Syracuse Community Member, Marissa Saunders Selected as One of Five Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., ‘Unsung Heroes’

The Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee has announced the 2019 Unsung Hero Award winners. Syracuse Community Member Marissa Saunders Has Been Selected as One of Five Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., ‘Unsung Heroes’

The awards are bestowed annually on people who, in the spirit of King’s “beloved community,” have made a positive difference in the lives of others, but who are not widely recognized for their efforts. The categories include community member, student, faculty and staff. Syracuse University Names Five Martin Luther King Jr. ‘Unsung Heroes’

This year’s recipients will be honored at The Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration, to be held this year on Sunday, Jan. 27, in the Carrier Dome under its theme “The Global Impact of Civil Rights.” The celebration is the largest of its kind on a college campus and features performances, dinner and a conversations with Trevor Noah, host of “The Daily Show” and author of “Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood.” Ticket and celebration information can be found at

Community Member
Marissa Saunders

Marissa Saunders is director of community engagement for Syracuse and Rochester and justice strategies associate at the Center for Community Alternatives (CCA). “Marissa says, ‘this is HEART work.’ No one embodies this better than her. Few have the heart for this work as she does,” says her CCA colleague Kelly Gonzalez.

In her role, Saunders has had a transformative impact on her colleagues, the families and individuals she serves, and the Syracuse community at large. At CCA, she developed the Transition Coach Program, an innovative program that serves young people returning to mainstream school after long-term suspension, juvenile detention/placement or incarceration.

In the community, she founded and facilitates Nurturing Individuals Abilities (NIA) Ministries, a woman’s empowerment and transitional support program and curriculum for incarcerated women and formerly incarcerated individuals in Onondaga County. She helps people who have survived trauma to find their strength, their resilience, their voice and their capacity to be their own hero. Her mantra, “Be the person you needed or had during the darkest times in your life,” is what fuels her passion to do the “heart” work with the dedication and effectiveness she brings to the table.

Saunders consistently champions the underrepresented and underserved. In an agency with diverse direct-service programs and multiple advocacy projects, she raised attention to the needs of young women in the community who are victims of sex trafficking and exploitation. As someone who sees the need and her community as global, Saunders has brought her work to women and young girls engaged in domestic and sexual abuse in Jamaica and Uganda. And this year she is expanding her efforts to parts of Kenya, with the future goal of working in Ghana as well.

Saunders’ impact in combatting racism and fighting for equity is also evident in the cultural competency curriculum “Planting a Tree of Diversity” she developed and currently uses for the Gifford Foundation’s Nourishing Tomorrow’s Leaders Training.

“As someone who brings her own rich lived experience to every aspect of the work, she can see herself in the struggles of our clients—those who struggle to escape abuse, to maintain safe shelter, to rise out of desperation,” Gonzalez says. “Marissa shines as an example of what cannot be taught in a textbook. She demonstrates what must be learned by having an open heart, a curious mind, a spiritual compass and a resilient determination that we will, together, bend the arc towards justice, one small act of courage at a time.”