Message of togetherness fostered at Black History Month event


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Staff Writer

MONROE — Middlesex County Freeholder Kenneth Armwood, who is African American, looked out into the audience of mostly Asian Indian descent as they came together to celebrate Black History Month.

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“This is what makes America great,” he said as he addressed the people who attended a Black History Month event that was presented by Monroe Mentors, a service project of Agraj Seva Kendra and the India-US Forum of Monroe Township on Feb. 26.

The event was held at the Monroe Township Recreation Center with the mission to help educate, inspire and lead students in kindergarten to 12th grade and prepare the next generation of leaders through activities centered on character development and civic engagement.

Armwood joined the event with fellow dignitaries Freeholder Shanti Narra, Monroe Township Councilwoman Betty Schneider and State Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex).

He said his audience may not look like him or practice the same religion, but they can come together and celebrate those who accomplished so much including Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Katherine Johnson, Frederick Douglass, Congressman John Lewis (D-Georgia) and more.

The Black History Month event was led by a team of students — Navya Sharma and Vinisha Patel, who are eighth graders at Monroe Township Middle School, and Fayed Raza, a sophomore at Monroe Township High School.

They shared their ideas, paying tribute to the generations of African Americans who struggled with adversity to achieve full citizenship in American society.

“If we all looked the same with light skin and light hair, America wouldn’t fit the metaphors like ‘a melting pot’ or ‘a salad bowl,'” Vinisha said. “We are a country of many cultures, races and religions. Regardless of how our citizens have become a part of our society, the principles of America are that if you are willing to work hard for your ambitions, we welcome you here.”

Armwood said like those who did so many years ago, they need to put activity back in activism.

“We need to speak out and stand up,” he said.

The event started with a moment of silence for friends Alok Madasani and Srinivas Kuchibhotla. The two were at Austin’s Bar & Grill in Olathe, Kansas, when Adam Purinton allegedly shot at the two men on Feb. 22. Madasani survived; however, Kuchibhotla died from his wounds.

Narra mentioned that she and Armwood came to the event late because they were at a rally for Madasani and Kuchibhotla.

“They were just having a beer,” she said. “We need to be active in the community and stand up before there is another death or attack.”

She said as a public defender in New York, she sees overt racism in the country every day with mass incarcerations.

“[Racism and discrimination] is far from over. … There is still a disservice in this country,” she said.

Narra, who noted that she is the first South Asian to hold a freeholder seat in the state, said the wide variety of accomplishments by African Americans in education, sports and more that were mentioned during the event have been amazing and needs to continue to be recognized.

Schneider said what she saw at the event were young leaders filled with “kindness, love and happiness” and she hopes that would continue and be the wave of the future.

Also at the event was Dr. Ruchi Batra, who shared her story of facing challenges as she grew up in North Jersey. She told the young students to never give up on their dreams.

Greenstein said the accomplishments by African Americans affect and benefit everyone. She said growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., President John F. Kennedy, President Lyndon B. Johnson, opened her eyes and made her proud to be an American.

Govinda Rajan, founder and chief executive officer of Agraj Seva Kendra, said the event is also the culmination of their Cross Age Mentoring program in which the students in grades 8-12 mentor students in grades 3-7 to improve their academic skills.

During the event, Community Service certificates were given out to the students by the dignitaries.

In addition, Vinisha was presented with a Presidential Volunteer Service Award and Bronze Medal for Education at the event.

Contact Kathy Chang at

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