Black Voices of the Valley hosts 70s Soul Celebration

Six high school seniors, with local government officials, receive recognition and scholarships from Black Voices of the Valley during its third annual Night of Black Excellence event, Feb. 24. Valley News/Diane A. Rhodes photo

For its third annual Night of Black Excellence that honors members of the community and gives scholarships to outstanding seniors, the Black Voices of the Valley nonprofit chose a 70s theme. The Feb. 24 event, held at the Soboba Casino Resort Event Center, took guests back in time as they embraced the decade through music and fashions that ranged from bell bottoms to platform shoes.

BVOV Director Stephanie Bruce welcomed everyone to the event that also serves as a Black History celebration and fundraiser. She said, “We pride ourselves on building back the unit of the family. We want to create an environment of Black excellence and we have to start with our youth, community leaders, and Black business owners that pour back into the community and pour into these scholarships that allow us to help our youth become our future leaders.”

Lester Fountain, who sits on the BVOV board of directors, served as emcee once again this year. Additionally, he was surprised to be one of several community members recognized with the “It Takes a Village” award for their various contributions. The award is given to those who have made a significant contribution, not only to the community but to themselves and their family.

“It truly takes a village to grow our community, starting with our youth,” Bruce said. She said Fountain, who is a military veteran, has been a pivotal person in the community who assists other veterans with their personal and military administrative needs. “He also provides an outlet to our youth by taking them on field trips to see sports attractions and other events,” she said. “This award is for people in the community we live in that are constantly making a difference.”

Other recipients of the “It Takes a Village” award were Sheila Blythe who is the San Jacinto Unified School District school, family and community liaison at the district’s Family Engagement Center; Doug Burns who has paved the way for other Black barbers; Laverne Williams, an educator and counselor; and Jamie Swain, who is very active in the community and served as the event’s DJ.

High school seniors were recognized in two categories. Those receiving the Stellar Award for showing strong commitment in continuing their education were McArthur Tobias, Tahquitz High School and James Filio, San Jacinto HS. Recommended by their counselors, each will receive a $500 scholarship upon successful graduation. Those honored with Academic Excellence Leadership Awards and set to receive a $1,000 scholarship were Trinity Jones and Cassidy Hill from San Jacinto High School, Demi Soares from Western Center Academy and Tahquitz High School’s Lejion Thomas.

One of the scholarship sponsors is the office of Riverside County Fifth District Supervisor Yxstian Gutierrez. Attending the event for the first time, he thanked Bruce for her leadership in running a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to the youth. “Our office is working with the cities of Hemet and San Jacinto to put on different programs that are going to help the youth in these communities,” he said. “We have to step it up and support our youth; they are our future.”

This year’s Breaking Barriers award was given to Corey A. Jackson who has represented California’s 60th Assembly District since 2022, previously chairing the Human Services Committee and now leading Budget Subcommittee No. 2 on Human Services. Before his Assembly role, Jackson served on the Riverside County Board of Education and founded SBX Youth and Family Services. This BVOV award is given to those that are the first Black to accomplish a role or program in the community. Hemet City Council Member Malcolm Lilienthal, who received the award in 2021, shared some of the reasons Jackson was chosen this year.

“We want to honor an extraordinary individual whose dedication and tireless efforts have not only broken barriers but also paved the way for a fairer, more inclusive and accessible society for everyone,” he said.

Unable to attend due to currently being in Sacramento, Jackson made history as the first Black legislator to represent Riverside County. Lilienthal said his groundbreaking legislative efforts exemplify the very essence of the Breaking Barriers award. “During his remarkable journey, Dr. Jackson has championed the causes of those often left behind, ensuring that every voice is heard and every individual has the opportunity to thrive,” he said. “We also acknowledge the path he has forged for all of us to follow. His work reminds us that while we may not all be elected officials, our engagement and advocacy in our communities play a pivotal role in shaping a just and equitable society. This award serves as a beacon of hope and a call to action for all of us. Together we can break barriers, overcome obstacles and create a world where fairness, justice and equality are not just ideals but realities for everyone.”

Accepting the award on his behalf was Daissy Arteaga who said, “We share the same vision and determination to ensure that our communities are thriving and it truly does take a village and I’m glad that Black Voices of the Valley is part of Assemblymember Jackson’s village, making sure that he exceeds the definition of representation and service within our district.”

Elijah Silva received the Youth Entrepreneurship Award, given to an outstanding youth that is overachieving in their entrepreneurial skills. Bruce said Elijah, 8, has a lemonade stand business (Elijah Gumdrop Lemonade) in the summer, has several gumball machines placed throughout the valley in other small businesses, and just signed a contract as a motivational speaker.

