Social justice advocates recognized at West Orange MLK ceremony

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — West Orange honored members of the community who have made an impact on social justice at this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day ceremony at Liberty Middle School on Jan. 16. Guests included West Orange Mayor Susan McCartney, United Asian Voices of West Orange representative Fannie Chan Jarvis, St. Cloud diversity council co–Vice President Jessica Harrell, and GrassROOTS Community Foundation founder and President Janice Johnson Dias. Performances by the West Orange High School step team and St. Cloud Elementary School choir accompanied the celebration.

“I am so proud, I just appointed two new chairs to the human relations commission,” McCartney told the West Orange Chronicle. “If today is any indication of what we have to look forward to this year, I am thrilled.”

Jarvis was presented with an award during the ceremony for her work to combat Asian hate. Jarvis advocated for unity and eliminating hate during her acceptance speech.

Another United Asian Voices member stressed the importance of knowledge to combat bigotry.

“I truly believe that sharing of culture and information is how you reduce hate,” UAV member Sage Gajarawala told the Chronicle. “We do events across towns to share our culture for people to understand more and love it more.”

United Asian Voices members also spoke on the need for more support and cooperation within West Orange.

“We’re looking to build more allyships; we truly believe in solidarity,” Jarvis told the Chronicle. “In order to make West Orange stronger, we need to lean into the great diversity of our town. We need to build on our collaborations.”

McCartney plans on improving those measures at the school and township level, highlighting the large number of schools within West Orange.

“The amount of people here today is a great sign,” McCartney said. “We have to get the kids (of all ages involved) through more events and more educational materials to raise awareness and educate every school. Fannie said it best about getting more curriculum into the school system; we are moving in the right direction.”

St. Cloud parents and students also attended the ceremony. Harrell was presented with an award during the ceremony for her work in equity and inclusion at the school. Harrell spoke about educating students and creating a more accepting world during her acceptance speech.

“We are one of the most diverse communities that exist, so it is not enough to just say that we are about diversity,” Harrell told the Chronicle. “We need to look deeper and see what diversity really means and get our teachers to articulate it, to get past being comfortable and enter that realm of being uncomfortable so that our kids are the ones that are comfortable.”

Johnson Dias was also presented with an award during the ceremony, for her work in diversity throughout the town. Johnson Dias introduced several students during her acceptance speech and spoke of young people leading the way for change.

“The girls and what they have been able to do in social action projects — the #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign and #WhatOrphansWant campaign — (is) transforming systems and meeting emergency needs,” Johnson Dias told the Chronicle. “This opportunity to showcase their work and have the human relations commission honor us at this event is proof that young people are being understood as agents of change.”

Elizabeth Milhim, the newly appointed chairperson of the town’s human relations commission, spoke on the future of diversity and equity in West Orange.

“The work looks like we must come back in and impact the community, create more diverse cultural events and bring more awareness to all different ages within the township,” Milhim told the Chronicle. “The foundation has been laid, but there are so many more layers and blocks to build to bring recognition to what people are doing in the community.”

Photos by Javon Ross