MAPLEWOOD / SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The MAPSO Youth Coalition formed a little over four weeks ago. The group didn’t waste any time; it immediately organized a protest in South Orange and Maplewood, to give Columbia High School students and recent graduates a venue to express their desire for racial justice in the two towns. The group now has about 30 members, and another 100 supporters in its group chat.
“We want to have influence, because there’s a lot of problems here that we’ve ignored for a long time,” Jordan Muhammad, a founding member of the coalition who just graduated from CHS, said in a phone interview with the News-Record on July 10. “We’re essentially a group of kids who care about racial justice and action.”
In addition to the protest, the group has teamed up with the West Orange Youth Caucus to host a question–and-answer forum for the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholder candidates and celebrated Juneteenth. It’s also working on a Student Bill of Rights — a document that will address academic tracking and other racial inequalities in the school district — to present to the South Orange–Maplewood Board of Education.
“We want it to be a really substantive project and a model they can use for the students in the district to come,” Olivia Brash, a member of the coalition, said in a phone interview on July 10. “We know that the racial differences manifest at the high school, but they start in the elementary and middle schools.”
According to member Laila Gold, the coalition received good feedback from the BOE after writing them an open letter and has been working with CHS teachers and other community members on the Student Bill of Rights. The group is hoping to have it finished by the end of the month.
Like every other organization that has been hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic, the coalition hasn’t been able to meet in person aside from the protest. But Muhammad said that it’s actually been an advantage rather than a hindrance.
“It allows us to be a lot more inclusive,” she said. “We’ve worked with West Orange and people from Wayne and Glen Ridge. We’re trying to reach youth from around New Jersey. We might not have been able to organize like that if we weren’t meeting the way we are.”
Member Sylvie Schuetz agreed.
“There is something to be said about isolation,” she said in a phone interview on July 10. “We’re learning something new. When there is crisis and hardship pulled to the forefront, and we’re not allowing ourselves to be distracted, it really makes a difference. It would likely never have happened on this scale.”
But Gold and Lily Forman, who will be a senior at CHS in the fall and was the student representative to the BOE this year, said the most effective way to make change is to team up with the adult-led organizations, such as SOMA Action and SOMA Justice.
“A lot of us are passionate about these issues,” Gold said. “We have that energy and that time, not more so than adults, but in a different way. But we need to work with them as well. Students are great, but putting them together is when things get done. When you have people of all ages working together you can do more.”
Forman agreed that more can be accomplished by partnering with others.
“That’s where working with other groups comes in,” she said in a phone interview on July 10. “We can cover more in less time.”
The only requirements to join the coalition are to be a youth, which members have determined to be under the age of 26, and live in either South Orange or Maplewood. To get involved, reach out at www.facebook.com/mapsoyouthco or email@example.com. So far, the membership comprises mostly high school students and graduates, but the coalition wants younger people, too.
“If an elementary school student wants to be involved, we’d love to have them,” Muhammad said. “We definitely want middle schoolers to be involved. They can learn and carry it on in the future. We’re going to be so much more powerful together, and that’s why this was created.”
Photos Courtesy of the MAPSO Youth Coalition