WEST ORANGE, NJ — The Liberty Middle School Auditorium was filled with West Orange residents celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 21, as the Human Relations Commission awarded the Honoring our Community Award to former Councilman Victor Cirilo and the Love of Service Award to L’Mani Viney, Erica Oliver, Willa Edgerton-Chisler and Royce Russell. The keynote address was given by Michellene Davis, the executive vice president of RWJBarnabas Health, after performances from the Newark Boys Apprentice Chorus, the West Orange Jubilee Choir, the Unique Performing Arts Center, Alexis Simon, the St. Matthew Liturgical Dance Ministry and Zorina Stewart.
“Despite the anarchy that surrounds us, a part of me would like to think he would be happy with some of our progress,” West Orange Mayor Robert Parisi said about King in his opening remarks. “It seems like each generation has lived through the most trying times. Each new generation has all the previous lessons and we still fall short. But we can all find one neighbor to be kind to and lift up. That is the most important lesson that we can give the next generation.”
Cirilo recently completed two terms on the West Orange Township Council, where he was instrumental in creating the West Orange Hispanic Foundation. He has been the executive director of the Newark Housing Authority since 2017. In 2007 he was the grand marshal of the New Jersey Hispanic Parade and in 2012 was named the Boys & Girls Club Councilman of the Year.
“One of Dr. King’s teachings was the three dimensions of a perfect life,” Cirilo said in his speech at the event. “Length is the goals we set out to achieve. But we have to think about sharing with others, and that’s the width. For the height, you have to connect with a higher being. There are things we don’t understand. We have to find congruency. That’s what I’ve tried to do. I am humbled, so thank you.”
Davis oversees policy development; governmental and external affairs; healthy living; community and employee wellness and engagement; and global health at RWJBarnabas Health. She is the first person of color to serve as an executive vice president in the company’s history.
“Many people in other places are not aware of how Martin Luther King Day is celebrated,” Davis said in her speech at the event. “It is observed because he made the world a better place for all of us. He is a beloved historical figure, but when he was alive he was not.”
Davis reminded that King’s work and the civil rights movement were not as long ago as it may seem.
“Those times are not so far in the rearview,” she said. “In order to make the world a better place there must be difficult times. It is the call to be a seeker of change that we will learn here today. Long gone are the days where we wait for a leader to lead us because that hasn’t worked so well. We have to leave it up to ourselves.”
She also acknowledged Cirilo and the other award-winners, saying that the community must step up and help them continue to do the work they do.
“Those who serve in our community cannot do what they do alone,” Davis said. “We could all use a helping hand. Not one person can make it on their own. I think it’s time that we stand up and refuse to sit on the sideline. We need to impact and influence others who do not think like us. It is time to cross silos that will leave us isolated.”
Viney, a winner of the Love of Service Award, has been a teacher as Piscataway High School for the last 20 years. He discussed the importance of educating young people and the need to address education inequality.
“Before we can dream we have to confront uncomfortable truths,” Viney said in his speech at the ceremony. “Harmony comes when there are times of chaos. My motivation for being an educator comes from saying we must confront education inequalities. Fulfill your dreams, but have the courage to confront the uncomfortable truths. When you do that, you will realize your dream.”
Oliver wrote a book for elementary-aged children called “When I Grow Up … Just Imagine” because she was tired of seeing her own children asked the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” not knowing what to say. The book contains interviews with professionals in dozens of different fields, allowing children to explore their interests and learn about different careers.
“I wanted to give my children and all children access to as many careers as possible,” Oliver said at the event. “I wanted to give students the motivation to follow their passions. Wouldn’t it be nice to love what you do?”
Oliver’s daughter, Madison, a sophomore at West Orange High School, edited Oliver’s book. Her son Brendan, who is in seventh grade at LMS, provided the illustrations.
“Service is rewarding,” she continued. “Please keep inspiring our children. Be open to exploring the many things that they can be.”
Edgerton-Chisler is a certified life coach and the founder of Symphony Coaching LLC. She is a member of the New Jersey Association of Women Business Owners, the International Coach Federation, the National Council of Negro Women and the New Jersey Business and Industry Association. She has served on various advisory boards and is a contributing author of the book “Discover Your Inner Strength.”
“Lead with love,” Edgerton-Chisler said in her speech. “Love people because that’s what God wanted us to do. Advocate authentically for the cause, not the applause. We have to talk and let our presence be known. We don’t do this work by ourselves.”
Russell is an attorney who specializes in criminal defense, false arrests, police brutality, immigration, contract, employment law and trademarks. He co-founded a mentorship called “Hoop Brothers” that combines academics and athletics for at-risk high school students. He has litigated immigration cases in both federal and state courts, as well as wrongful termination cases.
“Life is to be lived not in a vacuum, but to give power to others,” Russell said in his speech. “It is about empowering others. I am not the superhero — the community is the superhero. We need a system of checks and balances. Spreading goodwill is the work that needs to be done, and may we continue to provide those checks and balances.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic