuster), a memoir and manifesto of a gay Nigerian’s search for his place in the world. Partnering with local refugee organizations in New York State, Chicago, and other cities, Refuge America’s goal is to aid 625 refugees by 2025.

“Challenges persist,” said Okporo, “but with support like this Prize, we can work toward a more inclusive and compassionate society that welcomes and empowers those in need of refuge. Many individuals arrive with hopes of a better life, only to be confronted by a multitude of barriers. My motivation springs from a deep-seated desire to extend a helping hand to these vulnerable souls, aiding them in navigating the labyrinthine US immigration system and providing the essential support they require to rebuild their lives.” Refuge America helps with obtaining legal asylum status, securing housing, finding access to education and employment, and facilitating their smooth integration into new communities.

The 14-member Wilmers Integrity Prize Selection Committee includes cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Kevin Sullivan, M&T Chairman René Jones, previous Prize winners Max Kenner and Lundy Ramos Perez, among others. To learn more about the prize, please visit our website at wilmersintegrityprize.org.


Media Contact
For interviews with Edafe Okporo or more information:
Jennifer Trainer Thompson
(413) 207-1210