Earlier this month, African-American elected officials from across New Jersey came together for a historic meeting.
This summit was a first for New Jersey, and occurred as we mark the 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 a historic moment in the political history of our country and the state and as we reflect on the progress we have made over the last five decades.
President Barack Obama is in his second term. New Jersey has its first ever African-American U.S. Senator and for the first time two members in the House of Representatives, including our first African-American woman member. In addition, we now have more black elected officials at the state, county, and municipal levels than at any time in the history of New Jersey.
Weve made important strides forward, which should be celebrated. Yet, as we approach 2016, we recognize we are in unsettling times as weve seen an erosion of progress in education, employment, housing, voting rights and troubling evidence of bias in the criminal justice system.
We as African-American elected officials must embrace our responsibility to maximize the participation of minorities in the American political system at all levels of government, and to provide leadership in developing, advocating and ensuring the implementation of public policies that support the needs, aspirations and progress of minority communities.
It was in this context that the co-chairs of this event U.S. Senator Cory A. Booker, Congressman Donald M. Payne Jr., Congresswoman Bonnie Watson-Coleman, and Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka, chairman of the New Jersey Black Mayors Alliance, and myself brought together African-American elected officials from across New Jersey on December 12th in Ewing Township for a statewide education symposium and the first gathering of New Jersey black elected officials in this century.
From members of local schools boards, township committees, city and borough councils, to legislators and members of Congress, more than 140 officials came together to discuss issues of importance, and to develop a statewide working relationship in our respective roles.
Our goal was to begin developing new ways to convert our strength in numbers into power to shape public policy impacting our community.
We established that only by working together can we effectively ensure economic justice, social justice, equal rights and equal employment opportunities for populations that have historically experienced discrimination.
To further that effort, we created the New Jersey Black Elected Officials Policy Alliance, a statewide organization that will work with counties across the state to advance important policy initiatives and address issues affecting minority communities. We also created a Black Elected Officials Policy Alliance in each of New Jerseys counties, which will meet regularly to discuss issues within the community and will work in conjunction with the state-level organization.
This summit was about bringing together elected officials and about collaborating. It was also about educating a new generation of African-American officials about how we got to where we are today, through discussions with those who experienced these struggles firsthand.
Many of the issues weve faced including the fight for the Voting Rights Act remain at the core of the problems we must continue to collectively address as elected officials, civil rights leaders, clergy leaders, and minority organizations with the help of our residents.
We left the summit with the understanding that the county alliances will be supported by the New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus and New Jersey federal representatives in determining and supporting policies that are in the best interest of the people we represent. We also will support the counties ability to organize around the issues of importance to minority communities.
Additionally, we will assist the county alliances in bringing members of various levels of government and others to the table in order to discuss the important issues and concerns that impact black community such as: inclusion as equal participants; being taken seriously regarding the needs of African-Americans and other minorities, as well as women; and legislation.
This is our new beginning. This was our inaugural summit of African-American elected officials at all levels of government coming together to reconfirm our commitment to people of color to protect the rights and progress that black people have died for over the years and continue to die for.
I want to thank representatives of the Garden State Bar Association, the Association of Black Women Lawyers of New Jersey, the New Jersey Black Issues Convention and the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice for being part of the summit and leading informational discussions on many important issues. I also want to thank the co-chairs, including Rep. Payne, who spoke on behalf of the federal officials, as well as Mayor Baraka who represented the New Jersey Black Mayors Alliance.
Senator Ronald L. Rice serves as chairman of the New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus.