Over 60 years may have passed since civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have A Dream Speech,” but there are still community members — including in Bucks County — who are carrying on his vision of equality and opportunity for all.
On Jan. 26, Bucks County Community College recognized three individuals who are building on his dream during the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Awards ceremony, held at the Linksz Pavilion on the Newtown Campus.
This year’s honorees are: Billie Barnes, executive director, Workforce and Economic Development, County of Bucks, as Community Leader; Bernard Tynes, chief experience and impact officer, Penn Community Bank, as Corporate Leader; and Erin Lukoss, executive director/CEO, Bucks County Opportunity Council, as Humanitarian Leader.
Tom Jennings, chair of the college’s board of trustees, and associate vice president Kevin L. Antoine, J.D., presented the awards to the three, who have demonstrated outstanding commitment and service to nondiscrimination.
“We remember Dr. King for his courage, compassion and unwavering commitment to justice for all,” said Jennings. “We honor three extraordinary citizens who live his values. They are the peacemakers of our time, and they enrich our college and our community by their good example, steadfast spirits and lives of generous service.”
Antoine, who also serves as the college’s chief civil rights officer, praised the honorees for the work they do at the local level to ensure that all residents of Bucks County have an opportunity to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“The MLK Leadership awardees demonstrate through their life’s work that civility, character and fairness are unique to American democracy,” he said. “What’s more, this program exemplifies the college’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion by reaffirming that there is goodwill in the people of Bucks County, regardless of their station in life.”
Barnes joined the County of Bucks in July 2020 as executive director of Workforce and Economic Development. She boasts 20 years of experience leading public workforce systems, a career path that began when she moved from Western New York to Philadelphia for college. Coming from a small town, it was the very first time she witnessed people enduring hardships.
She said, “I think it was that exposure to such struggle that made me think, how can I help?”
Workforce and Economic Development is responsible for funding that comes from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor to be used for employers and job seekers in the county. Recently, an Aim and Attain grant was received, allowing individuals who previously dropped out of college to return to Bucks County Community College at no cost. Barnes highlighted one recipient of the grant, a single mother, to show its impact.
“When I tell you, it has changed her life. It put her back on the track to complete her degree. She’s due to graduate next year in 2025 and she already has employment lined up once she can present that credential,” said Barnes.
In her daily work, Barnes tries to adhere to MLK’s teaching that serving others is of great importance: “I’m just lucky that through my job, that I’m serving. I’m serving everyday.”
She’s also thrilled about being honored as a 2024 awardee. In the day-to-day grind of things, she admitted that it’s hard to tell sometimes if she’s doing a good job. But moments like this help her realize that she is: “It lets me know that, one, we’re accomplishing some things, and two, folks are seeing the positive work that we’re doing in the community and we’re making changes, and a little tap on the back every now and then is just, it gives you a boost.”
Tynes, one of the area’s youngest executives, worked his way from the retail side of banking to the marketing and community relations side, which he finds extremely rewarding. In his role at Penn Community Bank, Tynes has overseen the creation and implementation of numerous products and services to address the needs of low- to moderate-income and historically underserved individuals and families.
He also leads the bank’s community investment and philanthropic strategy, serving as executive director of the Penn Community Bank Foundation, which contributes more than $1 million annually to nonprofits across the region. Additionally, he serves on the foundation board of Bucks County Community College, United Way of Bucks County’s board and smaller boards throughout the county and state.
For Tynes, the work of MLK has motivated him since he was a child, especially the fight for racial equality and the courage that it took to stand up for it. He’s honored to be recognized by Bucks as an MLK Leadership honoree.
“It certainly is a privilege to be named that. And what it really does, it motivates me to continue to strive to do more for the community that I serve,” he said. “It truly is humbling and inspiring, and reminds me of that kind of ‘courage’ word. What do I need the courage to do next? It causes me to think about my next moment.”
Lukoss, who started as a case manager with Bucks County Opportunity Council 23 years ago, enjoys helping residents lead fuller lives. This is done by connecting them to needed resources to not only have their basic needs met, but allow them to thrive in the community. She recalled one BCOC client, a single, homeless mom with no family support, who dreamed of being a nurse. A plan was developed and, in a few years, she graduated from an LPN program. In fact, Lukoss and BCOC workers attended the graduation ceremony. They were her “family” that showed up.
“It’s what BCOC does. We get behind you. We’re the cheerleader, and we help you move forward and help you achieve your goals,” said Lukoss. “She always had it in her. She always could do it. But she just needed the support to get there.”
A quote of MLK’s — “To take the first step in faith, you don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step” — was used by Lukoss to drive home the mission of BCOC, which helps those in need take that leap of faith. And if they fall down a few stairs, BCOC will be there to catch them.
Similar to Barnes, Lukoss sees her MLK Leadership award as proof that BCOC is doing its job and continuing to serve as a resource for people.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org