Gilda Rogers Sid Bernstein SummerSlamLeft to right: Citizens for a Diverse and Open Society founders Gilda Rogers and Sid Bernstein were joined by performing artist and writer Lorraine Stone as special guests of the Summer Slam program at Red Bank Regional High School. 

Press release from Red Bank Regional High School

During the height of summer, the Red Bank Regional High School building is a busy place, with a myriad of educational programming designed to better prepare its students for September. As the largest of those activities, Summer Slam saw 110 students attending a four-week session (operated by school-based youth services program The SOURCE) which infuses academic topics (Math, English, Science, Global Studies) with special events like an athletic team-building challenge coordinated by The Community YMCA, as well as visits from influential community members.

This summer’s two-time guest speaker was educator, author and community activist Gilda Rogers of Red Bank, who during her first visit introduced the students to the ongoing project to renovate the historic T. Thomas Fortune House. She returned the next day to discuss ways students could combat racism; accompanying Gilda for that second meeting was Sid Bernstein of Lincroft, a retired businessman with whom she co-founded the group Citizens for a Diverse and Open Society (CDOS).

The two programs dovetailed well, as one of the aims of CDOS is to engage young people in diversity through the arts, including visiting museums and landmarks. The overall mission of CDOS is to encourage better race relations within the community, by sharing personal experiences in a respectful, non-threatening and non-judgmental environment.

Born a slave in 19th century America, T. Thomas Fortune rose to become an accomplished orator, civil rights leader, journalist, writer, editor and publisher. He settled in Red Bank in 1901, and his home on West Bergen Place (now Drs. James Parker Boulevard) was declared a national landmark in 1976. Over the past few years, Rogers has played an instrumental role in the effort to renovate the house into a community cultural center and museum (as reported here in redbankgreen, the borough Zoning Board recently approved a developer’s proposal to renovate the house as a public component of an adjacent residential project).

When Rogers returned with Sid Bernstein to visit the incoming freshmen, the guests explained the genesis of the group that they co-founded in November of 2014, as a response to the outrage experienced throughout the country regarding the publicized deaths of young black people by law enforcement.

They hoped to seek common unity by providing a forum in “an atmosphere where people feel and know they are among friends, to encourage everyone to seek closer relationships through dialogue and understanding the other person’s deepest fears and thoughts.” The public is invited to attend the group’s meetings at Red Bank’s Pilgrim Baptist Church on the third Thursday of each month.

Bernstein told the Summer Slam students about the time when he first became aware of racial discrimination, detailing how he and his childhood couldn’t visit the same beach together, or sit together in Red Bank’s movie theatres, because of forced segregation.

“Today we no longer have forced segregation, but instead in many ways we have voluntary segregation,” he observed. “That is the barrier to achieving true integration — shared life experiences.”

The two distributed questionnaires to the students eliciting their thoughts on prejudice, racism and cultural diversity. They engaged the students in dialogue, and asked what they thought could be done to improve race relations in society. They then encouraged the students to start a chapter of Citizens for a Diverse and Open Society at Red Bank Regional, to seek that same understanding in a school composed of a diverse population ( as SOURCE director Suzanne Keller noted, over 40 students signed up to be part of that initiative).

Yocelin Lopez, one of the students who volunteered to join the group, stated, “It is a good idea because, although people are different, we are all the same human beings,” while fellow student Zuri Montesir commented, “I think we can really impact this generation and change the way people think today.”

As Gilda Rogers commented, “Several students explained that they were from small, schools where the great majority was white. They explained that they chose to come to RBR specifically because they wanted to be around other people of different races and ethnicities. I think that is very profound.”

Anyone wishing to learn more about the Citizens for a Diverse and Open Society can email the organization at CitizensForADiverseSociety@gmail.com, or call (732)687-4944.