CivicStory "Voting Block" in Berkeley Heights
Berkeley Heights Neighbors Place Education, Training, Environment, & Lower Taxes Top of List For New Governor
Elections can unite diverse cultures, heighten tensions between those cultures, and clarify citizens' views of their society. As an observer of a conversation between a group of Berkeley Heights citizens voicing their desires in advance of New Jersey's 2017 gubernatorial election, I found that neighbors of different cultural backgrounds shared compelling goals for their community.
Kenedi, Ayana, Deborah, Jeff, Stephen, Toiya
Photo: Susan Haig
Ayana and family
Photo: Tom Franklin
Jeff, Deborah and family
Photo: Tom Franklin
Members of four families gathered for a "low-waste, low meat" potluck dinner as part of a Jersey-wide "Voting Block" collaborative reporting project. Our gracious hosts were Jeff and Deborah at their home in Murray Hill. Both work in the nonprofit sphere: Jeff as a high school teacher and Deborah as a pastor and youth leader. Their recent move from New Mexico to New Jersey was for a job opportunity, and they were happy to move their three children into a better school district.
Kenedi, the 19-year-old daughter of Toiya, was ready to voice her opinion as the youngest attendee. November 7 will be her first time voting in any election. Currently on a semester-long break from Mount St. Mary's University, Kenedi worries that more technologically advanced high schools provide "shortcuts" that other less advantaged schools and students miss. Her message to New Jersey’s new governor: "enable all students to benefit from technology" as she has since joining Berkeley Heights schools as a 7th grader seven years ago.
Photo: Tom Franklin
Kenedi’s mother, Toiya, enjoys helping people through her job with a major pharmaceutical company. She too hopes the next governor will support education, but sees the school district starting to focus too much on standardized testing." "I know we have very very good teachers here...[but] they're saying after 2020, all students will have to pass the P.A.R.C.C. in order to graduate." She asks, "are we encouraging our students to think independently and creatively?"
Jeff, an educator himself, believes that New Jersey’s next governor should help provide more job opportunities to newer Americans. "Can we make sure there's equal opportunity for everyone here? With so many New Jersey immigrants and so many different groups of people... is it really working for everybody?"
Unlike Toiya, Jeff sees advantages to testing. "I do think it holds a lot of districts that aren't doing what they should be doing, actually accountable. It makes them say, 'what are we doing wrong and how do we fix it?'
Stephen, a former history major at Drew University now working in nonprofit development, expressed what he thinks the new governor's priority should be: to help break our dependence on fossil fuels and develop clean energy. "I think New Jersey could very well become a leader in renewable energy sources, if the state government is willing to take steps to work in that direction" he said. Stephen describes New Jersey's coastal waters as "prime locations for offshore wind power stations" that could meet the need for energy diversification.
He too weighed in on educational concerns, but from a point of concern for friends who had graduated in the humanities but were not yet settled in careers. "Humanities should be valued most, as it defines who we are."
Photo: Tom Franklin
Ayana - the last to share her thoughts for the next governor - works for public transit in project management. Four years ago, Ayana and her husband moved the family to Berkeley Heights, eager for their children to have smaller class sizes and personalized attention in schools. She feels the new governor should openly discuss budget allocation with New Jersey citizens. "I want to know where the money's going.," she said. " I would love to figure out how we can take the money that we do have and apply it to programs that can really help people [and] create jobs that are sustainable."
Greater diversity in school faculty and staff is also something Ayana feels would help facilitate more communication throughout the whole community. "Seeing leaders of color - to me - is affirming and game-changing."
Jim - an architect and the person who has lived in Berkeley Heights the longest - missed the potluck dinner but shared his thoughts in an interview. His immediate concerns for New Jersey include controlling state budgets and lowering taxes. Longer-term, he's most concerned about skilled labor development and "ensuring a livable environment for the next generation." Jim also wants to see "better Berkeley Heights representation at the Union County level."
Overall everyone agreed that the township of Berkeley Heights offers a great chance to create the life they want to live. Though a diverse group, the Voting Block members had remarkably similar concerns about education, training, and employment opportunity. Most spoke personally and passionately in terms of what would benefit them and their families, though not necessarily the state as a whole. As our election of a new governor nears, quality of education, access to technology, opportunities for immigrants, a livable environment, lower taxes, and skilled labor development top the list of these citizens' values and goals.
Courtney Cordaro is a sustainability consultant and author of the website, Leafygreen.info.
This story is part of the Voting Block series and was produced in collaboration with The Record, NJ Spotlight, WHYY, WNYC, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, the Center for Cooperative Media and New America Media. To read all the stories in this series, visit VotingBlockNJ.com.