SWEP students come together for justice

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EAST ORANGE, NJ — East Orange’s Summer Work Experience Program ended Aug. 21 with a graduation ceremony outside East Orange City Hall that saw 300 teenagers receive certification in one of six areas. The last six weeks have seen high school students between the ages of 14 and 18 learn entrepreneurship, with the goal of teaching them skills they can use to make money now.

“It’s all entrepreneurship based,” Jamila Davis, the founder of V.I.P. Online Academy, said in an interview with the Record-Transcript at the event. “Everything they learned, they can use now to make money.”

Students could choose between models about construction and labor, media and podcasting, music development, personal care for hair and makeup, web and graphic design, and wellness and physical fitness. They also took workshops about financial literacy and social justice.

McKayla Watkins, a senior at East Orange STEM Academy, got certified in hair and makeup. This was her fourth summer participating in the program.

“These opportunities haven’t come out of the program before,” Watkins said. “I liked doing makeup, and we learned how to style. They’re teaching us skills to make more money, and they’ve taught us a lot that we’re going to need to know for life.”

The program’s grand finale event at City Hall was only the second time the group of students had been together all summer; due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, their classes were held online. The first time they gathered as a group was two days earlier, at a Black Lives Matter protest they organized.

Marching from Sussex Avenue Mall to City Hall, the East Orange students sought justice for Maurice Gordon, a 28-year-old college student from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., who was killed in May by a New Jersey State Police officer on the Garden State Parkway. The protest organizers are asking for nonredacted dashcam footage of the incident, the autopsy and toxicology report to be released, and a grand jury hearing to be held.

“I watched the video and cried, because no one should be treated that way,” Nneze Eze, a 17-year-old senior at Cicely L. Tyson High School and one of the protest organizers, said in an interview with the Record-Transcript on Aug. 21. “We want to start a movement. If we don’t raise awareness, the police officers will still do this.”

Bernice Hightower, another SWEP student and protest organizer, pointed out that Gordon died two days before George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis, Minn., police officer and widespread national protests began. Yet not as many people know about Gordon.

“It was two days before George Floyd, but we didn’t see the video until after,” the Lawrenceville School senior said in an interview with the Record-Transcript on Aug. 21. “It’s time to fight for the people who can’t fight for themselves. I’m so glad that we have access to people who can get this story out. We’re not stopping.”

The protest drew a large crowd, and Watkins was glad to see so many people march in East Orange.

“We’re working toward something,” she said. “No one should be killed because of their skin color. We’re trying to make sure everyone gets the justice they deserve.”

Eze said the protests will continue around the country until change is made.

“We will be in New York, we’ll be in Chicago, we’ll be in California,” she said. “We will sit there and won’t leave.”

Hightower said the same about Gordon’s case.

“If we have to sit outside the attorney general’s office, then that’s what we’ll do,” she said.

Photos by Amanda Valentovic and Courtesy of Michael Ricciardelli