EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - Nobody likes to admit his or her own prejudices.They especially do not like to discuss them at an open forum. However, East Brunswick's Human Relations Council created a welcoming environment in which local residents could do just that - face up to what's going on in our own town and see how we can improve how we treat everyone who lives here. At the "Coffee and Conversation" event held at the East Brunswick Municipal Arts Center this past Tuesday night, people met and talked about issues of bias and stereotyping that are specific to our township yet far-reaching in scope.
The EBHRC was formed to foster- through community efforts - cooperation and conciliation among the various groups in East Brunswick. It addresses the causes, impact, and prevention of bias-related incidents. The Council serves as a resource for the township by hosting events, supporting activities, and providing information about the many cultures that make up the East Brunswick community.
The program began with a brief address by Mayor Brad Cohen, who, in a nod to the current political climate said, "People hae stopped talking to each other. they have started talking at each other." He noted that "conversations" on the internet lack the depth of genuine communication between people. He said that he prefers face-to face conversation because "it moves away from the negative momentum" often found online.
Cohen registered concern because the number of reported bias incidents rose from two reported events in 2012 to 31 in 2017. He noted the soon-to-be updated census results of 2010 that show East Brunswick's population as 68% white, 22% Asian, 6% Hispanic, and 4% African-American. He added that the majority of new residents in town are Asian.
Janice Pennington, Coordinator of the Daisy Recreation and Camps in East Brunswick, spoke about the bias that is often met by members of the Special Needs Population: "It can be somethings as simple as someone saying 'Oh, I'm sorry' when she hears that a friend has a Special Needs child." She said that people would benefit form hearing the Special Needs population articulate what it is like to be labeled.
"We have people coming from all over the world, and they are coming here because it is a great community," said Assistant Superintendent and HIB Coordinator Louis Figueroa. "It is our task in the East Brunswick Public Schools to educate everyone -students, staff, parents, and the rest of the community about how to learn to enjoy the differences among people." He described the Sources of Strength program in place in the schools that teaches students to be upstanders when confronting issues of prejudice and student isolation. Sources of Strength is a best practice youth suicide prevention project designed to harness the power of peer social networks to change unhealthy norms and culture, ultimately preventing suicide, bullying, and substance abuse.
Figueroa maintained his point throughout the discussion that building a community that values everyone and represents the people who live in a town is the best way to create positive relationships. In support of his remarks, Mayor Cohen added that there are 100 different languages spoken by students in the EB Schools. He said that the average age of an East Brunswick resident is 42. He remarked that St. Mary's Coptic Church on Riva Avenue has doubled its membership in the past ten years. Cohen pointed out that stores catering to specific ethnic groups now line Route 18. All documented elements of change within the township.
Atiya Aftab, Chair of the Center for Islamic Life at Rutgers University, gave examples of the many misconceptions about the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide. She felt especially concerned about the perception of Muslims as terrorists in America and provided statistics to show the low numbers of incidents and perpetrators who have defined themselves as Muslims.
The featured presenter was Dr. Lois Prisock who is affiliated with both the Africana and American Studies programs at Rutgers. Priscock, too, talked about the need to begin at the community level where people get to know each other on a personal level. "Studies show that in neighborhoods with diversity, there are more positive outcomes. " He described the problems and misconceptions caused by "residential segregation" which makes it easier for people to hold on to stereotypes and biases. Prisock and Figueroa both encouraged residents to "do small things in your neighborhood to build a greater sense of community. We need to work on the local level."
Comments from the floor began with EB resident Miriam Eichler's encouraging the use of the word "respect" instead of "tolerance." She was joined by Mayor Cohen when she suggested a greater support for the arts and the inclusivity and meaning that they can provide.
Audience members requested an increased focus on diversity when hiring for positions in the township and the schools. Figueroa said that during interviews that the district is indeed looking for diversity, but their main goal is to hire the right person for the job. "We are not done, " he said, "We want the best people. Some audience members echoed his statement and added that people concerned about diversity among educators should encourage their children to become teachers, staff members, and coaches.
To address some concerns from residents regarding the teaching of culture and religious information in the schools, Dr. Victor Valeski, who was also present at the meeting, asserted that the entire curriculum for the East Brunswick Public Schools is undergoing a complete review to make sure that it is aligned with state goals and finding ways "that we can imbed the values of our community" as well.
EBHS student Alex Prisock added that teenagers "just want to be heard," implying that they are often ignored in decision -making about what works best to insure a positive community. She joined her father Dr. Prisock by asking the question, "How can we encourage diversity in our own lives?"
The conversation then turned to the idea of "Class Bias," and the idea of how houses and housing function as the main assets in people's lives, often spurring bias and conflict, according to Dr. Prisock. "People get concerned about the impact on value of their homes caused by residential integration."
Along with others, Former EB Mayor Kevin McEvoy, along with his colleague Sharon Sullivan, both of whom are running for Town Council positions this November in East Brunswick, discussed the social media postings and neighborhood conversations regarding the residents of new apartments planned for the township on Summerhill Road and Tices Lane. "Kevin, I don't want to sound racist, but..." and "Kevin, we can't have those people..." becoming recurrent themes. Prisock, who has written extensively about residential integration, acknowledged that he recognized the language of "Class Bias" toward people of different economic classes, regardless of their race, denoting a fear of those who might devalue our homes.
Other audience members asserted that new teachers, police officers, and other workers in the township should be able to afford to live here.
The event concluded with a closing addresses by EBHRC Vice Chair Erun Shakir and Secretary Paula Quinton who tied up the lose ends of the conversation that spooled out after a brief invitation to share. Those in attendance were still chatting with each other, highly engaged in the flurry of ideas, new information, and interpersonal interchange. It was a real conversation among people, no emojis allowed.