Coffeehouse draws support, reproach from community

Photo by Shanee Frazier
Nancy Gagnier, executive director of the Community Coalition on Race, discusses the strides her organization has made and the behind-the-scenes work it does.

MAPLEWOOD / SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The South Orange-Maplewood Community Coalition on Race presented its coffeehouse discussion “RACISM: It’s in Our Backyard Too” on Tuesday, Sept. 12, at The Woodland in Maplewood and tackled community issues surrounding local law enforcement, public school district inequities and the role that recent events in Charlottesville, Va., play on a local level.

The focus of the coffeehouse, co-sponsored by SOMA Action and the SOMA Clergy Association, included three controversial topics that have been plaguing the two towns in recent years, as evidenced by both the film that opened the event, and the discussions that ensued as the evening progressed.

The event opened with a short film that showed footage of the Maplewood police brutality incident that occurred July 5, 2016, national news coverage of the events in Charlottesville, and a local news story that interviewed parents of Columbia High School students about the difficulties their children have faced regarding disproportionate disciplinary actions and access to higher level academic courses.

Though the stories being projected on the screen were not new to those in attendance, seeing them onscreen had an impact on the participants’ desire for policy change in their respective towns.

After viewing the film, the audience was asked to engage in discussion at their tables, asking what behaviors or practices they felt are racist in Charlottesville, the 2016 Maplewood policing incident and in the local school district. Furthermore, attendees were asked what specific thoughts and suggestions they had for eliminating these practices and behaviors, and the pros and cons of each. Participants were also asked to identify those who should be held accountable for implementing change in the community.

“We have to pay attention to what is happening around us, not only nationally but also locally,” CCR Board Chairman Robert Marchman said in his opening remarks to the audience. “It’s really good that we get together as a community to have these conversations, but I’m tired of talking at this point, and I want to see some action. What are you willing to do for your children and for your grandchildren to make this better?”

Among the six tables of conversation, several common themes emerged as possible solutions to the issues regarding local policing and school district inequities. Sensitivity training for new school district employees and better channels of communication between administration and parents were identified as necessary components of change.

“Why are the black children perceived a certain way by the teachers?” asked one table spokesperson. “Our teachers need to be educated about this before they ever set foot in the classroom with the students.”

Other suggestions to improve the school district included redistricting so that the schools are not racially segregated, and eliminating leveling completely at the high school level. Residents also suggested that classes be taught beginning at the elementary school level that focused on exposing students to different cultures, languages and religions, so that there is a smoother transition when they are inevitably thrust together at Columbia High School in their later years.

Regarding concerns around the actions of the Maplewood Police Department specifically and local policing policies in general, many residents said training on implicit bias, sensitivity and de-escalation are long overdue for implementation.

Many in attendance also expressed the desire to create a residency requirement of at least one year for new recruits to the Maplewood Police Department, similar to the policy already in place for the South Orange Police Department, with the hope that increased familiarity with the community and its residents will decrease the number of racially biased incidents.

In addition to more education for local law enforcement, residents also expressed a desire for more opportunities to interact positively with the police departments. Instead of asking for badge numbers, participants suggested having officers give out cards with their contact information on it, so that citizens can be allies instead of enemies.

“As diverse as we like to say our community is, we don’t always live that way,” said one audience member. “We like to blame the police, but when we hear about the police investigating a black man walking down the street, we fail to realize that it’s likely because one of our neighbors called the police department about him.”

Criticism was also directed at the Community Coalition on Race, with one table in particular expressing dismay at the perceived slowness by organization in addressing some of these community concerns.

“Some people feel that CCR has dropped the ball and is not doing enough. You let other organizations in the community take the lead on the issues,” the table spokesperson said. “An outdoor festival is great, but instead of celebrating music and arts, why not do workshops on economic development, community policing, etc.? Residents want to see a strategic plan and what CCR is actually going to do about what’s going on in our two towns.”

The Community Coalition on Race is not ignorant to the critiques of its work, and continues to work on engaging the community in the conversations around the controversial issues, CCR Executive Director Nancy Gagnier said.

“We have been at this question of equity and excellence for almost as long as CCR has been in existence. We have been at the table talking to the superintendents, the teachers and the parents, and one of the first things we did was advocate for changes at the middle schools regarding leveling,” Gagnier said in a recent interview with the News-Record. “That took years to get there and that was despite a great deal of community pushback about why we were requesting that levels be eliminated.”

Gagnier said that although other community groups may be more visible in the community, this does not mean the CCR is working any less toward its goals.

“Many of the other advocacy groups that exist in the two towns are able to spread their messages through the use of social media, so it’s natural that people will more easily see the fruits of their efforts,” she said. “In some instances, other organizations are better equipped to tackle certain issues, and we are fine with that. One of the roles we think we do best is to start the conversations to engage the citizens and change hearts and minds. We’re always out there challenging the trustees, the council members, the school board members about their stance on the issues relevant to our mission, and we will continue to do so.”

Lillian Hawkins, who sits on the steering committee of SOMA Action, said her organization will continue to support the efforts of the Community Coalition on Race and stands in solidarity with the list of police action demands presented by SOMA Justice, along with the MapSO Freedom School and the SOMA Black Parents Workshop.

“We have partnered with them on several efforts in the community on increased police accountability, and I went to the event to listen and learn. We’re hoping that with events like the one on Tuesday we can enforce those goals,” Hawkins said in a recent interview with the News-Record. “One thing that came out of the conversation I was in is that there’s a desire for increased community oversight for police activities. People wish there was some sort of community affairs branch of the police department and possibly a data tracking system, so we know that when there is an incident report, we know race and ethnicity involved and other key demographic info.”