By: South Orange Maplewood Community Coalition on Race Volunteer Keli A. Tianga
I became a trustee and a volunteer of the South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race because I believe integration is not only a worthy goal, but also the only path to true equality. All of our lives and experiences as human beings are enriched when we share space and ideas with people who are different from us. This concept inspired the idea to host an integrated play group for children and their families.
In the fall of 2015, the political discourse in the country had really begun to take a divisive turn. As the mother of a young child at the time, I’d had conversations with other parents who had recently moved to South Orange and Maplewood in part for its diversity, but were feeling isolated, disheartened, and looking to connect to others with similar points of view.
The Community Coalition on Race’s Integrated Play Group began at a time when parents were looking to be involved in something that also involved their children. I think we all understand that if real societal change is going to happen—across race, gender and ethnicity—our talk must be accompanied by example. Our children must see that their parents have friends of different races, religions and cultures—and know that not only is it not a stretch, but a great thing.
The Integrated Play Group provides a space for parents to gather monthly and socialize with their children in a casual, friendly setting. We are intentional about its purpose: to foster integration through personal relationships that we hope turn into lifelong family friendships.
It’s true, our towns are diverse, but what does that mean? To me, diversity looks like this: “Our neighbor across the street is Muslim and there is a Hispanic family a few houses down.” Integration, however, is being able to say, “Our neighbor is joining us for dinner tonight, and our son is having a sleepover at his friend’s house a few doors down.” Diversity is a fine first step, and makes a town look good on the surface, but true integration should be the goal because it is good for the community at large.
Supported by the Coalition’s Schools Committee, the Integrated Play Group has grown by leaps and bounds, and is now in its fourth year with 492 members in our Facebook group. We have held an author event, and have recently partnered with another local group (SOMA Justice) to present child/parent discussions on books about difference, race/ethnicity and culture at our monthly play dates.
I am so proud of the work we’ve done thus far and am excited for the future of our two towns. We have so many families that believe strongly enough in the goal of integration that they put their children where their values are. That is a true testament to our commitment, and I think it can stand as a model for other communities looking to start on a similar journey.
The next Integrated Play Group is Saturday, April 13 from 10 am to 12 pm at Le Parc Place in Maplewood. Learn about upcoming playdates by visiting www.communitycoalitiononrace.org/events and join the Facebook group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/SOMaIntegratedPlayGroup/