WEST ORANGE, NJ — Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) Day was not only a day of remembrance, but a day of service in West Orange, where distinguished residents were recognized for their commitment to giving back during the West Orange Human Relations Commission’s (HRC) annual MLK Day celebration and “Love of Service” Awards held at Liberty Middle School.
The HRC serves to develop and implement programs and initiatives that encourage a positive and constructive dialogue within the township about diversity-related issues. The many community members who braved freezing temperatures on Monday to join the HRC in remembering the life and legacy of MLK were made warm by their collective desire for unity and the celebration of others in their service.
Tammy Williams, HRC chair and event chair, said the awards ceremony gives the organization an opportunity to “recognize and honor dedicated citizens whose personal pursuits and daily endeavors enhance the lives of others.”
Following an opening prayer from Pastor Carol Lynn Patterson of the Federated Church of Livingston, Mayor Robert Parisi set the tone of the event by explaining why each generation has a responsibility to set an example for the ones who follow.
“Each new generation has all the lessons and experiences of the previous generation to learn from and yet we still fall far short in all our human frailty,” said Parisi, who has dedicated more than 25 years of service to the citizens of West Orange. “None of us in this room has any realistic expectation of changing the world the way Dr. King did, but each one of us can find one neighbor to be nice to, to lift up when they’re down. That is the most important example we can set for the next generation.”
Parisi also introduced his friend and one of this year’s honorees, Victor Cirilo, who served on the township council as the first Hispanic councilman from 2010 to 2018. Cirilo has also worked extensively in the field of public housing, property management and development.
After referencing MLK’s sermon on “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life”—which is adapted from Chapter 21 in the “Book of Revelations” and describes how people must live their lives not only to achieve their goals (length), but to share their achievements with others (width), all while reaching out to God (height)—Cirilo remarked that he was humbled by the honor he received.
“I could never achieve what a person who only comes once in a lifetime achieved in his short life at 39 years of age,” said Cirilo, who was honored alongside L’Mani Viney, Erica Oliver, Willa Edgerton-Chisler and Royce Russell.
Viney, a public school educator with more than 20 years of experience at Piscataway High School, added to Davis’ talking points.
“When we talk of Dr. King, we always call him the dreamer,” said Viney. “And that’s true, but King was a confrontationalist, and I think that sometimes we forget that before we can achieve a dream, we must first have the courage to confront uncomfortable truths.”
Appealing to both the parents and students in the room, Viney explained that dreams cannot be achieved without challenges to face. Parents and educators must help to advance and empower youth, he said.
Oliver, author of “When I Grow Up…Just Imagine,” encouraged local children to discover and pursue their passions, explaining that after changing her profession from accounting to marketing, she has now worked in the field for more than 20 years.
“Do what you love to do because it won’t feel like work,” she said prior to accepting her award.
Edgerton-Chisler, an inspirational speaker and coach, encouraged everyone to “not sit on the sidelines,” and Russell, a criminal defense attorney and advocate who is also the author “Cardiac Arrest: A Tactical Guide on How to Manage Unlawful Police Stops," encouraged all in attendance to empower others within their community.
Each “Love of Service” honoree was presented with an MLK Day Service Award plaque and also received a proclamation from Senator Richard Codey, Assemblyman John McKeon and Assemblywoman Mila Jasey.
HRC commissioner Dr. Akil Khalfani presented keynote speaker Michellene Davis, Esq., describing her as a “community servant” who uses her “sphere of influence to forward progress and social impact.” As the Executive Vice President and Chief Corporate Affairs Officer for RWJBarnabas Health, Davis works on the social impact and community investment of healthcare.
“It is the work that literally requires us to change systems and structures,” she said. “There are systems and structures that literally create the negative health outcomes that we see across the land; healthcare disparities that no matter the advancements in medicine and/or medical technology still continue to exist, so it is the work that challenges us to pull back the onion layers and take a deep look at things most folks call the social determinants of health.”
Davis explained that the social determinants of health, otherwise known as the political determinants of health, are aspects that are directly related to outcomes “created as a result of laws and policies that construct environments where ill health thrives.”
Referencing redlining, a practice where certain demographics were forced to live in areas that also happened to have high levels of pollutants, Davis added that she sought to change the impact of these policies that disproportionately affected disenfranchised groups.
“It is that call to be a seeker of change that I think very well brought me here today,” said Davis, who also spoke about the continued need for individuals to volunteer in order to ensure that all individuals, “no matter where they come from, or their background, no matter what their income is, that they do have an opportunity to feel healthy and strong.”
Davis also touched upon the struggle that King faced in his fight for social justice and freedom. Explaining that King went through tough times, suffering from depressive episodes and even contemplating suicide, Davis impressed on the children in the audience that although “there might be times where it seems tough,” inside every child is a King.
The program also featured singing performances by The Newark Boys Apprentice Chorus, The West Orange High School Jubilee Choir, Alexis Simon, Zorina Stewart, and dance performances by the West Orange Unique Performing Arts Center (UPAC) and the St. Matthew Liturgical Dance Ministry.
Members of the audience were randomly selected to participate in the “Community Love Challenge,” in which cards with quotes relating to service and encouraging diversity were read aloud in the auditorium.
Parisi also recognized the presence of several local dignitaries, including: Acting Superintendent Eveny de Mendez, West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE) President Ken Alper, WOBOE member Mark Robertson, WOBOE member Terry Trigg-Scales, Deputy Mayor Rodolfo Rodriguez, Township Council President Jerry Guarino, Councilwoman Susan McCartney, Councilwoman Michelle Casalino, Councilwoman Cindy Matute-Brown and West Orange Fire Chief Anthony Vecchio, along with other members of the fire department.
Cindy Matute-Brown was also recognized as the first Latina councilwoman elected in West Orange.
The full MLK Celebration and “Love of Service” Awards program was presented as follows:
Welcome - Tammy Williams, HRC Chairwoman
Unity Prayer - Dr. Carol Lynn Patterson, Pastor Federated Church of Livingston
Lift Every Voice and Sing & Medley - The Newark Boys Apprentice Chorus
Messages from our Community - Honorable Mayor Robert Parisi
Honoring our Community - Former Councilman Victor Cirilo
Musical Interlude - "Unity" & "Ride on King Jesus" Performed by WOHS Jubilee Choir
Dance Performance - "Making an Impact" Performed by Unique Performing Arts Center WO
Keynote Address - Michellene Davis, Esq. RWJBarnabas Executive V. President
Music Interlude - "I Know Where I've Been" from Hairspray the Musical Performed by Alexis Simon
MLK Honorees - 2019 "A Love for Service" Awards Presentations
- L'Mani Viney
- Erica Oliver
- Willa Edgerton-Chisler
- Royce Russell
Dance Performance - "Come By Here Lord" Performed by The St. Matthew Liturgical Dance Ministry
Musical Interlude - "Help Us to Love" by Tori Kelly Performed by Zorina Stewart
All photos were provided by Deborah Balthazar.