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YMCA of Greater Monmouth County honors students and community leader

The YMCA of Greater Monmouth County commemorated the life and legacy of slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during a virtual community event on Jan 14.

The celebration, which has been a community tradition for 33 years, was hosted online for the second time due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, according to a press release.

The event honored community leader Rabbi Sally J. Priesand with the MLK Human Dignity Award and recognized student essay winners. The YMCA also announced its new JEDI initiative aimed at justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.

Monmouth County high school students Safa Mbarki, a junior at Middletown North High School, and William Blake, a junior at Red Bank Regional High School, read their winning essays submitted in the annual MLK writing contest.

Safa titled her essay “A Chance,” which is about understanding and accepting cultural differences. She described her transition from attending a Muslim school to a public school in Monmouth County.

Safa explained how she felt like an observer of a different culture until she took a chance, made new friends and became involved in school.

Safa is now active in many school activities, including the environmental club, Key Club and Viewpoint Club. She also volunteers at her local mosque, preparing meals for the homeless, according to the press release.

William’s essay, “Engaging Across Differences,” describes how his Jamaican heritage provoked inquiry from fellow students.

“I welcomed questions about my differences and it helped to educate others and helped me build relationships,” he said.

William, who is active in the school jazz band, shared how music helps break down barriers and brings people together. He tutors students who are having difficulty with mathematics and volunteers for the Crop Walk and his local church, according to the press release.

Safa and William were each awarded a $1,500 scholarship, sponsored by Hackensack Meridian Health, New Jersey Natural Gas and PorterPlus Realty. They each also received a full-year membership to the YMCA of Greater Monmouth County branch of their choice.

The keynote address at the MLK event was delivered by Andrea McChristian, the director of Law and Policy at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, Newark.

McChristian focused on society becoming “uncomfortable” to help build relationships across perceived divides.

McChristian said, “How do we address and sit in the uncomfortable when it is necessary for transformative social justice?”

Many people know King’s famous “I Have a Dream speech,” she said, but do not know “Dr. King’s other powerful remarks that call for the need to make ourselves uncomfortable to recognize our privileges and power structures, to be active participants in dismantling systems of oppression to ensure equity.”

McChristian said, “We should all be uncomfortable. Because as we sit at this moment of racial reckoning as a nation, we are at a crossroads. If we go one way, we can continue with the status quo, sitting in what we know and understand, ultimately failing to address our society’s myriad racial inequities, or we can go the other way that Dr. King urges us to travel and sit in this uncomfortable moment of time using it to compel us to eliminate structural racism in our state and our nation’s very foundation.”

McChristian, who oversees the institute’s social justice policy for democracy, economic justice as well as criminal justice reform, called for reparations to bridge the economic and social inequities for Black Americans, according to the press release.

She pointed out that the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee has recently voted out of committee HR-40, which would establish a commission to study and develop reparations proposals for Black people.

At the state level, McChristian noted, “California has now become the first state in the nation to pass legislation that will create a statewide reparations task force, which is exactly what is needed here in New Jersey.”

Following McChristian’s remarks, the MLK Committee presented its honorary Dr. MLK Human Dignity Award to Priesand, rabbi emerita at Monmouth Reform Temple, Tinton Falls, in recognition of her lifelong commitment to social justice, according to the press release.

Priesand is the board president of Interfaith Neighbors, an organization providing affordable housing, rental and mortgage assistance and other services for families in need in Monmouth County.

Priesand said she was honored to receive the award, especially as it coincides with the 50th anniversary of her groundbreaking ordination at the first female rabbi in the United States.

During her comments, she said, “Let us promise each other that we will keep moving and always work together to create a just and compassionate society where we all may share God’s gifts in the joy of freedom.”

YMCA President and CEO Laurie Goganzer introduced the YMCA’s new plan of action to support equity and inclusion called JEDI, which stands for justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.

The initiative was launched internally over the last year as a thoughtful assessment and development phase for Y staff and stakeholders, according to the press release.

“We are training our teams, growing JEDI leaders and engaging our greater community in this vital transformative work,” Goganzer said.

One of the first steps, she noted, was creating an equity statement, recited by Y team members in a video presentation during the program.

Goganzer invited the community to join the Y’s Togetherhood volunteer program, unveiled at the 2020 MLK commemoration, to help strengthen those in need by providing support.

The program closed with the Red Bank Regional High School choir’s performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which is known as the Black National Anthem, a hymn written as a rallying cry for unity, equality and justice, according to the press release.

MLK Committee Chairman Mike Wright acknowledged the volunteer event committee “who works so diligently to organize this event each year.”

Committee members who spoke at the commemoration were the Rev. Ronald L. Sparks, Bethel AME Freehold, who shared the invocation; Tom Hayes, New Jersey Natural Gas, and Samara O’Neill, PorterPlus Reality, introduced the essay winners; Darryl Hughes, Hackensack Meridian Heath, introduced McChristian; Gwen Love introduced Priesand; and Pastor Jessica Naulty, United Methodist Church, Red Bank, gave the benediction.

Additional MLK committee members are Lori Ferguson, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield; Sue Harbison, HABcore; Itzel Hernandez, American Friends Services; Rabbi Marc Kline, Monmouth Reform Temple; and Gilda Rogers, T. Thomas Fortune House.

Event sponsors were: Future Leaders – Grunin Foundation; Civic Engagement and Changemakers – PNC Private Bank; Essay Scholarship – Hackensack Meridian Health, New Jersey Natural Gas and PorterPlus Realty; Social Justice – Laurie Goganzer, Susan and Jim Harbison, Timothy McChristian, Monmouth Reform Temple, New Jersey YMCA State Alliance, Judith and David Rivkin Foundation; Jane and George Schildge, and John Worley.

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