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  • Writer's pictureKaren Brittingham-Edmond

Echo October Spotlight 2022: Felicia Simmons Asbury Park Mayoral Candidate:



More and more, Black candidates are running for higher office in 2022, despite the racial and cultural discord that runs deep in America. Today you will be introduced to a young Black mother who is running for mayor in Asbury Park, NJ, where she grew up. A town whose political history (good or bad) has been splashed across the many headlines of both national & local news media. Mayoral Candidate Felicia Simmons is an Asbury Park High School graduate mentored by the Project Hope Mission at the Westside Community Center who studied Social Work and Political Science at Brookdale Community College in partnership with Rutgers University. She is the president of the Monmouth Ocean County National Action Network and the newly appointed executive director of the Westside Community Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/01/22/black-americans-have-made-gains-in-u-s-political-leadership-but-gaps-remain/


Simmons is also Chair of Education for the Neptune/Asbury Park NAACP and serves on the P.A.N. African Chamber of Commerce and Industry. She was selected from thousands of entrants to participate in the program for TEDx Asbury Park, where she performed her inspired piece, "Smile," which has now been translated from English into five different languages." I introduce to some and present to others Felicia Simmons, relaunched Echo's October Spotlight Candidate.

Echo:

Good morning, Felicia. I am so glad to have an opportunity to interview you for The Echo News T.V. Spotlight. I will ask you a few questions so that more voters understand your commitment to helping and making a difference in the city of Asbury Park. Reflecting on the City of Asbury Park's population, do you feel the current city council represents the city's demographics?

Simmons:

No, I don't. Even though council representation seems diverse, white, black, gay, straight, and youngish (my age) to older, it doesn't fit who Asbury is and what Asbury Park was or will be. The largest population in Asbury Park is from 35-45yr old single adults. And that's not reflected in this counsel at all. We also have a large population of city residents, approximately 80% of whom are renters, and there is no one on the council who's a renter. It is a result of the gentrification that's happening in the city. And I have been a renter most of my life. So I can speak honestly as an Asburian mom whose son recently left home to attend college and is providing care for my three and six-year-old family members, as so many people who rent are experiencing different hassles in life. It is more than likely that the current council members cannot relate to this because they are not renters. My story isn't different from other families residing on the Westside of Asbury Park. And this is why I am saying no, that the city council of Asbury Park does not reflect the majority of people who reside there. https://www.demos.org/research/problem-african-american-underrepresentation-city-councils


Echo:

You make an excellent point that the city council cannot relate to what the larger population in their city is experiencing. Then there would likely not be a meeting of the minds because if the council board doesn't reflect that population's concerns, the policies they may issue or implement could be discriminatory, whether implicit or explicit.

(Pictured below are a few of Asbury Park, NJ City Council Persons)

Echo:

What are the top three economic drivers in Asbury Park, NJ? And how would you engage with these entities to improve Black business, economic developments, and opportunities in the city of Asbury Park?

Simmons:

Sadly, the three most significant business drivers in Asbury Park have cut us out. For example, the Parking business. That is a massive economic driver in Asbury Park. Their profits are in the millions—Downtown business area. Specifically, Cookman Ave's restaurant scene is another economic driver in Asbury Park. Cookman Avenue, for example, does not have one Black business. Also, the third economic driver is Social Services. Nonprofits are big businesses in Asbury Park. Asbury Park is the only urban seat in Monmouth County; any federal dollar for any urban initiative has to come through the Greater Asbury Park area. So the nonprofit business plus social service business is big business here in Asbury Park, NJ.


So how can we help drive business opportunities for Black businesses and entrepreneurs? First, since Asbury Park is the only urban seat in Monmouth County for any urban initiative to get approved. Black citizenship needs & concerns must be included. And a paid oversight committee made up of Black citizens who seek the advancement of their people needs to be established to ensure that Black citizens have access to and receive such funding. As well as object and have the power to send grants back to the state until Black citizens are equally included in the distribution of multi-million dollar grants.

We have so many different nonprofits here in Asbury Park, making millions, such as

  • Community Affairs and Resource Centers (Spanish or Hispanic Affairs) received millions.

