GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — “Silence or violence, which causes more harm?” was the theme of the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Brotherhood-Sisterhood Breakfast for middle and high school students at Richard Stockton College Thursday.
It was a question that hit close to home for participants as they mourned 13-year-old Atlantic City resident Angel Mercado, who was killed in a shooting Wednesday in the city, and his killing’s impact on all young people in the area.
“I’m scared to even walk around,” admitted Atlantic City High School senior Alim Adams.
Event moderator Kaleem Shabazz asked for a moment of silence for the victim, and said an anti-violence rally was being planned for Monday afternoon in Atlantic City.
The annual breakfast is sponsored by the American Conference on Diversity and the Atlantic County-Southern N.J. Regional Community Network. Program Vice Chairwoman Dianne Lennon said the event honors the legacy of King by working to create a better and more diverse society.
“But to create a more perfect society we all must get involved,” she said.
Keynote speaker Anthony Bland told the students, who came from every high school in the county, that speaking out about violence is not snitching and they should fight the pressure that keeps them silent.
“If I see a shooting, then I am a witness, not a snitch,” he said, and have a civic duty to speak up.
A former educator and now director of the Office of School Preparedness and Emergency Planning for the New Jersey Department of Education, Bland urged the students to get involved in their communities and be tolerant of those with views different from theirs.
“We tend to hate people who think differently from us,” he said. “But you can love someone you don’t always agree with.”
A panel of students from each high school read winning essays. Most said they believed silence is more harmful than violence because it condones and facilitates the violence.
“Silence serves as the transition between peace and violence,” said Holy Spirit High School student Giovanni Paul.
“It is our duty to be the voice for the voiceless, because often times silence is more violent than violence itself,” said Mia Negron, from Cedar Creek High School in Egg Harbor City.
A number of the students cited bullying in their schools of examples of violence that often goes unchallenged. Several said they had spoken up and believed they had made a difference.
“I personally believe that the injustice is much greater when people who witness it choose to remain silent,” said Adwoa Nantwi, of Williamstown, a student at St. Joseph High School in Hammonton.
Leah Palmer, a student at Charter Tech High School, said many young people who have died from violence have died in vain because of people who refuse or are afraid to speak up.
“I watch as people gossip about each other and how the quiet insults of bullies fall on deaf ears to us but ring in the ears of the victims that we nonchalantly pass by on our way to class,” she said.
“To remain silent means I am willing to allow others to greatly influence my ability to make a decision,” said Keesha Fuqua from Atlantic City High School.
While all spoke about the importance of speaking up, Na’Mira Crosby from Pleasantville High School admitted it can be hard.
“I have stayed silent when I have seen bullying,” she said. “But now I will try to speak up.”
Dominique Coleman, from Mainland Regional High School, got a standing ovation for her essay, in which she talked about how she and a cousin for years were molested by an uncle, but she kept silent until she was 14. When she told, her mother did not believe her but her father did, helping her start a new life in New Jersey.
“At first I resented myself for speaking up, but now I am glad I did,” she said. “I believe I have a much brighter future.”
But it was Adams who brought the message home. He had asked why all of the student speakers at the diversity conference this year were female, something organizers admitted should not have happened.
Shabazz invited Adams to come up and speak on the topic, and he talked about the culture of snitching and how the young people in the city are afraid.
“Today’s generation thinks that snitching will get you into trouble and lead to violence,” he said. “But these deaths are crazy. We have to stand up.”
He said he would like to see the entire community stand up and work together to stop violence.
Other student speakers were Samantha Carty, from Hammonton High School; Rhea Christmas, from Egg Harbor Township High School; and Chloe Morales, from Oakcrest High School.
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