Meet the SOMa Coalition on Race

If you’re moving to South Orange or Maplewood chances are you’ve heard of the
South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race - but what is it exactly? Well, the Coalition is a grassroots community non-profit that started 20 years ago with a mission: to work on what they call intentional integration.

Back in the late 1990s a bunch of residents got together to figure out how to make people view the quickly happening demographic changes in the community as a positive aspect of life in the two towns: South Orange and Maplewood. “It was about how do we make this a positive aspect of our community and not see this community go in some patterns where flight happens, that was the motivation,” explains Nancy Gagnier, Executive Director with the South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race.

At first the real focus was on residential integration but as with all things, the focus had to change to keep up with the community. Now it’s more about maintaining a population and education newcomers, says Nancy.

So, how did the Coalition successfully accomplish its integration in the first place? Well, in the very beginning, the group met with realtors to encourage them to show all areas to prospective buyers and not have pockets of different groups. “In 20 years realtor practices have changed. Steering is a lot less of a problem,” says Nancy. “Marketing was a main focus in those early days. It still is actually, you have to market to all people to build this vision of stable integration.”

Maintaining housing prices (or growing them) over comparable communities was a big deal and a success in the middle years stretching into the present. “Now the schools always have to be attractive. When you’re selling a home you’re selling a lot based on quality of the main school system. Once we’ve established stability then we can look at how are we serving people,” explains Nancy, who says she asks herself things like: Do we serve everyone well? Will they stay? Are all children receiving equity and excellence? Are there more or enough programs that talk about topics like race and racial tension? Is leadership among all people, across racial barriers?

“You don’t just do one thing,” says Nancy. “It’s not about one event or one program. This is a full out effort on all aspects of community life, real estate, schools. You have to look at how you market the towns as welcoming and inclusive. You really have to look internally at what is the tone of the town, how do people talk to one another, do they have opportunities to build here? Does the  leadership reflect the population of the community? And if not, what can you do to create pathways to share leadership on the school board, etc. We’ve continued to do that to this day.”

Nancy became Executive Director of the Coalition in 2008. She says many on its Board are founding members. She also says it’s important the Board itself is diverse and represents both towns in age range and racial diversity.

While the programs offered by the Coalition evolve, or are built upon, they all center around four areas: school, community engagement, residential, and marketing. 

Some sample initiatives include a fairly new integrated playgroup, which started about a year ago. The group meets once a month at a preschool on a weekend day and encourages families to build relationships across racial lines in the very early stages.  Conversations on Race was an annual discussion on racial topics that grew in popularity and spun into the now quarterly Coffee Shop Discussions to provide residents more opportunities to discuss emerging issues.

The schools committee has also initiated forums where parents are talking with children about race as a way to respond to looming questions children have on why families look or behave differently and how interracial relationships work. Also, just as importantly, how to discuss race and racism amongst each other without inadvertently saying the wrong things.

If you’re considering moving to the area check out to familiarize yourself with the different programs and volunteer opportunities. If you have any additional questions or want to meet some locals, call the Coalition at 973-761-6116.