WEST ORANGE, NJ — On the eve of Juneteenth, West Orange resident Perry Bashkoff, host of the new online talk show West Orange Now had a meaningful conversation with a sampling West Orange’s future black leaders and members of the West Orange Youth Caucus, some of whom are current West Orange High School (WOHS) students or recent graduates, about important issues facing black residents in the township.
Viewers listened and contributed to a discussion on Facebook Live about the Black Lives Matter movement, racial disparities and inequities in schools, and the need for young people to be more politically and socially active.
When asked about what the Black Lives Matter movement means to them, Anya “AJ” Dillard answered that the movement means much more to her than just the hashtag or the overall campaign because people should not need to live in fear because of their heritage or because of the color of their skin.
“Our heritage and our culture as black people is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever discovered in my entire life,” she said. “That’s really the crux of my belief system as not just a black woman, but as an activist as well.”
“All lives can’t matter until black lives matter,” Marc Younker added. “That’s why the movement has taken on such a name to make a point that black lives haven’t mattered in this country or globally.”
Diving deeper into the problem of the reason why systemic inequities exist, Charles Aborisade explained that it is easy to place the burden on the federal government, but it has become increasingly important to focus on local officials and the police department to correct problems which may have stemmed from local ordinances.
Selam Woldai added that on a smaller scale, teachers with implicit biases should also be held accountable because “they mold the minds of the future” and students may copy the teacher and hold biases against other students.
She continued that it is also important for teachers to expand their knowledge by teaching a more expansive form of black history instead of focusing on Martin Luther King Jr. and slavery because “black history is American history.”
“We can even go a step higher and hold the whole board of ed accountable,” said Je’von Mason. Continuing that even though the district has hired a number of minority staff members, the district needs to do a better job retaining staff and looking at the retention rate of minority staff members compared to white staff members.
“The argument can’t be that all of these other teachers have tenure or seniority over these new minority teachers,” he said. “We’re never going get tenure if you keep firing us every time there’s a budget cut.”
Shifting the conversation to what could be done better in schools, Woldai said that the district needs to continue the conversation of what equity versus equality looks like.
Even though as a Washington Elementary School student she noticed that she did not have access to the same resources as other schools like Gregory Elementary, for example being provided donated toys or having to buy 99-cent composition notebooks instead of being provided an agenda book, that was a small-scale problem compared to what students go through when they get put into the West Orange Mountaineer Academy (WOMA).
Back in 2019, WOHS Principal Hayden Moore explained that WOMA provides students “at-risk” of dropping out with social and emotional support because they struggle in a traditional school environment.
“[WOMA] is the perfect example of a prison pipeline system, if not an actual prison,” Woldai said, adding that instead of receiving extra help to ensure success in school, students “are shut off from the rest of the school,” and do not receive the same educational experience as other WOHS students.
“We don’t need to put away troublemakers because they’re disrupting the classroom,” Younker said, adding that the district could instead use resources like guidance counselors and resource officers to address why the student is causing trouble.
Later, in the conversation, the panelists talked about what all residents could do to keep the conversation going by continuing to advocate for change.
“It’s a lot more than just posting on your social media accounts,” Woldai said. She continued that being an activist means actively using your platform to educate others and to advocate for others when exposed to microaggressions and overt forms of racism.
Also, as a first time voter, Woldai explained that even though she believes voting is important it should not be emphasized as the only thing that will “solve everything.”
Aborisade added that residents should also familiarize themselves with the ramifications of who they are voting for, not only focusing on major elections, but also knowing the names of people who are on local ballots and understand how their vote will impact future policies.
In the future, Kaia Baker said that she will continue to be a force for change in West Orange by continuing to go to town council meetings and contacting Mayor Robert Parisi.
“I like the fact that Mayor Parisi is using his power to really make active changes in the moment,” said Jordan Scott-Young. “I definitely think that we need to continue to push … and even go higher.”