Karen Kurson, In-Depth Co-Editor & Maya Mitchell, Opinions Co-Editor

The instant you enter Maplewood and South Orange (MAPSO), you are greeted with a sign that ensures a “stigma-free town.” The MAPSO community often prides itself on its diversity, acceptance and activism. This can be seen with the rainbow crosswalk in downtown Maplewood and the various clubs and activities that interest and offer a safe space to a diverse range of students. These qualities have attracted the masses of Brooklynites and made MAPSO one of the most favorable suburbs in America, but it has been put under the microscope recently amid a pandemic and the continued fight for civil rights through the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.

During the Spring of 2020, media documenting violence against Black people circulated the internet inciting outrage toward the government, particularly the police. George Floyd’s graphic murder became famous through a video that showed Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck, with Floyd calling out “I can’t breathe.” 

This phrase became a mantra that would be chanted and printed on T-shirts as demonstrations and calls to action erupted across the nation. The fight against injustice bled into the summer after more highly publicized incidents of violence against Black people occurred. Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and Jacob Blake are just some of the names that have become well-known victims of police brutality. To many, the lack of consequences for the police officers involved in each instance of violence, most recently with Blake’s attackers, indicate the persistence of injustice. Unrest in MAPSO and all over the country peaked in the summer months, but has since decreased in intensity, leaving the community’s future plans for anti-racism uncertain.

Black Lives Matter mural on Valley Street; Photo by: A. Loubier

Degrees of involvement in activism vary districtwide, but generally, the towns are seen as left-leaning and engaged in progressivism. However, the South Orange-Maplewood School District (SOMSD) has been called out a number of times in the past for racial inequality within the community. “We’re diverse but not integrated,” said Milo Obrzut, ‘21. He is a member of the MAPSO Youth Coalition, a local racial justice organization which is responsible for the organization of local rallies as well as the disarming of the Maplewood Auxiliary Police Force, a marked accomplishment in combating police brutality at the local level.

The surge of the BLM movement has brought to light issues that even a community as “stigma-free” as ours is not immune to. Some attempts have been made to combat racial disparities in classrooms that disadvantage students of color, a common complaint against the district. These include the process of de-leveling classes and the removal of prerequisite requirements for AP classes. Yet these efforts have failed to quell the issue, and have yielded no significant change. Obrzut believes that the racial divide in the school district is “not just a Maplewood problem,” but one that is nationwide. 

Obrzut mentioned the Intentional Integration Initiative, the district’s plan to integrate elementary schools, which intends to diversify classes throughout the K-12 experience. He admires this plan, but when it comes to the SOMSD, he often “doubt[s] their consistency of intentions.” Obrzut has made efforts within the MAPSO Youth Coalition and his personal spending, as he now tries to allocate money towards minority-owned companies, small businesses and people in need. 

Laila Hoff, ‘21, has also taken matters into her own hands. She started her own clothing company called Protect Minorities, with the intention of bringing injustices against Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) to light. “I focused on Black women at first since they are the most unprotected, neglected and disrespected group in America,” Hoff said. Protect Minorities recently collaborated with another student-run MAPSO brand, 11.11, and collectively launched a Black Friday sale. 

Hoff appreciates the symbolic efforts that have emerged from the movement, such as the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ painted on Valley St. and Springfield Ave., similar to the rainbow crosswalk, as well as the yard signs that have been displayed, but feels that this is not a sufficient solution to such an extensive problem. “I’m all about words being backed up with actions, that’s what my brand is about,” she explained, noting how activism is often performative.

Abygail Metellus, ‘21, similarly criticized the little progress that has come after such strong sentiment. “The movement didn’t start with the pandemic,” Metellus said. She believes that the community has failed to address racial inequality except for in times of chaos, leaving the sizable Black population at Columbia High School (CHS) behind. She believes that the Board of Education is willing to “celebrate and advocate for us in theory,” but frequently fails to create lasting change. 

“The Change” by Joshua Bradley, one of several poems featured outside CHS from the Maplewood Black Lives Matter Poetry Project; Photo by: A. Loubier

Metellus has also taken issue with the persistent stereotypes within the district, such as colorism and the administration’s poor treatment toward Black students. “They don’t ask Black students ‘what can we do to make your education a better experience?’ They write them up,” Metellus said. She added that such actions contribute to larger problems, such as the school-to-prison pipeline, which is defined by the American Civil Liberties Union as “a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.”

Hoff also spoke on some of the harmful rhetoric that she’s heard growing up in MAPSO such as the terms ‘Maplehood’ and ‘Maplegood’ that reference the socioeconomic rift between the different parts of the town. She feels these terms are offensive, and also inaccurate; “Urban does not mean ‘hood,’ and it does not mean poor either, which is what a lot of people fail to realize.”

BLM advocates in MAPSO have found themselves delighted and disappointed this past year, particularly with the additional frustration of a pandemic. On a larger-scale, there has been both progress and stagnation. To many, the recent vote to legalize marijuana in New Jersey is a step toward ending the high incarceration rates of minorities. On the other hand, the scarce punishment of the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor is emblematic of two fundamental failures: holding police accountable and protecting Black citizens. 

MAPSO is home to two Black female sensations, Bisa Butler and Solana Rowe (SZA), and the number of student-led groups and local demonstrations indicate that many in the community still feel strongly about the movement. Locally, CHS still has a long way to go, but work is being done both in and out of the building to change that. Hoff reminds us that, “supporting Black lives needs to be an everyday fight.”

Designed by: Sydney Mannion