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Snapshots of New Jersey: New Brunswick -- Working to Close the Disparities Gap

The population of New Brunswick is clearly diverse, and work done every day is helping it to become more inclusive.

Credit: City of New Brunswick

While NJ Spotlight is on summer hiatus, we've made sure you won't lack for intriguing reading. We've put together a series of Snapshots of New Jersey, a close look at some of the varied and vibrant places that make up the Garden State -- from Wildwood to Montague and Barnegat Bay to Teaneck. Enjoy. We'll be back August 28.

New Brunswick is best known as the place where the Tyler Clementi verdict was decided and as home to Rutgers University, Johnson & Johnson, and numerous medical facilities. But there are several less publicized institutions in the gentrified city that work every day to unite a diversity community of more than 55,000.

One of these is the American Conference on Diversity, a leading human relations organization that will celebrate 65 years in New Jersey and nearly two decades in the New Brunswick. Established in 1948 as the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ), the organization has a new name, an enhanced vision and strong leadership. It is working to empower leaders to create lasting change in the area of human relations.

“We have spent over a decade in New Brunswick,” says Elizabeth Williams-Riley, president and CEO of the American Conference on Diversity, located in the heart of New Brunswick on Church Street. “We’ve watched this community grow and the demographics change, just as our organization has changed over the years. That’s why we are so much a part of this community.”

Situated along the Raritan River, New Brunswick is noted for its racial and ethnic diversity. It was founded in 1730 and soon became a magnet to New Americans. By the 1930s, one out of three city residents were Hungarian, immigrants who were largely attracted to the region for employment at Johnson & Johnson. Although the Hungarian community continues to thrive, today the number of African-American and especially Latino residents is growing.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 50 percent of New Brunswick residents are Latino, vs. 17.7 percent statewide. Sixteen percent of the population is black, 36.2 percent foreign born, and more than 52 percent speak a language other than English at home, nearly double the rate of residents statewide.

Just stroll down New Brunswick’s George Street, lined with ethnic restaurants and shops, and its demographics are apparent. But just because a region is diverse, that doesn’t mean it’s socially and economically inclusive.

Nearly 26 percent of New Brunswick residents live below the poverty level, compared with 9 percent in New Jersey. Likewise, only 66 percent hold high school degrees, vs. 87 percent statewide; 22 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher (34.6 percent statewide), and the median household income for 2006-2010, the latest data available, was $44,543 -- far below the median of $69,811 statewide.

Leveling the Playing Field

The American Conference on Diversity is working to close this racial and socioeconomic disparities gap. “We work with leaders in the community, schools, the workplace, and statewide to create and enhance a society that embraces social justice for us all,” says Williams-Riley of the eight-chapter organization. “The work of the American Conference on Diversity is among the most important activities we can participate in to create a positive, inclusive society, along with educating and empowering our next generation of leaders, enhancing New Jersey workplaces, and helping to create inclusive communities.”

Although New Jersey is one of the most diverse states in the nation, “there’s still much more work to be done,” she says, citing the 47 hate groups listed by Southern Poverty Law Center. These groups that engaged in activities that promote hate because of gender, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, and other social identities in and around New Brunswick.

Through its numerous programs -- including the Center for Workplace Diversity (which provides employers with consultation, education, and training to enhance teamwork), the Youth and Colligate Leadership Development Initiatives (which offers a range of education and peer leadership programs for high school and college students), and numerous community programs for youth and healthcare professionals -- the American Conference on Diversity is reaching into communities such as New Brunswick, collaborating with grassroots organizations, and working to close the disparities gap.

The American Conference on Diversity also recognizes other organizations that are helping to level the playing field. This past March, for example, its Central New Jersey chapter honored two organizations and an individual for their contributions to advance human relations and improve the quality of life for citizenry in the area.

Making Sure the Hungry Are Fed

New Brunswick-based Elijah’s Promise is one such organization recognized for its unwavering commitment to the community. The nonprofit harnesses the power of food to break the cycle of poverty, alleviate hunger, and change lives. The Community Service Award was accepted by Executive Director Lisanne Finston, who, during her acceptance presentation, spoke about the racial disparities in the region and the need for their services now more than ever.

Like the NCCJ, Elijah’s Promise was founded on faith-based diversity. It was established in 1989 when three local churches (St. John’s Episcopal, Emanuel Lutheran, and Christ Episcopal of New Brunswick) joined together to start a small soup kitchen. Today, the organization has expanded to three locations in New Brunswick and nearby Highland Park and includes a culinary arts school, catering business, and pay-as-you-can café. The organization also connects low-income individuals and families with social and health services.

“Elijah’s Promise has created a cycle of social good with food as a tool,” Finston states in an organization profile. With the support of volunteers, donors, and community partners -- including local student groups, community health organizations, local businesses, and others -- Elijah’s Promise serves more than 200,000 meals per year and trains previously unskilled workers for careers in the food-service industry.

One regular guest is Ralph Lee. In 1991 Ralph was homeless and living in the woods along the Raritan River. His life changed when the staff and volunteers at Elijah’s Promise helped him secure medical care and a place to live. Ralph is a regular at the soup kitchen. He dines 365 days a year and gives back by volunteering daily. He refers to the staff and volunteers at Elijah’s Promise as his family. Ralph is just one of countless soup kitchen guests whose life has been changed by the care and support of others in the community.

Elijah’s Promise is based on the idea of collaboration. Along with the City of New Brunswick and New Brunswick United Methodist Church, for instance, its Shiloh Community Garden provides neighborhood residents as well as community organizations an opportunity to grow food in one of 30 raised beds for a minimal fee each growing season. Every month of the harvest season, Promise Culinary chefs, culinary students, and guest chefs from central New Jersey come together for a night of seasonal, local food tasting.

In 1997 Elijah’s Promise created a culinary arts training program called Promise Culinary School, which has since taught a professional culinary curriculum to hundreds of students, preparing and placing them at jobs in the food service industry. In 2010, the culinary staff launched a baking and pastry program that trains students in the art of professional baking. In order to provide on-the-job training for culinary graduates, Elijah’s Promise started a catering business in 1998. The staff provides hundreds of healthy meals every day to children in New Brunswick and to the community’s elderly and homebound through New Brunswick’s Meals on Wheels program. Finally, in 2009 Elijah’s Promise created A Better World Café, which has been successfully bringing food to the area while giving all residents an equal opportunity to enjoy it.

According to the organization’s web site, “Our philosophy is that by sharing not only what we have, but also the tools for people to feed themselves, no one in our community needs to go hungry.” Indeed, Elijah’s Promise and the American Conference on Diversity illustrate the spirit of equality and community in New Brunswick.

Gail Zoppo, a Woodbridge resident, is the media relations consultant at the American Conference on Diversity.

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