African-American issues discussed at annual conference


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Photo by Enrico Cabredo |

Donald M. Payne Jr., president of Newark’s city council, speaks to a crowd of about 60 about his Congress campaign Thursday.


The Rev. Jesse Jackson is among the hundreds coming to New Brunswick this weekend for the New Jersey Black Issues Convention’s 30th Anniversary Leadership Conference at the Hyatt Regency Hotel.

The conference, which began Thursday and will end Saturday, aims to raise awareness of issues affecting the African-American community and provide opportunities for community members to learn how to improve their lives, said Elease Evans, chair of the board of the directors of the NJBIC.

“The main focus is to make sure that everyone, from our youth up to our elders, comes together once a year to talk about the struggle, the challenge and how we as a group, as African-Americans … progress,” said Evans, a former New Jersey State legislator.

Consisting of 30 different organizations dedicated to the African-American community, the NJBIC is committed to helping the cause of African-Americans statewide, Evans said.

The conference was designed to educate specific groups through seminars, workshops and exhibits. Jerome Harris, the 30th conference chairman and former chair of the board of directors of the NJBIC, said issues affecting African-Americans in general make up the conference theme.

“Our polling indicates deep concern about employment, public safety and excitement of the implementation of the Affordable Health Care Act, and what it means for health and wellness in our community. … We’re also advocating voter participation, people knowing their rights and being prepared to exercise them,” he said.

Harris said the turnout at the conference has been growing each year. He expects about 1,200 people to attend this year’s event, which is open to everyone.  

Evans said the convention boasts a wide array of notable people, including Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-N.J., Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Jackson.

Jackson was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award Thursday for his numerous contributions to the African-American community and his advocacy for public policy issues affecting African-Americans, Harris said.

“Rev. Jackson represents a significant body of work, and we think he should be recognized,” he said.

The conference’s opening day focused on senior citizens, kicking off the lineup with a symposium on issues related to aging.

“We cover a variety of things of interest to seniors, quality health care, social security [and] Medicare. ... We provide information on all of these,” Evans said.

The second day of the convention will feature programs aimed at students — specifically, high school students — addressing issues such as education, health and employment. About 500 students are expected to attend from various high schools around New Jersey, Harris said.

Students are also invited to participate in a workshop about personal branding using social media, a topic Evans said is crucial for the modern world.

The final day will feature a talk by the Rev. DeForest Soaries, Jr., who was responsible for the Youth Leadership Retreat Initiative, a program that began in 1982 to promote positive youth development, Harris said.

The 2012 conference is the fourth one held in New Brunswick, Harris said.

“We move around the state. … We also like to involve the University and students,” he said.

Gwendolyn Faison, former mayor of Camden, said she has attended the conference for the past 20 years.

“It has always been a very inspirational convention. … All the things you need to know about living are expressed here at the convention,” Faison said.

She also said the convention is a great opportunity for youth to gain valuable exposure to important people both in and out of the African-American community.

“You get a chance to meet people in authority, holding even political offices ... this is one of the most worthwhile and informative conventions that I have attended,” she said.

The conference also presented several vendors and exhibitors, ranging from private individuals selling trinkets and hats to hospital representatives and voting advocates.

Barbara James, secretary of the NJBIC board and operator of a voting awareness table, said the conference was a great opportunity to reach the youth and get them interested in voting early.

“We want to make certain that they are registered right now,” she said. “We want them to know their rights.”


By Domenic Ruggeri

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