SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — After the 2016 presidential election, two groups of people gathered in their kitchens and living rooms in Maplewood and South Orange to discuss what it would mean for politics in the United States. When the groups heard about each other, they joined forces to become SOMA Action, an organization that promotes a variety of social justice issues. The group recently incorporated as a 501(c)(4), a nonprofit designation that allows it to engage in political activity.
“Trump being elected galvanized a lot of people to a level that wasn’t happening before,” Amy Higer, a founder of SOMA Action, said in a phone interview with the News-Record on Aug. 27. “I felt like it would be helpful to reach out to people and talk about it. My house was packed; everyone said yes. We got together and figured out what to do at the local level. This focuses on action, staying active and not just having meetings to talk.”
In the almost two years since it was founded, SOMA Action has grown to include more than 900 members and 12 different committees. The committees each focus on a different social issue, with members supporting different causes. Residents of the two towns who want to get involved can join to address topics including: communication, women’s rights, education, voters’ rights, the environment, religious justice, financial corruption, racial justice, health care, political action, immigrants’ rights and LGBT rights.
“We were all just shocked and appalled at the outcome of that election and I think we wanted to do something,” SOMA Action President Lillian Hawkins said in a phone interview with the News-Record on Aug. 23. “We wanted to think about some of the policies that were going to be enacted and thought it was important to be involved with the 2018 elections.”
With the midterm elections only two months away, SOMA Action has begun to encourage South Orange and Maplewood residents to vote. The group has endorsed Tom Malinowski, the Democratic candidate for New Jersey’s 7th Congressional District, and Mikie Sherrill, the Democratic candidate for the 11th Congressional District.
“We’re working on flipping the House,” Hawkins said, referring to a nationwide movement from Democrats pledging to replace Republican members of Congress with Democrats. “We want progressive change and to become more progressive in general.”
Members of the organization have been going door to door in the two towns, reminding people that there are elections coming up and handing out leaflets letting them know where and when to vote. SOMA Action treasurer Kelly Quirk said that it was astonishing to see how many people didn’t know about the midterms.
“It was surprising going door to door and seeing how many people didn’t know — that was eye-opening,” Quirk said in a phone interview with the News-Record on Aug. 24. “So we’re doing those ‘get out the vote’ efforts and educating people about the elections in their town. We can help them understand that if you can’t vote in person, you can do it by mail. You don’t have to miss your chance to vote.”
Even though SOMA Action endorsed two Democratic candidates, Hawkins said the organization is open to people of all backgrounds and parties, and is not a Democratic organization.
“I think you hear talk about how divided the Democratic Party is,” she said. “We’re really just trying to get progressive change. We have people who are part of the Green Party and others like that, from broad backgrounds and all different kinds of people.”
Most of the work SOMA Action does is at the national level, but members put a local spin on it. They’ve held rallies at the train stations, letting commuters know about their causes as they board and disembark the trains, and members have organized trips to the Women’s March and March For Our Lives. Quirk said the committees have been involved in local movements in South Orange and Maplewood as well. Most recently, members worked with the Maplewood Township Committee and police department to create the Community Board on Police.
“We’ve handed out ‘know your rights’ cards to immigrants who might need them, and we’ve worked with the towns on a plastic audit,” Quirk said. “We find that our members want a way to express their rage but also get involved locally.”
Quirk, Higer and Hawkins all said that local leaders have been supportive of SOMA Action, listening to members and helping when they can. Higer said Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca and South Orange Village President Sheena Collum have both worked with the organization.
“We’ve worked with them pretty extensively on some policies, like the Community Board on Police in Maplewood,” Quirk said. “We helped to craft the ordinance to let them see where we were coming from. From our perspective, the relationship should be working in collaboration.”
“We’ve had great support; all the leadership has been fantastic,” Hawkins said. “I feel lucky to live in a town where the local officials are so supportive.”
To learn more about SOMA Action, residents may email email@example.com to be added to the mailing list, visit www.somaaction.org or follow the SOMA Action Facebook page.
“You don’t always know what effect you have on politics; you can’t always tell right away,” Higer said. “But staying involved and doing what you think is right on the grassroots level is really important.”
Photos Courtesy of Lillian Hawkins