By Pam Hersh
Twelve months ago, I attended the municipal reorganization meeting of the Franklin Township Council that featured, among other agenda items, the swearing in of a co-worker – Ms. Crystal Pruitt – as a Franklin Township Council member. Having just turned 34 years old and holding down a full-time job as chief of staff for Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, Crystal gave a speech that at the time I thought was brilliant and unsettling.
One year later, I know her words were brilliant, unsettling, but also prescient and surprisingly comforting to me during this discomforting time. Now 35 years old with a new job at the NJ Board of Public Utilities as head of its Office of Clean Energy Equity, Crystal represents the clear-eyed, unsentimental, determined millennial leadership that society needs right now to strengthen democracy and achieve concrete social justice changes.
After the events of last Wednesday, I wanted to do more than vilify the actions of the Capitol mob and its influencers and put the event into context. So I reread Crystal’s speech – presented prior to Jan. 6, 2021, prior to Feb. 23, 2020 (Ahmaud Marquez Arbery), prior to March 13, 2020 (Breonna Taylor), prior to June 30, 2020 (George Floyd).
“2020 is a year,” she said, “in which we will be tested and we all will have to reckon with who are, as individuals, as a community all the way up to who we are as a country. There will be those who will continue to maintain their power and supremacy by pitting groups against each other. Using the oppression of one group as a weapon while simultaneously using it as a shield to obscure their prejudice and ignorance. That providing for someone will ultimately take away for others. They will seek to divide us, by making us choose. But that is a false choice; the fight for equality for some does not mean less for others. It is never an ‘or’. The quest for liberty, justice, equality, equity, security and respect are always ‘and’ … It is not justice for some, it is justice for all. It is not power for some of the people, it is power for all the people.
“For every person, who has wondered if they have a voice, know that you do and I am listening … I will welcome your engagement,” she said to a crowd of people in a municipal meeting room when we were all still allowed to meet non-virtually.
As I got to know her, I was curious about what motivated her to get involved in state and local government with the passion for an advocacy that yields not only speeches, but also action.
Her commitment to activist advocacy developed from both her personal experience of “being Black in America and hyper-vigilant to marginalized people,” in her words, as well as her professional experience of working in the criminal justice field.
A graduate of North Carolina State University (BS in criminology) and John Jay College of Criminal Justice (two master’s degrees, one in forensic psychology and another in forensic mental health counseling), Crystal worked at jobs prior to going into government that gave her a close look at the current criminal justice system. She became stressed and depressed with treatment and rehabilitation protocols for dealing with criminal behavior and became particularly frustrated over her inability to change the system. She determined that the best way for her to tackle criminal justice, mental health and more broadly social justice equity issues was to become involved in state and local government.
“I was lucky to connect with Assemblyman Zwicker, who, at the time I met him, was a new legislator. A thoughtful outsider, a scientist and fact-based decision maker, he seemed to really appreciate and seek out my perspective,” she said.
In an interview for the NJ League of Municipalities Magazine (March 2020), she acknowledged the importance of participating in government. “Representation matters, and as a millennial woman of color, it is important that I show that there is a place for us in local government. I am proof that if you’re willing to serve, that there is nothing stopping you, not your gender, not your race, or age. Don’t let anything be a barrier to accessing and participating in democracy, and don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. There is space for you, and if there isn’t, then make a space and be unapologetic about it. There have been generations of strong Black and Brown women in government before me who have been disrupters and I want to carry on their legacy while encouraging the next generation.”
Crystal’s actions and words have also encouraged me – a member of a much older generation looking out for the future of my kids and grandkids in that next generation.
Crystal Pruitt is one of the women being honored at the upcoming Tribute YWCA Princeton Awards on March 25. www.ywcaprinceton.org/tribute The Tribute to Women Awards is a signature YWCA Princeton event established in 1984 and has since honored exemplary women from the Greater Mercer County area who embody the YWCA mission – “eliminating racism empowering women” and who have demonstrated sustained leadership and exceptional talent. Crystal will be honored with the Young Woman Award, which was first awarded in 2020 and created to put a spotlight on rising stars who demonstrate commitment and passion in advancing social equity early in their careers.