How a Group of New Jersey Teens Started an Effective Social Movement From an Instagram Poll

Carolyn Twersky
Photo credit: courtney chavez/Getty/Elizabeth Fernandez/K. Yvelle Photography by Kim Monestime

From Seventeen

Selam Woldai stood at the podium in front of the West Orange, New Jersey Town Hall, her mask dangling off her left ear, screaming into the already amplifying microphone so the roaring crowd wouldn't miss her important message. The turnout on June 6th was large, and at the time, Selam estimated she was talking to about 500 people.

"We need to start speaking about the various forms of racism in this town because change starts from home," the 19-year-old said. Little did she know, in reality, she was speaking to thousands of her community members.

When the West Orange Youth Caucus came together to plan a protest, they were expecting a couple hundred people to attend. "We initially thought it would be our school community and some of our teachers in the nearby area," said Anya Dillard, the current student body president of West Orange High School. "We were like, 'This will be a really good moment for our community and it will be a good chance to voice our opinions to the people that we see everyday as well as those who control our administration and legislation." Later, the media would report the turnout as being in the "thousands," with the teens estimating that 3,000 people were there. "The Mayor himself said he'd never seen that big of a gathering in the town for anything," said Joe Nalieth, an organizer of the event.

The idea for a protest in West Orange initially came to Elizabeth Fernandez after she saw Minneapolis' response to George Floyd's death. "Something inside was like, 'You should do something like that.'" So, Elizabeth, 18, asked her mom for permission to organize a demonstration in her own town.

Her means of organizing were as simple as they come. "I just posted a poll on my Instagram," she explained. "I was like, 'Who wants to help me put together a protest?' And when people voted yes, I added them to the group chat."

Photo credit: Instagram

Soon, word of Elizabeth's protest spread, and Joe, 18, got involved. "We figured that we needed some more credibility when it came to organizing," he explained. "We wanted to keep it nonviolent and we wanted there to be some sort of organizational structure to the event, some sort of itinerary. We figured the best move would be to start an organization." From there, the West Orange Youth Caucus was born with a purposefully generalized name so the fight can continue and encompass a wide range of issues.

A Black Lives Matter protest in a town like West Orange isn't too surprising. Located in Essex County, New Jersery, West Orange is known for their diversity, something they take a lot of pride in. Twenty-seven percent of the town identifies as Black, compared to fifteen percent in the state as a whole. Despite those numbers, racism still exists, and many of the students who call West Orange home feel that the situation is worsened by their diversity.

"People like to pretend racism doesn't exist here because we're such a model community in terms of our demographic representation," Joe said. "But that often leads to people overlooking microaggressions and the smaller things that happen that don't necessarily get labeled as racism."

Selam addressed this issue in her speech at the protest.

"The diversity in this town is uncommon, however, we end up becoming colorblind," she said to her community. "Being colorblind is dangerous. We want you to see our color. I want you to acknowledge the fact that I am a Black woman. Being color conscious is imperative as the dangers of colorblindness causes people to unintentionally ignore acts of discrimination that are not as blatant as it used to be."

The Youth Caucus is fighting this discrimination, not only with their protest on the steps of Town Hall, but also with a petition. They wrote up changes they wish to see to the town's ordinances and brought them to the town's Mayor, Robert Parisi, as well as to the Town Council.

"The petition is not very radical and I'll be the first to say that," Joe, who spearheaded the creation of the petition, which now has over 8,5oo signatures online, admits. In this way, the petition probably resembles a lot of the ones you've seen across social media. It asks for the banning of knee and choke holds by the police, as well as the use of tear gas and rubber bullets. The Youth Council also asked for the Town Council to revise or repeal part of the municipal code which banned loitering in public places "in such a manner as to create or cause to be created any disturbance or annoyance to the comfort and repose of any person."

The Youth Caucus felt the subjective language of the ordinance allowed for racial profiling. Upon bringing this specific request to the Mayor, though, they learned that the ordinance is actually unconstitutional following a ruling from the State Supreme Court back in 1982. "I guess they just forgot to get rid of it," Selam speculated.

After meeting with the teens, Mayor Parisi jumped into action, writing a letter to the Town Council members to support the proposals originally brought up by the Youth Caucus. The letter called for the banning of tear gas and rubber bullets and the requiring of body cameras on police officers in town.


For the Youth Caucus, this is a huge win. "This has shown us that collectively, we have the power to not only demand change, but to obtain it," Anya said. "It has shown us that we have the power to change the societal metric of this nation and mobilize toward real victories."

Still, there's a lot of work to be done, but in the meantime, the Youth Caucus is continuing to spread the word around town. They hosted a Juneteenth celebration last weekend where people could come together to have a picnic and listen to music (while social distancing, of course).

The Caucus has many other issues they want to tackle in the future, including gaining progressive change in the LGBTQ, environmental, and immigration movements, just to name a few. The Caucus itself is only about a month old, but they have already proven that they can enact change if they put their mind to it.

"When we speak alone to our parents, we can easily be shut down as immature and naive for wanting social change," Joe said. "If we say it to teachers, they'll give us patronizing responses, but when we ban together and speak together as a collective organization, we suddenly have all of this political power that I've never felt before."

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