WEST ORANGE, NJ — Highlighting the many cultures that make up their community and championing a kinder and more welcoming society, the United Presbyterian Church of West Orange hosted “Voices of Diversity, Uniting for Change” on Saturday, Sept. 22.
The event featured musical performances, a slide show presentation detailing specific eras of American history such as the Middle Passage that brought Africans to the United States as slaves, and the many atrocities committed toward Native Americans. However, the overarching theme of the event was not to dwell on the dark past of the country’s history, but to celebrate our differences and unite to make all people feel safe and welcome.
“This program actually was inspired by a family friend in Massachusetts who is a Native American songwriter and singer, she wrote a song called ‘Resist,’” event organizer Janice Carden said in a recent phone interview with the West Orange Chronicle. “It speaks to what so many people have gone through for equality and human rights; immigrants and Native American struggles, the LGBTQ community, and so many others. It inspired us to celebrate our diversity whether that is racial or ethnic or religious or sexual orientation.”
Many local organizations had displays at the event, including the West Orange Human Relations Commission, the West Orange Public Library, Just Us Books, New Jersey Environmental Protection Agency, the West Orange Arts Council and the League of Women Voters, which assisted with voter registration at the event.
The music selections performed throughout the day also served as a reminder that hope and healing are possible when people come together for the common goal of lifting their fellow man. Songs included “Imagine,” “Wind Beneath My Wings,” “Resist,” “Everything Must Change” and finally “We Are the World,” during which audience members were invited to sing along.
“Our goal is to raise awareness about voter registration because we feel we need change, and if there’s any time that we need change it’s now,” Carden said. “We also want to raise awareness about the challenges that people in our communities are experiencing. Even well-meaning people are clueless about the struggles being faced. These people with narrow minds and racist attitudes are still there so we still have to fight. West Orange is one of the most diverse communities, racially and ethnically, in the area and we’d like to keep it going.”
The event also featured a traditional Native American performance by Cliff Matias of the Redhawk Native American Arts Council, which is based in Brooklyn.
“When the Pilgrims first came to America, the indigenous people helped them, not because they stood to gain anything from it, but because they were fellow human beings,” Matias said to the audience. “There are many different ways that indigenous people work at diversity but the main thing is that we welcome all.”
Mayor Robert Parisi was also in attendance at the event and shared some thoughts with the audience about how West Orange has evolved.
“I’m not sure if I’m really qualified to speak about diversity: I have spent my entire life as a white, middle-class male, and I have lived in the same neighborhood my whole life. I grew up in West Orange, but it wasn’t until I got into high school that this town really started to become diverse, and by the time I was a senior my graduating class was 10-percent black,” he said. “In the ’90s West Orange went through a transformation and we became a more visibly diverse community. For those who chose to stay, we got to be a part of something really special.
“One of the benefits of West Orange is that we have differences in our neighborhoods and the diversity is evenly spaced out. There’s a line in the musical ‘Hamilton’ that says, ‘What are the odds that the gods would put us all in one spot?’ And I’m not sure that I know the answer to that, but I know that we are very blessed.”
Photos by Shanee Frazier, and Courtesy of Chris Carden and Susan Anderson