SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The South Orange Civic Organization held its 49th annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration on Jan. 6 at South Orange Middle School, honoring three community members with the Beloved Community Award. South Orange resident Stacey Borden, Maplewood Committeeman Dean Dafis and SOMS teacher Diane Grant of South Orange were honored after Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of Congregation Beth El in South Orange gave the keynote address.
“We shouldn’t only act for our own cause and benefits,” Olitzky said at the event. “When we act as allies, we are helping a cause that doesn’t affect us. A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Olitzky told how his grandfather would tell stories to him, his siblings and cousins when they were children. While most of the stories were not true, Olitzky joked, he knows for certain one really did happen.
Olitzky’s grandfather worked for a hardware store in upstate New York, and would travel around the country selling house siding in other cities. Once, he spent several weeks in Atlanta going door to door to sell siding in the city.
“He stayed at a hotel in Georgia where the elevator operator was a young African-American man,” Olitzky said. “He was taken aback when he said he wasn’t registered to vote.”
His grandfather helped the elevator operator and others register to vote in his hotel room at night, until the owner of the hotel asked him to leave. Before he went home, Olitzky’s grandfather had dinner with the elevator operator, who asked why he had helped him.
“He said, ‘I am Jewish,’ which was a powerful statement for him,” Olitzky said in his speech. “It was about humanity. It wasn’t about ethnicity, it was about ethics. Liberation is bound up in one another. It’s not just about allyship. It’s a need to fight against all forms of bigotry. We unite because our liberation is bound up in one another. King accomplished much, but the dream that he sought was never fully fulfilled. We may never complete the task, but may we stand in solidarity and protect each other.”
Following Olitzky’s words, SOCO honored area residents who are working to protect one another and make a difference.
Borden and her husband are partners in the family business, Stacey Electric Service, in addition to her volunteer work. She has been involved with the South Mountain Craft Fair, South Orange Rotary Club and Main Street South Orange, among others. She has also been a Democratic Committee neighborhood representative and organized fundraisers for the American Heart Association and the American Institute for Cancer Research.
“Her focus and goal has been that these places be open and available to all,” Kathy Schneider-Lewis said while introducing her friend. “She has a passionately positive attitude. May she continue on the path of her childhood dream of shaking the hand of every person in the world.”
Borden spoke briefly after accepting the award.
“I drove here thinking about what I wanted to say,” she said at the event. “And I want to say, we should live in a place where everything is included and everyone is included. Everything is love.”
SOCO member and event organizer Carol Barry-Austin introduced Dafis.
“He is one of the few people who every time I see him, he makes me smile,” she said at the event. “His service to the community has been extensive and he is a true mover and shaker.”
Dafis is the first openly gay committee member in Maplewood, and a member of the Community Board of Policy. He has been involved with the South Orange-Maplewood Community Coalition on Race and championed Maplewood’s rainbow crosswalks to promote inclusiveness.
“Sitting here now, I’m inspired to do more,” Dafis said at the event. “I’ve been thinking, what is a legacy? It’s something that is passed down to live in the most honorable way possible and that was the gift that Dr. King gave all of us. He was our inspiration in standing up for ourselves and to act, most importantly, with love. We carry on the torch for justice everywhere.”
Grant worked for IBM as an operations support manager and marketing representative before becoming a teacher in 1993. A science teacher at SOMS, she has worked with the New Jersey Education Association, the National Science Teachers Association, and is the director of the SOMA science fair and founder of the Moving to Middle School summer program. She has lived in South Orange for 33 years.
“Diane exemplifies a standard of excellence for her students,” said Marsha Dennard, who introduced Grant at the event. “She is by no means selfish with her time. She is just a good person.”
In her speech, Grant quoted King.
“Living in the community where I teach gives me the opportunity to see my students when they are all grown up,” she said. “Thank you for embracing the values that I share and have shared for the past 33 years. When looking for quotes by Dr. King I found a short one that I want to share: ‘What are you doing for others?’”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic