WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Human Relations Commission (HRC) presented its annual program celebrating the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) on Monday at West Orange High School while also recognizing four standout residents whose professional and volunteer accomplishments align with the ideals of MLK. 

This year’s program, aptly themed “King’s Legacy and the Hope For A Better Tomorrow,” showcased a variety of residents whose contributions help to serve others within the West Orange community and beyond.

“As we begin a new year, a new decade, let us renew our courage and continue to pursue justice for all America,” said HRC Chair Tammy Williams at the commencement of the program. “As we celebrate on today, let us not forget that there is still much work to be done. Let us honor the principles of Dr. King, fellowship through song and dance and celebrate our neighbors who serve others in our community of West Orange and beyond.”

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Tying in this year’s theme, keynote speaker Dr. Maurice Stinnett, vice president of diversity and inclusion at BSE Global—which owns and operates venues such as the Barclays Center and premier sports franchises including the Brooklyn Nets—spoke about building a better tomorrow by remembering the ABCs: advocacy, bravery and compassion.

Citing the story of how his mother and one of his elementary school teachers embodied those traits in order to give him a better tomorrow, Stinnett elaborated that advocates can only build a better tomorrow by having the courage to expose uncomfortable truths such as systemic racism and other “isms” as well as having the compassion that “transforms and turns into action.”

“If we expect and we hope to have a brighter and better tomorrow, we have to be advocates, we have to be brave and we have to be compassionate,” he said. “Never sympathizing ourselves or anyone else into mediocrity. Never accepting the status quo: ‘this is just the way things are and the way they have always been.’ Resisting those systems and structures of oppression and pushing forward to a brighter and better tomorrow.”

Stinnett concluded his speech with his iteration of an African proverb.

“If you want to go fast—you want to do this work and you want to go fast—go alone,” he said “But if you want to go far—if you truly want to change this world for the better for generations to come—the African proverb says that we must go together.”

Councilwoman Cindy Matute-Brown, this year’s recipient of the MLK Service Award, proclaimed that the community must “do much more than just celebrate” MLK Day. During her speech, Matute-Brown decried racism and urged community members to recognize the systems of oppression that still plague the black and brown populations in the United States—including poverty and the disproportionate rates of incarceration that these populations are subject to.

She also thanked members of the West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE) for revising the curriculum in order to “fully integrate the legally mandated Amistad curriculum” so that all students could “learn the value of their ancestors’ contributions to this country and the legacy of slavery.”

In addition to Matute-Brown, three other residents were also honored for their service to the community with MLK Legacy Awards. Honorees included:

  • William Michael Barbee, a businessman, author and director and producer of the film “Clipped Wings, They Do Fly” which focuses on mental illness, based on a semi-autobiographical novel he wrote of the same name;
  • Gianna Akiko Garcia, owner of Willow & Olivia, a dessert café based in West Orange; and 
  • Khabirah Myers, a lawyer who represents low-income tenants and is also the co-founder of Essex Rising.

During the program, Williams acknowledged the dignitaries that were present, including township council members Jerry Guarino, Susan McCartney and Joe Krakoviak; WOBOE President Ken Alper and Vice President Terry Trigg-Scales; members of the West Orange police and fire departments; and the WOHS administrators who allowed the event to be held in the auditorium. 

Rep. Mikie Sherrill also made a surprise appearance to present official proclamations to Matute-Brown and Myers.

Other event highlights included dance performances by the Unique Performing Arts Center dance troupe and the West Orange High School Boys’ and Girl’s Step Teams, songs by the Male Chorus of Fountain Baptist Church in Summit, the West Orange Jubilee Choir and “A Change is Gonna Come” performed by Alexis Simon. 

Williams concluded the program by encouraging those in the audience to “be the change you want to be in the world.” She urged them to do so by contributing to a vision board on display, where many attendees wrote a wish they had for 2020.

To see more highlights from this year’s MLK Day Celebration, visit the West Orange HRC’s Facebook page.