Coalition celebrates 25 years of equity work and volunteerism in SOMA

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MAPLEWOOD / SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race celebrated its 25th anniversary with a virtual ceremony on March 29, honoring the founders of the organization and the work that its volunteers and staff members have done since. According to Carol Barry-Austin, who sits on the CCR board of trustees and is one of the organization’s founding members, the CCR was formed to create an integrated, inclusive community where residents felt valued.

“As a young board, we did not always agree in terms of strategies,” Barry-Austin said at the ceremony. “We struggled robustly and sometimes angrily with objectives, and often how to meet those objectives. In trying to represent the entire community, we sometimes struggled with messaging. Through perseverance and intentionality, I believe that we have journeyed through many of those struggles, learned from each other as trustees, and built a community that is more welcoming and inclusive.”

Fred Profeta served as Maplewood’s mayor from 2004 to 2007, but before then he was the CCR’s first chairperson, from its beginning in 1997 through 2000. He described the events in the 1990s that led to the coalition’s forming.

“By 1997, this community was facing a real crisis,” Profeta said at the event. “We were the victims of blockbusting by Realtors, white flight, stagnant market values, and we really had to do something about this. We were also experiencing discrimination against the black population that had moved into our towns. But a group of citizens decided that they were determined to fight this, and this group became the Community Coalition on Race.”

Profeta admitted that the CCR has not had a 100-percent success rate in everything it set out to accomplish, but the changes it has made in the last quarter century are beyond what he thought possible in 1997.

“We did achieve a degree of stable racial integration really much greater than quite frankly I imagined back in 1997,” he said. “We have pursued equity vigorously and relentlessly every day, and we have achieved racial inclusion in our civil life that is remarkable. We have achieved it in our governing bodies, our Board of Education, our police forces and really every civic body in these two towns.”

New Jersey Secretary of State Tahesha Way spoke in a video that was sent to the CCR and played during the ceremony. A former member of the Passaic County Board of Chosen Freeholders, now called the Board of County Commissioners, Way was selected by Gov. Phil Murphy to be secretary of state in December 2017 and sworn into the position in February 2018.

“New Jersey is among the most diverse states in our nation,” Way said in the video. “We are richer economically and socially because of all of the different people who call the Garden State home. But, even with this diversity, there is work to be done to ensure our communities and the people who lead us reflect all of us. While diversity and inclusion have become popular buzzwords in recent years, this work is not new to the people of South Orange and Maplewood. This organization in your two towns has stepped up in the name of inclusion. It is incredible, inspiring work.”

A history of the changing demographics of both towns since the 1940s was presented through interviews with Barry-Austin, Profeta, former trustee and Executive Director Barbara Heisler, current trustee Abigail Cotler, former trustee and Maplewood Mayor Ken Pettis, former trustee Meredith Sue Willis, former trustee Terry Richardson, former South Orange Village President Bill Calabrese and former Maplewood Mayor Ellen Davenport. Pettis and Barry-Austin, who are both black, spoke about their search for a home to buy when they were moving to the area in the 1980s and how real estate agents showed them houses only in certain parts of town. In Barry-Austin’s case, the real estate agent kept bringing her to Irvington.

“The neighborhood at the time we moved in there I would say was about 50-50 black to white, which we actually found very attractive,” Pettis said. “Over the next few years, however, we noticed that all of the neighbors who were moving in were all people of color.”

According to Heisler, real estate agents used the higher number of people of color moving into Maplewood and South Orange as a scare tactic to push white residents whose savings were tied up in their homes to sell.

“They were pushing that scare tactic, which then increased the number of whites who were the current residents who put their houses on the market,” she said. “The in-movers were people of color, so the actions started to make the Realtors’ words true, rather than them being true.”

The CCR worked with real estate agents in the area to better market South Orange and Maplewood, and current CCR Executive Director Nancy Gagnier said it has for the most part been stabilized.

The ceremony also featured a panel discussion with members of the CCR; Program Director Audrey Rowe and her daughter, the musician SZA, participated as well.

“Every town needs a Community Coalition on Race,” Richardson said at the event. “It really isn’t black and white, as much as we want it to be. I’ve got to believe, with examples like the Community Coalition on Race and what they’ve been able to achieve through all the ups and downs, that there are other communities out there that can say, ‘OK, it’s going to take work, it’s going to take a change in thinking, and it’s going to take not being so suspect of change, that change is bad.’”

Photos Courtesy of Mason Levinson