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‘Racism most deadly infection in history of mankind’

Joint Effort Witherspoon Jackson Community Princeton Safe Streets concludes another year of its 10-day celebration of Princeton’s Black community

Using music, spoken word and questions, a Joint Effort Safe Streets community discussion tackling racism, social equity, and the Witherspoon Jackson Community centered around the question “Do Black Lives Still Matter?”

During a program day named in honor of Betsy Stockton and Laura Wooten, the question was addressed along with other topics such as reparations, truth and opportunities with panelists who probed, discussed, delivered opinions and reflections with Joint Effort Safe Streets founder John Bailey inside the First Baptist Church in Princeton on Aug. 5.

“What I would like to do is be a little reactionary today and put some things out there that may be controversial and may be subtle but have you give an opinion on what they mean,” Bailey prompted the public in attendance.

Panelists for the community conversation included Caroline Clark, an attorney and member of Not In Our Town (NIOT), Linda Oppenheim, member of NIOT, Princeton Councilman Leighton Newlin, West Windsor Councilman Martin Whitfield, Joy Barnes Johnson, science educator for Princeton Public Schools (PPS), Jason Carter, an educator for PPS, and community members Sharon Campbell and Grace Kimbrough.

“The thesis is [of the day is] Do black lives still matter? and my question is When did it ever matter?” Clark said following Bailey’s initial prompt.

During the program, Bailey played songs – “I Just Wanna Live” by singer Keedron Bryant and “My People (Eddie Kendricks Cover)” performed by singer Amber Mark to spark conversation among the panel.

Reacting to “I Just Wanna Live,” Carter, who grew up in the Witherspoon Jackson neighborhood, said when listening to the song he thinks about growing up in the neighborhood and remembering every house on the street was a black family.

“I think we counted how many Black families were in the community in general just the other day,” Carter reflected. “[There were] four families on Birch Avenue, three families on Leigh Avenue and we don’t know how many on John Street. Not even that long ago, the whole neighborhood was Black, and [now] you see that change and the gentrification.

“If I’m a young Black kid living in this neighborhood right now, I don’t see my people.

“I don’t see a community,” Carter said. “I see people crossing the street, when I’m walking down the street and it’s like I made them feel uncomfortable in my neighborhood.”

Pivoting to reparations, Clark, who is also a member of NIOT, explained that everywhere where cannabis is being legalized there should be a movement that some of the money must be put back into the community from which cannabis gained its legitimacy.

She and Bailey spotlighted Evanston, Ill., where a percentage of marijuana sales taxes fund the city’s reparations program.

“New Jersey is less than impressive in my opinion relative to making strides with the cannabis issue,” she said. “Yes, they say that there are licenses supposed to be dedicated to people who were previously incarcerated or who were impacted by cannabis criminalization, but we have yet to see that because the seed money that you need is so high. Who has that [amount of money]?”

With grants, Clark called the participation in the legalization of marijuana “hollow” for those previously incarcerated or who were impacted by cannabis criminalization.

Growing up in the Witherspoon Jackson community and returning to Princeton 10 years ago, Campbell noted one of the things that she has “noticed, felt and heard” people talk about since moving back is the “loss of the sense of community”.

“When I grew up on Birch Avenue and Leigh Avenue, everyone knew everyone,” she said, adding that “people spoke to you when you walked down the street. “… That does not happen now. People won’t even make eye contact with you. For me, that is such a great loss of the sense of community.

“You don’t have to know everyone by name, but even walking down Nassau Street acknowledge other human beings.”

Campbell suggested a solution focused on marketing campaigns that serve to promote the community in Princeton. Her vision and wants for the town are for people to “be connected, know neighbors, know that they are human and acknowledge each other.”

“This town is way more diverse than it ever was when I grew up,” she said.

Since coming to Princeton in 2007, Johnson, a science educator at PPS, stressed that “memory is institutional value and is tied to history.”

“What Black people gave to the United States after [the] Reconstruction [era following the American Civil War] is a model for free minded education that happened in Black families and Black churches,” Johnson said, adding it was a time “where anyone who was even a little bit literate made sure younger generations knew how to read, and made sure younger generations knew how to compute, calculate, and measure.”

“As a Black educator, that is my job and I’m going to do it until the day I stop breathing, not just for children but for adults who have unremembered this history because of their adjacency to whiteness.”

The most important conversation the community needs to have is the preservation of children, according to Johnson.

“That is why Black lives will always matter, have always mattered and it is never a question. We need to make stronger ties that bind us, where we are honest and without guilt,” she said.

“In this generation, the only guilt that you should wear is if you are doing nothing, which means you are not an abolitionist, you are not brave, you are not courageous, you are basically just here, you are just here.”

Johnson challenged everyone in the space to read more, and love more with greater intention.

Switching from music to spoken word, Bailey recited, “I love America more than any other country in the world and for this exact reason I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

“History and the truth, the only way we solve problems is to face problems,” Princeton Councilman Leighton Newlin said. “You don’t run away from problems, you run toward problems. We have a problem with racism in the United States of America and it is the greatest and most deadly infection ever in the history of mankind. Greater than cancer, greater than AIDs, greater than anything.

“Until we, as country and as a people, are willing to clear the air about the major problems of racism and confront it head on and have a greater effort in loving each other and understanding each other, we are going nowhere fast.”

Newlin urged people in their local communities to know what is going in the proximity of where they live.

“We need more people here in Princeton to get more involved with what is going on. Please come out and support or advocate whether you are for or against something, be a part of the process and get involved,” he said.

Joint Effort Witherspoon Jackson Community Princeton Safe Streets concluded another year of its 10-day celebration of Princeton’s Black community that involved a series of conversations and activities on Aug. 13.

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