WEST ORANGE, NJ – Distinguished residents of West Orange were honored on Monday at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Celebration and Hands on Freedom Awards program, presented by the West Orange Human Relations Commission (HRC) and held at The Life Christian Church in West Orange.
Several speakers at the event decried the presence of “racism in the White House.”
“The current political situation reminds us of the importance of Dr. King’s timeless values,” said Tammy Williams, HRC chairwoman and event master of ceremonies.
Keynote speaker Tamara Harris, Esq., an advocate and a pioneer in the field of divorce coaching, said that Dr. King would agree that “we are not living in normal times.” She added that among the disturbing political trends was the “attack on voting-right freedom.”
In her call to action, Harris quoted Dr. King.
“He said the greatest threat is the appalling silence of good people,” said Harris, adding that all people of goodwill should clamor for justice and democracy. “We, the people, don’t have the luxury of being neutral. The decisions being made today will have an impact that will last for generations. We need to be armed with facts to challenge the false narrative taking place in our politics today.”
Harris added that she was encouraged by the growing number of people who are standing up against injustice and racism, citing as examples the Women’s March on Washington, the Black Lives Matter movement and the #MeToo Movement.
“One currency we all have in this room is our vote,” said Harris. “We have to make sure we utilize it, and make sure no one else loses this right.”
Elizabeth Redwine, a recipient of the 2017 Hands on Freedom Award, said she helped found Essex Rising to demonstrate two major points: that inclusive politics starts at the local level and that there needs to be a coordinated response to a “racist in the White House.”
“After a racist, xenophobic campaign, we had to come together to rise up to overcome despair,” said Redwine. “In this time of hatred coming from the White House, we all have to stand up at the local level to fight against hatred and for what is right.”
Redwine applauded the action of the West Orange Board of Education to pass a resolution to support the Federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which was strongly advocated for by Essex Rising.
“We have a lot of hate in our midst today,” said Monique Pryor, who received the 2017 Hands on Freedom Award along with her husband, Eric. “This is why we have to love each other in everything we do,”
Pryor is the president of the New Jersey Chapter of Jack and Jill, which nurtures the future of African-American leaders by strengthening children through leadership development, volunteer service, philanthropic giving and civic duty. Her husband is the president of the Harlem School for the Arts.
Two other recipients of the 2017 Hands on Freedom Award included Janice Johnson Dias, an associate professor of sociology and a Graduate Faculty member in the Department of Criminal Justice at John Jay College and the president of the GrassROOTS Community Foundation; and Lou Mignone, a retired detective with the West Orange Police Department who has dedicated his time and talent to mentoring and developing township youth through sports and family activities.
In addition, three West Orange residents were honored for their service to the community, including: Lt. Charles Bryant, the first African-American lieutenant in the West Orange Police Department; Sgt. George Lopez, the first Puerto Rican sergeant in the West Orange Police Department; and Carol Hopson, an African-American female pilot.
“I am one of less than 100 African-American women that fly for a living. We have to change that,” said Hopson, vice president of Black Aerospace Professionals, which runs a weeklong camp that gives kids a flying experience.
Hopson switched career fields at the age of 37 to become a pilot.
“Young girls should think of themselves as pilots flying a transcontinental jet,” he said. “If I can do it, so can they.”
In his message to the community, Mayor Robert Parisi thanked the event honorees for the contributions to making West Orange a better place to live. He acknowledged the dignitaries that were present, including Township Council President Susan McCartney, council members Joe Krakoviak, Victor Cirilo and Jerry Guarino, and township business administrator Jack Sayers.
The program also featured a dance performance by the Unique Performing Arts Center dance troupe, a poetry reflection on freedom by Orianna Carter of West Orange High School, and a stirring rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by Alexis J. Simon, a student at St. Mary’s of the Assumption High School in Elizabeth, NJ.
Dr. Akil Khalfani and The Discovery Twins also participated in ceremony, and Lisa C. Batchelor was recognized for her long-time direction of the Unique Performing Arts Center.