MAPLEWOOD, NJ – This past Tuesday, the South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race hosted a neighborhood summit at The Woodlawn to discuss neighborhood organizing and the town’s changing demographics. This marked the first meeting of its kind in 10 years, said Program Director Audrey Rowe.

“Our goal is to build solid connections,” said Vice Chair Erin Scherzer. “It’s all about connecting, preserving those human relationships so that when something goes wrong, everyone can mobilize and move forward.”

The Coalition is a non-profit organization founded in 1996 which aims to “build and sustain a community that is racially, culturally and socially integrated and truly inclusive,” according to its mission statement. The organization has ramped up engagement efforts after its 2016 report found distinct population trends spanning South Orange and Maplewood.  

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The number of white, Asian and Hispanic residents moving to SOMA has increased over the past 20 years, according to the report, while the number of incoming black residents has decreased over the same period. The Coalition also pointed to a “clear increase” in white students in the middle schools that “will manifest in the high school soon.”

Representatives of nearly every SOMA neighborhood association, including the Hilton Neighborhood Association and the Academy Heights Neighborhood Association, weighed in on issues like neighborhood social media policies and the tensions of community policing.

Several attendees criticized calling the police on teenagers and people of color when unnecessary.

“By not having that knee jerk reaction, you can hopefully diffuse situations from going forward,” Scherzer said.

The Coalition may soon offer implicit bias training to neighborhood association officials, which it currently provides to non-profits and Maplewood Middle School. Coalition Executive Director Nancy Gagnier called the training “a need and a good idea.”

Maplewood Deputy Mayor Frank McGehee reminded the crowd that the majority of break-ins in Maplewood and South Orange occur due to homes and cars left unlocked. He encouraged residents to attend a South Orange Public Safety Committee meeting, which next occurs on July 24.

In addition to SOMA’s changing racial demographics, local economic patterns have also shifted. While black South Orange residents held a higher income than their white counterparts between the late 1990s and 2007, according to the Coalition report, the trend had reversed by 2016. In fact, the income gap between black and white residents currently grows in both towns.

In order to encourage affordable living and attract new families, the organization announced a Home Maintenance Loan Program that will offer residents a cap of $5,000 for home repairs. The loan will help residents “maintain the external attractiveness of their homes and the desirability of their neighborhoods,” Audrey Rowe said. The loan has no income eligibility requirement.

“Diversity is all forms of diversity and that includes economic diversity as a town,” Scherzer said.

Rowe hopes to see more SOMA residents participate in Coalition initiatives. A new sense of resistance has emerged, she said.

“This meeting tonight is a new beginning. We had a very healthy and engaged turnout,” Rowe said. “But we need to see more people looking up from their individual lives, looking out at the community and being willing to step forward and get engaged. That would be my call to action.”