  • Interfaith Neighbors receive multi-millions. And the

  • Mercy Center gets about a million.

These are huge nonprofits, and although they employ the Black community, they do not engage with the Black community. So, for instance, in Asbury Park, we saw a huge need for housing.


We'll use Interfaith Neighbors, for example, which receives tons of tax breaks, free land, and other things to address the housing & economic disparities specifically for low-income residents. So Interfaith Neighbors put up a house with an apartment attached to it so that homeowners would have the option of making their property an income maker. But the house built by Interfaith Neighbors is valued at $600,000 and some change. Interfaith Neighbors utilizes federal tax dollars set aside for our economically challenged & poor & homeless population to build these new homes. And poor people are unable to purchase a house at all. One Black citizen I know of got one of the affordable units, which was $300,000s and some change. So basically, residents of Asbury Park are more than likely unable to purchase a home because their wages or credit does not allow them access to buy a $600,000 or $300,000 home.


So how can we address this? We can put in a component; these nonprofits receiving multi-millions of dollars should have written within the grant that a monetary portion of resources is allocated explicitly to the systematically discriminated Black citizen population within the city, and that goes for the contracting job opportunities that come with building or governing said housing program. I spoke about this to the governor's counsel on how to allegate the American Rescue Plan's last billion dollars.

They should have an obligation to partner with or provide their grant funding to long-term citizens that have not been allowed to affordably purchase a home. And to not just have a part within a grant that infers "in-kind donations" with minority grassroots organizations in town. While providing no monetary resources. As well as no partnership with grassroots Black organizations. If grant guidelines included a genuine collaboration with grassroots Black nonprofits, local community members would have equal state rights. It would allow developing an experience right. Also, we do the work for free. And often, these nonprofits go out and find that community engager, that person, that outlier who goes out into the street and helps. And that was me. That was exactly who I was. So I know what I'm talking about.


I found it not robbery to help with these causes, especially since the project involved housing for residents. I helped with these housing initiatives to ensure that my community could engage. Just to find out that these are multi-million dollar funded efforts that did not give community engagers any pay, just free or volunteer positions, unlike our non-Black peers.

And then, these same nonprofits will ask why the Black community has no significant change. It's because of these nonprofits' non-monetary investment in the Black community.


They were given money to invest in, and although they receive multi-millions of dollars, they will not invest in Black concepts, grass root initiatives like mine, "A Proper Foundation," or other Black grassroots organizations like Urban Expressions, Umecca, and United Melanated Enrichment Center. Just like you with the relaunch of the historic Echo newspaper & Pine Brook Cemetery Care Project. We all do our work without getting paid, and we do this with no resources, and it's hard to sustain. But by God's grace, the job gets done when in our hands.


So within every grant delegated to these nonprofits allocated to Asbury Park, a guideline must be added that sets aside monetary resources for Black business development and community grassroots organizations. We can't sustain, and the problem is that we are not paid to be on the battlefield like our non-Black peers. These people are compensated by highly established institutions; hence, the people we compete against are paid 24 hours, seven days a week. While we're doing our work unpaid in the midnight hour.




Echo: I hear that! On to our next question

Our African American historic graveyards and Churches need investment. Historic African American Churches and burial sites provide evidence of many longtime Black citizens in Monmouth County Freedom Story. Per some local Black folks, there seems to be an effort to shut down local Black churches using long-term economic divestments over the years. Or per corporation downsizing efforts over the last 40 years. Do you believe that African American Historic Burial Grounds are worth protecting along with the historic churches our ancestors helped build and serve in for many years?


Simmons:

First of all, I am a lover of history. Because it shows you the future, being a thinker and a strategist, I know we must keep our footprint. We see how we have been pushed out of our spaces. And this causes confusion among the people. We seem to have no home. We seem to have been left to wander. In Asbury Park, I call us "the lost tribe,"


Pictured Above Tuskegee Airmen George Watson left of Lakewood & Thomas Mayfield of Willingboro

Echo:

L.O.L., It's not funny, but it's true.

