FREEHOLD, NJ – Thought-provoking discussions about racial justice and inequity are taking place around the nation, and here in Monmouth County.
Monmouth ACTS recently formed a racial equity ad hoc committee tasked with defining how each of its working groups, or Hubs, look at racial equity in the human services provided to Monmouth County residents. Case in point: the Positive Youth Development (PYD) Hub tackled the difficult conversation, and how they could specifically address issues of racial justice for their population of young children.
These discussions sparked an idea to host a youth-led, youth-run virtual town hall event for young people from across Monmouth County to come together, share their experiences and have a meaningful discussion about racial justice and inequity. The Virtual Youth Town Hall on Racial Justice – with 180 registered attendees – featured 15 Monmouth County youth volunteers who played important roles including moderator, chat moderator, presenter and break out room facilitators.
In the spirit of Monmouth ACTS, which aims to streamline services, Monmouth County Children’s Inter-Agency Coordinating Council (CIACC) took the lead on the planning the event, with support from partners including the PYD Hub, the Mental Health Association of Monmouth County (MHAMC) and other organizations. Brookdale Community College (BCC) organized technical aspects of the virtual event.
“It was a true youth-led event,” says Hannah Haimann, Director of Youth Services, MHAMC. After initial introductions and ground rules from the adults, including a welcome from BCC President Dr. David Stout, “the event was really handed over to our youth moderators.” A youth moderator spoke about one of three main topics – racial justice in Monmouth County’s communities, racial injustice in sports, and action steps to address racial injustice – then all participants were directed into one of eight breakout rooms for a smaller, more intimate discussions, before being brought back to the larger town hall for another topic. There were also opportunities for youth to express themselves in a non-verbal format, by submitting artwork, poetry and other written pieces.
“It was important for us to organize and lead this event for youth in our communities- I was grateful to work alongside these young leaders and adult volunteers,” said Jessica Kostenblatt, Chair, CIACC Committee and School Based Youth Services Program Clinician at Keansburg High School. “Youth volunteers were impressive, passionate and fearless about racism and equality- their voices were elevated in this vital conversation. And the work doesn’t end here: ‘We build the road by walking.’”
One of those youth moderators was Nia Stewart, 20, of Tinton Falls, who is studying Communication/pre-law at Cornell University. Stewart prepared a monologue that briefly talked about how to take action as an individual.
“I talked about overcoming imposter syndrome – in a world that has convinced you that you are unworthy or don’t belong, you may begin to believe that,” Stewart says. She also talked to attendees about applying their unique skill set to whatever they feel most passionate about, and reminding them to extend a hand to those who come after them. “It’s about empowering the youth to fully occupy their space as individuals,” Stewart adds. She encouraged attendees to use their passions when contributing to the changes they would like to see in the world – whether that’s attending a protest, painting murals, composing music or something else.”
Based on the great success and interest from the first Town Hall, CIACC and the PYD Hub are working together to determine how to continue the event’s momentum. The Virtual Youth Town Hall was an exciting success, says Pam Major Coordinator, Monmouth County CIACC, and a participating member of the Positive Youth Development Hub. “The youth were interested in forming a youth council, and they’ll drive that decision,” Major says. “And we’re thinking of having youth town halls more regularly, on different topics relevant to youth.”
“This is a tremendous example of the spirit of Monmouth ACTS – not just in how so many organizations worked together to streamline efforts to make this event happen, but how they connected with each other to have such a meaningful discussion on racial equity in the first place,” says Commissioner Deputy Director Susan M. Kiley. “I’m looking forward to their continued discussions on this topic so our Hubs can set real, actionable goals for racial equity in the services available across our County.”
“I’m so impressed by the youth of Monmouth County and the thoughtful discussion they had, thanks to the support of the organizations that came together to make this event possible,” says Commissioner Director Thomas A. Arnone.
To learn more about Monmouth ACTS, visit www.monmouthACTS.org.
About Monmouth ACTS
Monmouth ACTS (Assisting Community Through Services) was launched by the Monmouth County Board of County Commissioners in 2019 to carry out recommendations of a Human Services Needs Assessment. This innovative public-private partnership brings together County employees from the Department of Human Services and community partners on the Monmouth ACTS Advisory Council (MAAC) to enhance access to services for County residents. For more information, visit www.monmouthACTS.org.