Unity Awards from Not in Our Town Princeton recognize young people’s work to promote racial justice


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Just two days before hundreds of people in Princeton protested the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, more than 100 people gathered in a virtual ceremony hosted by Not in Our Town Princeton to honor 13 Princeton young people for their work promoting racial justice in their schools and communities.

Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert, whose daughter Ella Norman was among the award winners, said the event is one of her favorite events of the year.

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“The world feels pretty broken right now, between COVID-19 and what is happening on our streets and in our cities,” Lempert said in a statement prepared by Not in Our Town Princeton. “To the Unity Award winners: you are shining a light and my hope is you keep shining that light.”

Lisa Eckstrom, the assistant head of Princeton Charter School for grades 5-8, quoted “King Lear” by William Shakespeare.

At the end of the play, Edgar tells the audience that we must ‘speak what we feel, not what we ought to say,’ ” she said in the statement. “I want to say how grateful I am to Not In Our Town to create these awards for students who speak out through their words or actions.”

Not in Our Town Princeton also presented a special Unity Award to Steve Cochrane, superintendent of Princeton Public Schools, who is retiring at the end of the school year. Presenter Raisa Rubin-Stankiewicz read the citation recognizing Cochrane’s accomplishments, which include an equity audit to evaluate areas where inequity exists, expansion of the preschool program, efforts to recruit staff at historically black colleges and universities, and championing of student wellness and mental health, according to the statement. The citation states that Cochrane “recognizes that a truly inclusive school district is one that values all its members and that in order to work toward equity, a superintendent must truly know, listen to, and be a part of their community.”

Cochrane encouraged the students to continue their racial justice work in their future lives.

“There are two viruses in our country today: there’s the COVID virus and then there’s the virus of racism,” he said. “While people are still searching for a vaccine for COVID, the vaccine for racism is right here: It’s in the students we see today; it’s in your work, it’s in your vision. Hold onto that vision that you have that social justice can happen, that racism can be eradicated. You will be the change we want to see in the world,” he said during the virtual ceremony, according to the statement.

The following students won awards for their racial justice work:

Michaela Guo, 12th grade, Princeton High School (PHS)

Sneha Kumar, 8th grade, Princeton Charter School

Khalil Benjamin, 11th grade, PHS

Toniya Harris, 11th grade, PHS

Sophia Huellstrunk, 11th grade, PHS

Yani Ince, 11th grade, PHS

Kenia Morales, 12th grade, PHS

Sanyukta Prakash Mudakkanavar, 11th grade, PHS

Ella Norman, 12th grade, PHS

Gillian Bartels-Quansah, 11th grade, PHS

Reanna Bartels-Quansah, 11th grade, PHS

Skai Reynolds, 11th grade, PHS

Aba Smith, 12th grade, PHS

Raisa, Valeria Torres-Olivare and Salma Hashem, board members of Not in Our Town Princeton, moderated the event. Raisa is a senior at Princeton High School; Valeria and Salma are recent graduates.

“Thank you for being with us, for standing as a symbol for the possibilities of our future,” Raisa said, according to the statement.

Not in Our Town Princeton is a multi-racial, multi-faith group of individuals who stand together for racial justice and inclusive communities. More information is available on the NIOT Princeton website, niotprinceton.org.

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