Bruce also presented the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians with an award of appreciation as it has been a dream of the organization’s board to host its annual event at the SCR Event Center. She read the inscription on the award, which was, “We acknowledge that we are on ancestral and unceded territory. We pay homage to the Soboba Band of Luiseño People and respect to the Elders, both past and present.”

An award was presented to BVOV by Hazel Lambert, who is part of the Riverside University Health System Behavioral Health Cultural Competency Program. Its African American Family Wellness Advisory Group (AAFWAG) focuses primarily on educating and engaging the community on reducing the stigma associated with mental health. Lambert told Bruce as she presented BVOV with its recognition award, “We thank you for your commitment to education to promote culturally relevant activities that help eliminate stigma to mental health within the African American community.”

San Jacinto City Council Member Brian Hawkins, who is credited with giving Bruce the vision for BVOV, presented her with his Black Diamond of Leadership Award for being a pillar of the community. “What an unexpected blessing,” she said.

An elegant buffet of braised short ribs with cherry demi-glace, miso glazed bay salmon, Chicken Florentine roulades, garlic confit golden whipped potatoes, three types of green salads and more was enjoyed while the New Vision Band from San Diego played timely classics. They continued to entertain the crowd of nearly 200 throughout the evening. For more information, visit

Keynote speaker Robert Penton is a former Black Panther Party member and spoke on the subject of mental health, specifically post-traumatic stress disorder. He said research has suggested that African Americans and Latinos may develop PTSD at higher rates than White adults and that the clinical course of PTSD in these minority groups factors sociocultural and racial stressors, such as experiences with discrimination.

“To date, however, no research has explored the relationship between experiences with discrimination risk and PTSD, and very little research has examined the course of illness for PTSD in African American and Latino samples,” Penton said. He noted that some recent findings highlight the critical role that racial and ethnic discrimination may play in the development of PTSD among these populations.

Citing his own upbringing, he shared that he grew up in a small paper mill town in Louisiana that was known for having the highest percentage of KKK members during that period in response to the infamous onslaught of racism, lynchings, and the lack of police protection for the Black community. In 1965, the “Deacons for Defense and Justice” was organized by deacons from the Black church. This was an affiliate of the founding chapter in Jonesboro, Penton said.

He recalled some traumatic experiences he suffered at the hands of an affluent White family that his mother worked for when he was a young boy. He also grew up feeling oppressed but when he was 18 years old, he was motivated to action by the famous statement from President John K. Kennedy’s inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

Penton joined VISTA, Volunteers in Service to America, and it took him to Los Angeles, where he was assigned to a nonprofit agency. This was in 1967, shortly after the Watts riots. “The shout of the Black Power movement was very appealing, more so coming from the segregated South,” he recalled. “I knew joining the Black Panthers was a clarion call. The Black Panther was a methodology for freedom and self-determination: the ability to vote and move through the world without fear of oppression.”

He served as one of many ministers of information. His duties included researching, reading, and assimilating information pertinent to the Black community.

“Due to the experience of growing up in the South, where racism was the norm, it was a no-brainer for me to accept such a task,” Penton said.

After being forced to leave LA and move to Tacoma, Washington during the height of protests and demonstrations over the Vietnam War, he said that although he felt like a fish out of water he did not lose the heartbeat of the Black Panthers, especially self-determination.

“I accomplished much within the last 57 years,” he said. Penton has been an ordained minister for more than 40 years and has had a 35-year career in family services. He has received numerous service awards and certificates including the “Achievement Against the Odds” award presented to him at the White House by Pres. George W. Bush Sr. He is a certified counselor in the state of Washington, a lecturer, mentor, pastor and community development consultant. He is also an Effecting Parenting Instructor, specializing in the first five years of a child’s development. Penton has served on numerous boards, spanning local and national government as well as private, for profit and nonprofit organizations.

“Many children have fallen through the cracks and crevices of our community,” he said. “What if we join hands and walk block by block and snatch our children from drugs, violence, and black-on-black killings?”

The purpose of Black Voices of the Valley is to seek to restore the Black communities within the San Jacinto Valley, starting with the Black nuclear families. “We recognize the great needs of the Black community and endeavor to provide resources for our local areas of education, health and changed positive lifestyles,” its vision statement reads.

Bruce said, “As director, I am deeply committed to our mission of amplifying the voices of Black individuals and communities. We believe in creating a platform where every voice is valued and heard, contributing to positive change in our society. Let’s work together to amplify voices, empower individuals and create a more inclusive future for all.”

For more information, please visit or call 916-969-2232.

Diane A. Rhodes