SOMA community comes together to celebrate King’s legacy

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MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration returned in person to the Columbia High School auditorium for the first time in three years, bringing the community together to celebrate the holiday. The keynote speaker was Robt Martin Seda-Schreiber, chief activist at the Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice in Princeton; local leaders also spoke, and the CHS Special Dance Co. and CHS Chorus performed.

“For the past decade or so, I’ve come to see this as the beginning of the new year,” CCR Executive Director Nancy Gagnier said at the ceremony. “My resolutions start today. I do believe that begins with volunteering. I implore you to find what moves you and take action. Be in fellowship with those who want to make changes.”

Erin Scherzer and Kasia Piekarz, the co-founders of the Maplewood Community Board on Police, spoke about the changes that still need to be made in the towns and in the state. Scherzer listed several things the police have been called on to respond to: people going for a run, people stopped in their car to reset a GPS and teenagers riding bikes. The police have been called disproportionately on black residents.

“These facts are sobering, and it’s hard to hear that,” Scherzer said when she spoke at the event. “We are still not welcoming of everyone in our two towns. But remember what Dr. King said: ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that.’ Our light is those who work hard to make it better as a community.”

Scherzer detailed the work the board has done to improve the MPD and its relationship with the community, including personnel changes, culture changes and increased transparency. Maplewood’s board was among the first of its kind to be formed in the state.

“There was no blueprint,” she said. “We were figuring it out as we went. We had to rely on our collective community will working together and yes, challenging each other at times, to put ideas into action step by step.”

South Orange Village President Sheena Collum lived in Mississippi as a teenager, and, when she was a junior in high school, a statewide measure to remove the Confederate flag symbol from the state flag was rejected by 65 percent of voters. Two years ago, the measure was finally approved. Collum shared other “hyperlocal observations” when she spoke at the event.

“Supporting 5G technology is OK but not OK when you expect the facilities to always go into other communities, and the same holds true for utility upgrades,” Collum said. New Jersey is short over 200,000 affordable housing units, and, in this town, constructing more housing means changes to our built environment, a built environment designed to limit access and opportunity. Will you support that growth of our community or defend exclusionary zoning practices under the guise of character?”

She also spoke about the recycling system and school integration before she ended her speech.

“Let us not weaponize race and project intentions on each other,” Collum said. “We all possess different levels of knowledge in our journeys and life experiences. Showing grace, understanding, compassion and care as a means to that end will ensure our tree will flourish stronger together.”

Maplewood Mayor Dean Dafis spoke about housing as well, saying that the racial inequities that create housing inequities statewide and locally are not a problem of the past.

“I regretfully assure you that redlining is alive and well in New Jersey, and it’s alive and well right here in SOMA,” Dafis said. “As we introduce a new master plan in Maplewood later this year, let’s engage in advocacy for more housing equity; more multifamily zoning; expanding our existing accessory dwelling unit capacity to include, among other things, more than one owner on the same lot; investing in co-housing; and other just housing solutions.”

Dafis introduced Seda-Schreiber, who has been on the board of the Bayard Rustin Center, a social justice nonprofit organization named for the 1963 March on Washington organizer, since 2019. Seda-Schreiber is a former middle school art teacher and has been named Activist of the Year by the National Education Association. He has also been named a Martin Luther King Jr. Champion of Justice at the New Jersey State Governor’s Awards and received two Senate proclamations recognizing his community service. Seda-Schreiber served as a Fulbright Scholar in Japan and created the first Gay Straight Alliance in New Jersey.

“So many folks conveniently forget about him,” Seda-Schreiber said about Bayard Rustin in his speech at the event. “Here he is raising up an early, powerful prototype of intersectionality some 20 years before Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term. Bayard Rustin planned the march, brought nonviolence to the movement, inspired the Freedom Riders and spoke truth to power. He was lost to history, edited out of the books and excised from the stories told because of who he loved and who he was, a queer black man embracing his identity and all his beautiful intersectionality.”

Continuing to talk about the nonprofit’s namesake, Seda-Schreiber said that, due to the lack of marriage equality in the 1980s, Rustin adopted his partner Walter Naegle in 1982 when Naegle was 30 years old. It was the only way they had to legally protect their relationship.

“Our sacrosanct mission at the Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice is to make sure no one else ever is left behind again,” Seda-Schreiber said. “Not on a large or small scale, not the leader of a movement, a worker in an office, a student in a classroom or an individual in any community. It is a sacred journey I hope to inspire you all to join us on, to empower us and to recognize, respect and love all our brothers, sisters and nonbinary siblings engaged in a beautiful struggle each and every day.”

Photos by Amanda Valentovic