West Orange Human Relations Commission Celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday With Annual Program

(L-R) HRC member Greg Bullock, Doug Adams, Honoree Ken Mandel, HRC MLK Chair Althia Tweiten, Honorees Tekeste Gebremicael, Alice Hoffman and Josie Velez. Credits: Cynthia Cumming
Front (L-R) Alice Hoffman, Ken Mandel, Sharon Robinson-Briggs, HRC member Jane Gaertner. Back (L-R) HRC members Sonny Lerum, Greg Bullock, Youssef Wadih, Heather Payne, Alex Deronde, Michelle Cadeau, Dagmar Hobson, Althia Tweiten, Mayor Rob Parisi, Tekeste Gebremicael, Josie Velez, HRC member Amy Rosenthal, Doug Adams, Zal Velez. Credits: Evan Cumming
Council President Victor Cirilo welcomes residents. Credits: Cynthia Cumming
Jazz Vocalist Jan Carden performs. Credits: Cynthia Cumming
Nia Sorbino performs. Credits: Cynthia Cumming

WEST ORANGE, NJ – As President Barack Obama was sworn in for a second term on Monday, and in the year America celebrates not only the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation but 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the West Orange Human Relations Commission presented their annual Martin Luther King, Jr. event, entitled “Moving Forward With the Dream.”

More than 100 residents turned out Monday morning at 9:30 a.m. on Jan. 21 at St. Joseph’s Parish House to hear Keynote Speaker, Sharon Robinson-Brigg, Mayor of Plainfield, and to recognize four West Orange residents that have helped to embody the spirit and vision of Dr. King in West Orange.

Pastor Douglas Adams, chairman of the West Orange Human Relations Commission, welcomed residents and honorees as he compared them to Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., noting that both were "ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, producing outstanding work."

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Chairman Althia Tweiten opened the program and introduced West Orange resident and jazz vocalist Jan Carden, who performed “Hero.”

Council President Victor Cirilo applauded the work of the WOHRC, now in its 20th year, and echoed King’s sentiments that one day, "we will live in a nation where (we) will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Robinson-Briggs then shared her thoughts on King and his dream, which he followed through non-violent social change. She recalled several incidents over the past 100 years that spoke of racial tension and violence in America and legislation that began to provide civil rights to all citizens. She recounted King’s path leading to his assassination in Memphis at the Lorraine Hotel on April 4, 1968. She spoke of how now, his dream "lives on in all of us…we are standing on the shoulders of giants."

Robinson-Briggs spoke of her own experiences with racism, describing being spat at and called names by a police officer in Piscataway when she was in middle school. In high school, her basketball coach took her to McDonalds when the team finally won a game, and thanked her for the opportunity to get to know her. 

The coach explained that Robinson-Briggs had helped to show her a different way to look at black people, and to change her perceptions. She told Monday's audience that the incident helped to heal her, and ended by admonishing the audience to fight for our youth… that they are the future and should not be lost to the perils of gangs, guns and drugs. She noted and applauded the diversity of the West Orange community.

Nia Sorbino, a middle schooler at Roosevelt, performed “Someone Like You,” accompanying herself on the piano.

Tekeste Gebremicael, born in Ethiopia and long-time resident of West Orange, was the first honoree.  Gebremicael owns Cass Realtors and the President of the West Orange Rotary Club; former President of the Chamber of Commerce in town, as well as other organizations. He said he is happiest when he serving his community. 

Alice Hoffman is the Food Pantry Coordinator at Holy Trinity-West Orange Food Pantry.  She has lived in town for 30 years and been with the food pantry since it opened 11 years ago.  The pantry helps to provide food for 400-500 people a month, and she calls them "my people."

Vocalist Jan Carden once again sang, and performed “Wind Beneath My Wings.”

Greg Bullock, MLK committee member, introduced Ken Mandel, the next honoree. Mandel is an Emmy award-winning filmmaker and currently runs the West Orange Classic Film Festival, playing at AMC Essex Green on Sundays at 2 p.m. through February.  He is also involved with Edison National Historic Park and the West Orange Arts Council.

The last honoree was Josie Velez, who is a member of the West Orange Public Relations Commission and community activist. Velez has been a resident of West Orange for decades and is a registered dietician and advocates for wellness and preventative healthcare.

After Nia Sorbino played an instrumental solo, Pastor Adams closed the program, thanking residents for their attendance, and encouraging them to continue building for tomorrow. He reflected upon his own past and how his original vision of change could be accomplished differently, by "loving one another."

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