Hello Temi, please tell us about yourself.
My parents are from Nigeria and I grew up in Hillside. I moved to Budd Lake when I was 16 years old. I have an older sister and a younger brother. I graduated from Mount Olive High School, attended CCM for a year and am now working for a fertility clinic.
Tell us about your early years in Hillside and your move to Budd Lake.
Hillside is a very diverse community made up of mainly African-American, Hispanic and Portuguese families. In Hillside, I was a top student, we had a community center and I felt at home surrounded by people like me. Unfortunately, the schools were not up to par.
When I moved here in the middle of my sophomore year, I quickly realized there were very few blacks. My first days here were a shock to me. The first thing I saw when pulling into the school parking lot was a Confederate flag on a student’s car and I wanted to turn around. Once inside, I felt so alone that I cried after seeing what was a nearly all-white lunchroom. Since I had never been around so many white people before, I wondered if I could trust them even though everyone was generally nice. In addition, since MOHS was further ahead than my previous school, I was no longer considered a top student.
Tell us about some experiences in the school.
As a new black person in the school, other students treated me as a fascination. There were a number of experiences I call “micro aggressions”. There were students touching my hair, which was done in box braids and dyed blue, without my permission. And, there was a time when someone asked me if all girls who wear box braids smell. As I am a person who gives people a lot of grace, I passed these subtle forms of racism as ignorance.
Tell us about life as a young adult.
Like many others, I was raised to be polite to a fault and I am a hard worker. However, when black people come out of the womb we are thrust into our own reality. I don’t walk out of a store without buying something for fear of being a suspected shoplifter. I speak softly for fear of being called aggressive. I work hard out of fear of being called lazy. I was once told by a supervisor to “fix your face” because I have a perceived resting bitch face and a customer complained I looked angry and aggressive even though that was not the case.
What were some defining moments in your life?
I was about the same age as Trayvon Martin when he was killed. My friends and I watched the entire trial and felt it could have been any one of us teenagers walking home from a convenience store. I cried while watching the family of Eric Garner. I followed the events in Ferguson and in so many other places. And now the murder of George Floyd. And I think about my younger brother, who is now twenty years old and the world he is going into.
Tell us about the June 20th March on racism and police brutality at Turkey Brook Park.
I was disappointed that the original protest scheduled was cancelled. Although there were other protests in New Jersey, none were local to Mount Olive and I felt strongly something needed to be done here. And within a week of saying to myself “I’ll do it”, we had the event in the park. I received overwhelming support from the community, including the Chief of Police who called me personally, and Shelly Morningstar who provided contacts and support in the background, as well as Charles Baranski. My friends Geraldine Ojukwu and Afreen Fahad led our social media advertising, and I was also thankful that Dr. Antoine Gayles of the Board of Education spoke at the protest. Protests are needed to call attention to an issue, apply pressure on leaders and put them and their positions in the spotlight.
What are specific actions being asked of the town?
There are three specific actions. First, we need a community center, similar to the PAL facility in Hillside. There is a big drug problem in Mount Olive – weed, heroin – and much of it comes from boredom. In addition, in my apartment neighborhood the basketball hoop has been taken down and black and brown people do not feel welcome here.
Second, we need to change the school curriculum. Much of racism comes from ignorance. There should be mandatory African-American studies that goes beyond slavery, Martin Luther King and President Obama. There needs to be teaching on black countries, modern cities, leaders, entrepreneurs, inventors, kings and queens. And, there needs to be an elective in minority cultures, including Native American, Latin American and Asian cultures.
Third, we want a public town hall with our elected officials to address racism in Mount Olive. What do our elected officials say, what are they promoting on their social media and what are they willing to commit to? We want the school board leadership to address the numerous cases of disproportionate discipline that have been applied to minority students.
What else can you tell us about yourself and your call to action for the community?
I do not plan on raising kids in a country that still hates black people. We are done dragging our feet. We are going to flip this place on its head. I am here to help organize and can be a resource to others committed solely to the cause.
For those who consider themselves not a racist, it is now time to be anti-racist. It is not enough to simply follow along on social media. You need to do more, do always. This means using any position of privilege or power you have to shut down racism, provide opportunities, show up at events, sign a petition, donate money. And think about all of the actions that you do when no one is watching.
This interview was conducted on June 24th by Andy Meissner. I thank Temi for her time and for sharing her personal experiences, and her passion to make a difference in the country and community.