WESTFIELD, NJ — The Westfield Neighborhood Council is celebrating the life of a pivotal figure who bettered the lives of many families through his work at the center.
Ronald Grant, the first executive director of the Westfield Neighborhood Council, died in November. He was 77. As the executive director of the WNC for approximately 12 years, Grant made a significant difference in the lives of low-income Black families that needed support the most.
Donna Morris, vice president of the Westfield Neighborhood Council, remembers Grant as a “father figure” to the Westfield kids in the 1970s. Grant wanted to make a difference in the lives of the children who needed support, and he found that opportunity at the center, Morris said.
Grant’s own upbringing inspired him to get involved in the center, which became a nonprofit organization in 1970 and began providing after-school support and recreational and social programs to predominantly low-income Black families, said Morris, who interviewed the man shortly before his death.
“Ronald said he came from humble beginnings where his parents relied on welfare and food stamps,” Morris said.
Grant’s family lived in Brooklyn, New York, before moving to Staten Island. After graduating high school, Grant joined the Air Force and was eventually honorably discharged before enrolling in Howard University. From there, Grant and his wife, Maggie, relocated to New Jersey and Grant landed a job on Wall Street at the Bank of New York.
To Grant, the culture on Wall Street was “dog-eat-dog,” and for his coworkers, “money is their God,” Morris said. Grant found himself looking to use his talents in a more fulfilling way, she said, and so he found the Neighborhood Council.
“Ronald was introduced to the center by volunteers who tutored at the center and suggested this might be a good fit for him,” Morris said. “Ronald wanted to use his skills in a meaningful way, and it turned out to be what he was looking for.”
Speaking to a local journalist in 1972, Grant said both the children and what he saw as the center’s potential caught his eye after women working at a volunteer tutoring program there sought his advice on dealing with youths’ behavioral and learning difficulties. While located within the geographic borders of a wealthy community, he said, the neighborhood did not have access to resources that their well-off neighbors did.
“I see a basically matriarchal society with problems ranging from illiteracy to psychological maladjustment to dope addiction — a society, which because of its color and poverty, is cut off from Westfield’s bountiful resources,” Grant told The Westfield Leader. “I think the isolation is due, not so much to prejudice, but to Westfield’s lack of awareness of these problems in the midst of its own affluence.”
Under Grant’s direction, the center grew exponentially. Grant hired people in multiple positions, including Faheemah El Amin, the center’s administrative assistant, Dot Summer, the center’s secretary, and Ida Jackson, who prepared “delicious lunches for the hungry bunch,” according to Morris.
Grant later brought Joy Cowles on board, who significantly helped the center grow, as well as Bob Harrison, a McKinley School teacher who supported Grant’s work.
Not only did the center provide academic support and meals under Grant’s leadership, it also hosted field trips. The kids were treated to visits to Julius Erving's Basketball Clinics in Long Island and Philadelphia, the swimming pool at the Westfield Area YMCA, the Rahway Pool during summer months and New York City museums, among other field trips, Morris said.
The center expanded its footprint in the mid-1970s when it acquired and demolished a neighboring structure to make way for a basketball court, she said. Through Grant’s dedication and leadership, the center grew over the years and provided families with needed support.
“He was pivotal in placing the center on the map,” Morris said.
After his time at the center, Grant purchased what was then Westfield Taxi in downtown Westfield. He spent the final six years of his life in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and he was buried at sea.
Not only does Grant leave behind his partner Sandra, two children and one grandson, but also a community of people who will remember Grant as the dedicated changemaker that he was.
As Grant told The Westfield Leader, his goal was to “not just to make it in a white world, but to share what [he] learned with those whose plights are similar.”
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