Above Tuskegee Airmen 1941

Simmons:

Just the history of the Westside Community Center & being the newly appointed Executive Director of the West Side Community Center in Asbury, I recently discovered that I knew about Dr. Parker. Still, I did not realize that Tuskegee Airmen and Hess Gas Station built the gym of the Westside Community Center. Many people do not understand that the Hess family is from Asbury Park. I knew Mrs. Betty Hess. Kline was her married name. She was one of the residents where I worked as the head of activities for seniors. Lovely lady. She lived for 102 years and enjoyed painting her fingernails. Also, I did not know that Marcus Garvey came to the Westside Community Center and gave a speech on his steamship proposal. We had M.L.K. and Malcolm X come right here in Asbury Park, and later, I discovered that Madam C.J. Walker's daughter retired in Long Branch, and I did not know about that history until the Madam C.J. Walker Story came out.


So this history is right here. But no one knows about it. Moreover, Red Bank, Asbury Park, and Long Branch history are part of our Freedom Story. We were the Harlem of the beach. We didn't start with Bruce Springstein; we began with Count Baise and Ella Fitzgerald. I spoke to a lady who was also 100 years old and lived here in Asbury Park by the name of Greenwood. She remembers waking up and seeing Ella Fitzgerald in her kitchen along with other Black celebrities of the day in her parents' rooming house. And within this unique history of Asbury Park were Italian or Afgany people who were not considered White at the time.


(Above is a picture of Malcolm X with his quote about Marcus Garvey.)

Echo:

I remember having neighbors in Long Branch as a child who was indeed Italian but older. And they did not identify as White, which confused me, and they would correct me and say they were Italian from the Old Country.

(Above vintage photo of an Italian American Family in Newark, NJ)

Simmons:

Right, because back then, anybody who wasn't a White protestant was a minority. Especially if you didn't speak English first, so if you spoke Italian, Jewish, or Afghani, you were deemed colored and redlined to the west side of town in Asbury Park. Some people want to forget that part of history, but we can't. This is a part of our history, for example, that makes up Asbury Park and provides relatable cultural reflections and experiences. But we do not acknowledge such history because many people are not informed about the history of their towns, cities, or villages. This helps people feel a part of a community if shared. Even in the 40s & 50s, the Queer Community that LBGTQ was called at the time had the Great Gay Ball in Asbury Park. So I feel very fortunate to be raised here in Asbury Park because of the history.



Some additional church history that many do not know about here in Asbury Park, N.J. is that historically, St. Augustine was an indigenous church where local Sand Hill Indians fellowshipped was right here in Asbury Park. And it was the Sand Hill Indians who obtained the contracts and who built Asbury Park, Ocean Grove, and Neptune. This is the daily history that we drive by every day. And we can't lose it or forfeit our historical places for fancy condos. Recently, for example, Holy Spirit Catholic Church was threatened to be demolished and made into a space for an apartment complex.


Echo:

That's what they did to historic Saint John's A.M.E. Church in Jersey City, considered the mecca of Black churches where Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, and W.E.B. Dubois fellowship with whom underground holds the ancient tunnels made by 1st Nation tribes in Jersey City. That 1st Nation would later provide the abolitionist entry to safely move runaway Africans to Newark, New York, and onward to Canada in some cases.

(Above Holy Spirit Catholic Church Asbury Park NJ.)

Simmons:

Holy Spirit Catholic Church was actually that spin-off church where Black parishioners would go until St. Peters Catholic Church was built as part of Mount Carmel here in Asbury Park. So before they opened up, Saint Peters, which is now closed Holy Spirit Catholic Church, was a place where Black Catholics could attend. So I'm not saying I'm not for development. But I am for mindful development for the benefit of the community and not just for development's sake. So yes, I believe in preserving Black history in the community and the historic institutions & sacred sites located here in N.J.

Echo:

What an excellent and informative spotlight on Asbury Park Mayoral Candidate Ms. Felicia Simmons. A woman in touch with the city's needs and culture.

Please remember to vote on Tuesday, November 8, 2022. And if you are not registered to vote, please click this link to register. https://voter.svrs.nj.gov/register






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