Adarian Sneed, chairperson of Wednesday night’s Montclair NAACP’s Youth Town Hall, says that although the young people at the meeting she presided over spoke less than the adults, they benefited from the evening.
“I always wish youth would speak more,” Sneed said after the meeting, “but I think that by the parents being here and the adults giving their insights — which was beautiful — if the [youth] didn’t say anything, they heard it, because they were in the room.”
About 50 people of all ages attended the two-hour meeting, held at the Wally Choice Park House at Glenfield Park and organized by the Youth Council of the Montclair Branch NAACP. It was the first in what Sneed hopes will be an annual event, not only to discuss current issues, but also to help the youth council leadership set its priorities.
“It’s a good way to recap and plan for what the Youth Council will be working on in the following school year,” she said in an email Thursday. “However, that is something to bring up with the council as a whole. We like to make sure everyone has a vote on the things we want to do before making any final decisions.”
Many adults — parents, municipal officials, a school principal, a mental health practitioner, a Scoutmaster — joined the discussion, which touched on topics including relations between youth and police, how to improve civics education in school and out, and a surprising lack of interest in registering to vote on the part of some young adults.
On the panel with Sneed, a Montclair High School senior, were fellow MHS seniors and council officers Aja Bussey, president; Olivia Chipepo, treasurer; and Alissa Brown, first vice president. Also on the panel were Noah Blake, a junior at SUNY-Oswego, and Integra Feliciano, vice president of the Montclair State University chapter of NAACP.
Communication was the theme that pervaded the evening, described on flyers publicizing it as “addressing and discussing all things social justice in Montclair from the youth’s perspective.” Sneed kicked off the discussion: “A lot goes on in Montclair and I feel like the word doesn’t get out to us,” she said, giving as examples tutoring programs and library youth programming. “What’s the solution to getting the word out?”
Approaches suggested by panelists and attendees included using social media and increasing participation in the MPD’s youth advisory committee, which prompted Lisa Brice, an audience member, to say she worries about the safety of Montclair’s children, particularly its black and brown boys.
Panelist Chipepo agreed. “I feel as if … police are seen as a threat. … Officers do need to come in touch with our community, because a lot of children are afraid. … Cops are here to be heroes to us.”
Brown suggested that young children be taught about police safety with as much care as they’re taught about fire safety.
Deputy Chief Wil Young and Detective Kim Nelson-Edwards, school resource officer, were at the meeting. Young introduced Officer Tahron Green, a MHS alumnus who was sworn in as a police officer earlier this year. Green said he had not originally wanted to be a police officer.
“I was on the fence because of what’s going on now,” he said, referring to national issues of policing in the black community. “Instead of me just sitting home and having opinions, why not be hands on and make that step a personal step? I’m a big believer that if you’re not part of the solution you’re just another part of the problem. I can genuinely say I have a hand … in the way the community is being policed,” Green said to applause.
Green praised Young and also retired MPD Deputy Chief Roger Terry, who was at the meeting, for being good influences in his early life. Other officials present were Brian Scantlebury, deputy township manager; and Joe Kavesh, chair of the municipal Civil Rights Commission and member of the Board of Education.
Alissa Brown staffed a voter registration table at the Aug. 10 Montclair Jazz Festival.
“I was very disappointed in the amount of people who did not want to register,” she said, sparking a discussion of civics and how it’s taught, or not taught, in Montclair schools.
Senior members of the NAACP spoke of the struggle to get the right to vote, and encouraged the young people to get informed and educate others on their rights. Al Pelham, president of the Montclair Branch NAACP, praised the panel for its organizational skills and leadership, and said “Your power is local.” Shakira Pelham, NAACP secretary, said, “You can make change.”
Sneed echoed Shakira Pelham in her summation of the meeting. The youth will “go forward with that kind of mindset, and make a change,” she said.
James Harris, first vice president of Montclair NAACP, said, “You’re ready to be trained, mentored and coached.”
Also at the meeting were MHS seniors Alexis Dickerson, second vice president of Montclair NAACP Youth Council; Kelechi Ibezim, assistant treasurer, Montclair NAACP Youth Council; and Cheyenne Christmas, a council member; as well as Mechi Brown, president of the Montclair State chapter of NAACP.