I attended the Millburn Township debate held this past week for candidates running for Township Committee in the hopes of hearing a lively discussion over ways to make our town a better place for current and future residents. Instead, I was not only alarmed but saddened to hear Agnes Sym, one of the women running for township mayor, make blatant and unabashed comments and statements that smacked of Trumpian coded language and fear mongering.

Straight from the current President’s playbook, she talked about the lack of safety in our community and how “high-density housing” would lead to “swarms of children” moving into our community and ruining the quality of the schools. She summarily argued that our town doesn’t need any more people and referenced that a current housing development under way – something that will allow the town to meet its affordable housing requirement which is mandated by New Jersey state law – will have a deleterious impact on the “character’ of our town.

I, for one, moved to Millburn almost 5 years ago in search of community. Community is defined by a sense of togetherness, common purpose and, most importantly, welcoming people in, not shutting people out. My parents immigrated to the US in the late 60’s, thereby giving me the good fortune of being born and raised in this great country. Even though we experienced racism from time to time, our neighbors always made us feel welcome. We were all participating in this sometimes bewildering but always amazing social experiment called being an American.

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And that’s why it shames me, angers me and frankly breaks my heart when I hear other immigrants, or children of immigrants like myself, talk about how “we can’t let any more people in” or “if we let them come in, they’ll ruin our school/town/neighborhood”. Essentially, they want to roll up the ladder and deny anyone else the opportunity of taking a shot at the American dream – safe streets, good schools, a better life - because they themselves have already achieved their own.

Ms. Sym spoke of the unique and amazing “character” of Millburn as being something she wants to preserve. To this I would ask, what defines a town’s character, actually? Is it the age of its historic buildings or the number of brand name stores it manages to attract to its downtown? Is it the number of National Merit Scholars its high school churns out every year or the number of expensive cars one see being driven on the streets? I tend to think that the character of a town derives from something hard to quantify but easy to feel – you feel it deep down in your bones. It’s the warmth that you feel when a person wishes you a good morning on your daily commute into the city. Or the sense that you are truly welcome when the family next door invites you over for an impromptu barbeque.

We are now at a critical point in our nation’s history. The rise and presidency of Donald Trump has divided our country and is testing us in ways we’ve never been tested before. This test is occurring not only at the national level but at the most personal and deeply felt level - at the community level, in towns and cities across the US. At this fateful time in our history, perhaps the one test that we cannot afford to fail will be - how do we treat our neighbors? The folks that live down the street from us? The parents of our children’s classmates? The person in front of me at the grocery store? Will I treat her like an outsider? Will I suspect that she will ruin my community? Or will I greet her and say hello? Will I welcome her in, as I too was welcomed years ago?

Editors Note:

The author quotes Millburn Township candidate Agnes Sym five times throughout her letter. After a review of the debate video footage, we did not find any statement(s) whereby Millburn Township Committee candidate Agnes Sym or any other person said;

  1. “we can’t let any more people in”
  2. “if we let them come in, they’ll ruin our school/town/neighborhood”. 

“Swarms of children” was said by Ms. Sym in the sentence, “I would love to think that we are not going to have swarms of children coming into town….” The statement was in response to Mayor Dianne Thall-Eglow, who first used the phrase and said, “you don’t get swarms of students of the same age….” in reference to the subject of future development.

“High density housing” was first used by the moderator of the debate, as a part of a question that was asked by a member of the audience, specifically to Ms. Sym. It was mentioned by Ms. Sym in her response as “high density properties”.

Ms. Sym did use “character” in her statements and responses.


Matthew Kass, Editor