By: Diane Stirling
(315) 443-8975

A Syracuse woman who has put forth good work and good will for many years as a community volunteer was honored as one of the area’s 2013 “Unsung Heroes” at Syracuse University’s annual Martin Luther King celebration.

Brenda Billins Muhammad, a graduate student in the Certificate of Advanced Study in Cultural Heritage Preservation at the School of Information Studies (iSchool), was among those recognized. The annual Martin Luther King Unsung Heroes Awards are bestowed on members of the Greater Syracuse community who exemplify the spirit, life, and teachings of Martin Luther King Jr., but who are not widely recognized for their efforts, according to program information.

Muhammad was nominated by Linda (Tunurah) Barbour, president of the Syracuse Chapter of the International League of Muslim Women. Barbour noted in a published article that Muhammad is a “consummate community volunteer” who “embodies the spirit of giving [and] should be named an Unsung Hero because of all the volunteer work that she does. She is a kind, caring individual and a joy to be around.”

Muhammad says her many avenues of volunteer work are simply something she has always loved to do.  She has served two terms of National Service as an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) member with Syracuse Habitat for Humanity. As a project coordinator, she raised about $30,000 for its Women Build initiative. She also has volunteered for the American Red Cross doing disaster education; FORCE (Focusing Our Resources for Community Enlightenment); the Community Foundation of Onondaga County’s Leadership Classroom Project; and BEMA (Black Emergency Managers Association). In addition, she has helped the Black Syracuse Project produce oral histories and a community history project, has led Community Conversations, and has co-hosted a Community Read-Out event at Beauchamp Library during 2012’s Banned Books Week. Last fall, she completed the Leadership Greater Syracuse program.

A modest Muhammad reflected that being selected for the MLK award “is a fabulous, wonderful honor, but to receive it for doing things that you love anyway seems kind of like cheating. I have fun doing these things and I care about them. I just have a blast!” Still, the award was “an extraordinary honor, and I got to meet wonderful people who are doing wonderful things in the community,” she related.

Now, it seems that the good she has done for so many others has come back to her. In the past two semesters, not only was Brenda recognized with the MLK honor, she has been awarded two academic scholarships to pursue college studies at two different colleges.

Last August, Muhammad enrolled in classes at the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University. She was awarded a nine-credit scholarship for the CAS program based on her community service, she said. Enrolling for the CAS was a goal that Brenda had been eyeing for some time; so much so, that “Kenneth Lavender (program director) probably was sick of seeing me showing up for information sessions,” she joked.

With her SU plans established and classes starting, Brenda was surprised to get a phone call on Labor Day weekend offering her a second college opportunity, a graduate diversity fellowship  at SUNY Empire State College.  

Recognizing that she was twice blessed, Brenda wasn’t about to turn down either opportunity. She decided to pursue both programs simultaneously. “I’ve been blessed to be able to go to school this year,” she recounted, admitting that her full-time student load has taken a great deal of effort. “It’s really difficult. As hard as it is, when I think of giving up, it is such a blessing and an opportunity that I just have to go ahead. The learning experience is fabulous. I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up,” she chuckles. “It’s one of those things where you have to move forward.” Brenda previously graduated from Onondaga Community College and SUNY Institute of Technology.

Syracuse University's annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Dinner Celebration is a community-wide tradition dating back more than a quarter of a century.  The event consists of a dinner for more than 2,000 people, held in the setting of the floor of the Carrier Dome. Organizers say it is one the nation’s largest celebrations of Dr. King’s legacy on a university campus.