LIVINGSTON, NJ — In honor of Women’s History Month in March, the social justice community action group Livingston Justice held a series of virtual events that included two read-aloud events for Livingston children featuring standout women of color and a panel discussion with female elected officials titled “Living HERstory: NJ Women of Color Making History.”
The first event, offered to children in Pre-Kindergarten through first grade children, was a reading of “The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family” by Ibtihaj Muhammad, an Olympic medalist and social justice activist who was the first U.S. Olympian to compete while wearing a hijab.
In advance of the event, participating children were provided with craft materials to create a self-portrait. Each craft kit included a human-shaped cut-out, a box of Crayola multicultural skin-tone crayons and pieces of construction paper and felt to use as clothing and hair for their self-portraits.
The read along was hosted by Livingston residents Jen Best, a Kindergarten teacher, and Naureen Akhter, Congressional Staffer for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In addition to reading the book, which tells the story of a young girl standing up to schoolyard bullies who were unkind about her sister’s hijab, Akhter shared some of her experiences with wearing a hijab while growing up.
After the reading, Best led the children in a discussion about the themes featured in the book, such as the importance of standing up for each other.
“We are all friends and neighbors,” said Best. “We can stand up for each other.”
As the children shared their self-portraits, Best explained that although their appearance does say something about who they are, their looks do not tell the whole story.
In response to one child who asked Akhter why she wears a hijab during the question-and-answer portion of the event, Akhter said there are many reasons for a woman to wear a hijab, but that she personally does so because she is “proud to be a Muslim” and wants to “show the world who [she is].”
Best concluded the event by asking the children how they would approach someone wearing something different from what they are used to seeing and ask questions in order to better understand those differences. As an example, Best showed the young participants the kippah she wears to her synagogue.
“It is so important to have these conversations and try to better understand each other,” said Akhter.
The second event, offered to children in second through fourth grade, was a reading of “Dolores Huerta: A Hero to Migrant Workers,” which details the life and accomplishments of labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta.
Best co-hosted the event alongside fellow Livingston resident and third grade teacher Holly Prince, who kicked off the discussion by explaining where fruits and vegetables come from and what it means to be a migrant worker.
After reading the book, Prince and Best led participants in identifying the important themes of the book. The greatest takeaways the children identified were that “when [they] work together, [they] can make a difference,” and that Huerta brought about change peacefully, like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Huerta is identified as many things throughout the book, including a storyteller, an organizer, a warrior, a friend, a teacher and more. The children had an opportunity to share which of those terms they identified with and how that might encourage them to use this power within their community.
Prince and Best wrapped up the event by challenging the children to learn from Huerta’s example and find an issue to work on that improves the world around them.
Most recently, Livingston Justice partnered with the Livingston League of Women Voters to host a special panel discussion titled “Living HERstory: NJ Women of Color Making History,” which celebrated five women serving as elected officials around New Jersey.
Livingston resident and educator Jenissa Arnette from Livingston Justice and Jennette Williams from the Montclair League of Women Voters hosted five panelists in a forum that covered a variety of local and national issues. Panelists also shared a mix of personal stories and professional experiences that brought them to their current positions.
The panel featured Edina Brown, the first African American and first woman to serve on the Old Bridge Town Council; Vanessa Falco, the first African American woman to serve on the Hoboken City Council; Sadaf Jaffer, the first woman of South Asian descent to serve as mayor of a New Jersey municipality, the first Muslim woman to serve as a mayor in the United States and a current candidate for the New Jersey state assembly; Vineeta Khanna, the first person of South Asian descent to serve on the Livingston Board of Education and first woman of color elected to any office in Livingston; and Jasmine Story, the first African American woman to serve on the Eatontown Township Council.
Although each panelist shared unique, formative experiences that compelled her to become engaged in political issues and run for office, all noted the importance of representation and the necessity of ensuring that the voices and interests of women of color are heard and addressed in local governance.
Story noted the importance of having women of color “at the table” in local government as ensuring that their critical needs could be addressed.
Jaffer added that government requires broad representation because policies impact everyone. She also underscored the resonance of intersectionality in governance, stating that women of color can be particularly impactful given their representation of women as well as communities of color.
Brown pointed out the significance of “lived experience” that she and others in her position can bring to bear on local governance and also spoke about her earlier political engagement in a local coalition to promote equality as a key formative experience that motivated her to enter electoral politics.
Falco acknowledged the challenge of “balancing policy and politics” as an elected official—especially in the context of dealing with men unfamiliar with women in power.
Khanna described the critical role of commitment to community service as a means to engage locally as well as to understand the needs of communities. She also addressed the “energy” she felt from communities of color in Livingston after being elected to the school board, stating that many of her supporters felt that their concerns would be represented.
To participate in future Livingston Justice events or to view previous virtual events, visit the Livingston Justice Events Facebook page BY CLICKING HERE.
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