New Jersey state advocates convened last night at the South Orange Performing Arts Center (SOPAC) to sound the alarm of the threats to democracy and what can be done to protect the rights of New Jerseyans. Public education, vote by mail, economic mobility, reproductive rights, hate speech and book bans were among the many issues discussed by civic leaders from the leading organizations across New Jersey. Moderated by Sean Spiller, Chair of Protecting Our Democracy, the event drew a diverse crowd of more than 100 residents and featured leaders from statewide advocacy organizations.
“Bringing together our state’s leaders and engaged residents to talk about protecting and ensuring democracy was an honor,” said event host Spiller. “Ensuring voting rights, reproductive justice and resisting educational censorship and book bans are goals that unite everyone who wants a just and equitable New Jersey.”
“The emergence or reemergence of hate as mainstream is the biggest threat to our democracy,” said Amol Sinha, Executive Director of ACLU of New Jersey. “New Jersey is not immune from the racism, misogyny and transphobia that we’re seeing around the country.”
Kaitlyn Wojtowicz, Vice President of Public Affairs at Planned Parenthood Action Fund of New Jersey said, “Even after all the leak about Dobbs, people didn’t believe Roe would fall. Then it fell. This is central to democracy. As Black and brown women have been saying for centuries, if you can’t control your body you don’t have democracy.”
“The greatest threat to the LGBTQ community is misinformation and disinformation,” said Lauren Albrecht, Director of Advocacy and Organizing, Garden State Equality. “The correct information is available, but some people are seeking to limit our rights. We need people to lean in harder to protect our rights.”
“We've been seeing shrinkage of the Latino vote over the last few election cycles, because campaigns take us for granted,” said Christian Estevez, Co-Founder/President Emeritus, Latino Action Network. “But we say to them your vote is your voice. If you care about economic development, reproductive freedom, and democracy you have to vote. For poor people of color these issues can become life or death.”
“Democracy looks different for Black people,” said Crystal Charley, Senior Organizer of Salvation and Social Justice. “Conditions for Black people are always on the ballot. We get people to the polls, and believe in leading with the impacted voice.”
Jesse Burns, Executive Director of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey said “From restricting reproductive rights, to election denial to climate justice, we are seeing the same kind of system is at play. These are interconnected, and it’s choking out democracy.”
All the speakers also found reasons for optimism, often through activism. Charley evoked the power of the Black electorate to hold elected officials accountable. Sinha celebrated how New Jersey has reduced its prison population by more than 50%, the greatest reduction in the nation. Wojtowicz mentioned the upcoming election and urged people to pay attention and stay engaged. Albrecht honored the resilience of the LGBTQ people, especially young people and their ability to find joy. Additional opportunities discussed included the expansion of mobilizing in faith spaces to create tangible change and policies such as the Reproductive Equity Act, which can be a vehicle for increasing health care access for lower income people.
“Our members are showing up at school board meetings to protect students and it makes me hopeful. We are fighting every day for our shared values,” Burns added.
Estevez called out policies for helping undocumented students, and noted how hard parents are working for their children to achieve the American Dream. “People are engaging in this fight, putting in the time and energy to make change because they see a better future.” “Our state’s democracy and economy must work for all New Jerseyans. I’m committed to continued work with these extraordinary leaders to realize these goals”, added Spiller.