SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Residents of South Orange and Maplewood gathered at South Orange Middle School on Jan. 7 for the South Orange Civic Organization’s annual celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. and to give the Beloved Community Awards to two deserving residents. Featuring music, poetry and several speakers, the school’s theater was full despite the cold weather.
“I look out in front of me and I see greatness,” SOCO member Adunni Anderson, who served as the event’s mistress of ceremonies, said at the event. After asking the audience to think about the ways they serve their community, Anderson asked them to turn to their neighbors and discuss volunteer and service opportunities.
“Everyone can serve,” she said, adding that Martin Luther King Jr. Day should not just be considered a vacation. “Although we may not show up at work, it is not a day off. We still stand for civil liberties. It is a day on — not a day off.”
Barbara Heisler next took the stage as the keynote speaker. A past recipient of the Beloved Community Award, Heisler is the CEO of GlassRoots, a Newark-based nonprofit group that hosts after-school arts programs for underserved youth and young adults; the program specifically focuses on learning how to make glass. Her remarks centered heavily on the importance of arts in the community, and the positive benefits that come from being involved in the arts.
“Art is a tool in building community,” Heisler said. “In every community, artists drive social cohesion. Every single community has people who sing, who dance, who tell stories. People who participate in arts get involved in other things.”
According to Heisler, people who are artists are more likely to become involved in community events and also more likely to vote. She stressed that art can be a valuable asset, with different types of art bringing peace of mind to those who participate.
“It also reminds us that we’re all creative beings,” she said. “When we are frustrated with the world, art offers a haven. Art builds a community. Strong communities come together through art.”
Touching on her point about art bring people together, Heisler said that participating in art of any form is not just an individual activity.
“Engaging in art is simply not a solitary event,” she said. “I am convinced a work of art can make us identify with one another. Art builds community of all sizes.”
The recipients of this year’s Beloved Community Awards are examples of people who participate in the arts and have a profound impact on their communities. Ondine Landa Abramson has lived in South Orange for 15 years with her family. She said that, as a child who had moved 13 times by the time she was 11 years old, living in one place for so long was good for her and her family. A jewelry designer and holistic health coach, Abramson is a former vice-chairwoman of Jazz House Kids in Montclair, and currently chairs Midtown Direct Rep, a local theater company.
Introduced by her daughter Ella, a South Orange Middle School student, Abramson highlighted why she wanted to live in South Orange in the first place. Coming from New York City, living in a suburb was new for her.
“I was struck with what I saw,” Abramson said of the first time she visited South Orange. “I wanted to live somewhere where anonymity wasn’t a guarantee and you could get involved in the community easily.”
She described a time when she was running to the train station in town, and someone pulled over in their car and asked if she wanted a ride. Abramson got into the car and made it to her train on time, and in the process became close friends with the driver.
“Now, if I see someone running to the train I always offer a ride,” she said. “No one has ever turned me down. I love that, and being able to build my community.”
Smilow is a composer and touring musician who has lived in South Orange for 12 years. She is also an educator, having worked with after-school programs for underserved youth. Locally, she has worked with the SOMA Community Coalition on Race, was involved with the fundraising for the Seth Boyden Elementary School Outdoor Learning Classroom and has performed in the SouthNEXT festival. Also introduced by her daughter, Columbia High School freshman Allie Mishkin, Smilow encouraged the audience to become involved in the community.
“I’m so proud of the work that goes into making South Orange and Maplewood an artistic and democratic community,” she said. “Get involved. There are so many people who deserve this award. We have no idea who’s behind everything, but it could be you.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic