Montclair NAACP Rises To COVID-19 Challenges, Finding New Ways To Help Community

Montclair NAACP President Albert Pelham

Montclair NAACP President Albert Pelham has a way of thinking about the pandemic that has helped motivate him to react and respond to all the challenges COVID-19 has created.

“When the pandemic hit [in March 2020] and we were all sitting at home, I thought ‘I can’t come out of this being the same person I was going in,'” says Pelham, adding that the crisis energized him, as well as the Montclair NAACP, to mobilize and respond to help the community.

The Montclair NAAACP has been creative and proactive in that response to the needs of its membership and has come up with out of the box ideas to adjust to problems created by the pandemic.

Education In The Time of Covid

Pelham, who has been president of the Montclair NAACP since 2014, says education was one of the first challenges the chapter focused on.

“The NAACP is not wrapped up into whether schools are open or closed,” says Pelham, referring to the clash in town over Montclair Schools remaining on remote learning since March 2020 and the resulting lawsuits. “Our big focus is on the achievement gap and when you look at it, we’ve been fighting that for 20 to 30 years.”

Pelham says for the underserved population in town — kids who were already struggling before the pandemic — remote learning is even more difficult.

“We are very concerned about the effect the pandemic has had on the black and brown community because we are losing a generation of kids, kids who are a year behind or more,” says Pelham, adding that children from lower-income families don’t have the same support they would have had access to if they were in school. Many also have parents who are essential workers and can’t be home with them during remote learning.

It was those concerns that prompted the NAACP and Montclair Neighborhood Development Corp. (Pelham is the organization’s executive director) to work with Fourth Ward Councilor David Cummings and Montclair Fund For Educational Excellence (MFEE) to open up the Wally Choice Center at Glenfield Park in December 2020 to serve as a remote learning location for 50 Montclair students. Essex County Commissioner Brendan Gill and Montclair Mayor Sean Spiller helped plead the case to the state to get the center a temporary childcare license.

A remote learning and enrichment center has been a game changer for 50 students and their families.

“The majority of kids at the center are middle school age. They come every day and have an opportunity to interact with peers,” says Pelham.

The school district provides students with free and reduced lunch and also provides the technology; CARES act money from the township has helped with other costs. Students are masked and answer a daily health screening; the hours — from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. — allow time for homework after the remote school day ends. College students who are taking classes remotely in the evenings are paid to work at the center and offer support.

This learning enrichment center program, something parents have called a godsend, now has a waiting list with 400 names. Pelham wants to see it replicated in other locations throughout Montclair to serve the other students in need.

Pelham says other locations have been identified such as St. Paul’s Church, St. Mark’s Church and 11 Pine Street. The difficulty has been legal issues, specifically getting the approval to open these locations and get an emergency childcare license in order to operate.

“People need to think outside the box. People are willing to help because this is a major crisis. If we had an achievement gap before, now it’s a crater,” says Pelham.

Pelham also believes the district needs to collaborate and offer these sites year round to help students who can’t afford to lose any more academic ground and need the opportunity to catch up, even when in person learning resumes.

Concerns About COVID-19 Vaccine

When it came to the COVID-19 vaccine, Pelham knew one of the biggest obstacles would be sharing information to help alleviate fears connected to it.

“In this country, African Americans, especially older ones, have a level of distrust of the government when it comes to vaccines,” says Pelham. “Our goal was to help people learn more about the vaccine and to be able to dispel any concerns.”

To that end, the Montclair NAACP organized and hosted a COVID1-9 vaccination panel discussion with experts who could address both vaccine distribution and some of the serious concerns of the black and brown community with regard to the vaccine.

Experts included Dr. Shereef Elnahal, CEO of University Hospital; Montclair resident Dr. Chris T. Pernell, University Hospital’s first Chief Strategic Integration and Health Equity Officer; 1st Vice President Roger Terry, Sr., member of the Montclair COVID-19 Task Force; and Essex County Health Officer Maya Lordo.

Pelham praised Rosita Dotson, vice president of Montclair NAACP’s health committee, saying in addition to the panel discussion, the committee was working hard on mailings and assisting with access to the Kmart vaccination center to eliminate any barriers to getting vaccinated.

Another objective was to find as many ways as possible to help those seniors who wanted to get the vaccine. Montclair NAACP is working with Montclair Senior Citizens Advisory Committee Chairperson Ann Lippel and Mayor Spiller’s COVID-19 Task Force to engage seniors and break down any barriers, including sharing information on when to check sites for available appointments or how to call for appointments for seniors who do not have a smartphone or computer.

Eviction and Rent Control

Eviction is the next pandemic, says Pelham, who fears an eviction avalanche when the state’s moratorium on evictions is lifted.

Pelham says the NAACP is working statewide on this issue and locally, Housing Chair William Scott is working to educate people of their rights, what options they have and how to prepare or make arrangements to pay back rent if they are several months behind.

“Landlords have to make a living, too, but people can’t find out that next week their door is padlocked and they are out on the streets,” Pelham says.

Montclair NAACP was also among the community organizations urging the Montclair town council to extend its own rent freeze moratorium.

Pelham is concerned about the future of rent control in Montclair, a fight the Montclair NAACP has been at the forefront for years.

“The diversity of the town is at stake,” says Pelham of the rent control ordinance in Montclair that was passed in April 2020, only to reversed by a judge last month, opening up the possibility for a special election unless the town is successful appealing the judge’s ruling.

“You already see the gentrification in the Fourth Ward area. If we don’t have any rent control, you will see Montclair become Ridgewood in five years,” says Pelham.

A Food Desert and The Future of Lackawanna Plaza

Residents have not had supermarket since Pathmark closed in November 2015.

Pelham also spoke about Lackawanna Plaza, now that a new owner will share plans for the property, which has been missing a supermarket since November 2015 when Pathmark closed.

“It’s disgraceful in an area with our most vulnerable — seniors and people on lower incomes — that we do not have supermarket. It’s sinful. When we talk about ‘we are Montclair,’ we talk a good game, but where is the outrage that there’s no supermarket?”

Pelham also questioned why for some in Montclair, the historical preservation of Lackawanna Plaza was more important than the right of residents to have decent food within walking distance. Pelham had not yet met owner David Placek, but has heard he is committed to having a supermarket in Lackawanna Plaza.

Looking forward, Pelham is focused on continuing to help the underserved and make a difference in the community that has been his lifelong home.

“The NAACP new committee chairs bring leadership and new energy,” says Pelham. “Our main focus right now continues to be education and keeping people healthy and vaccinated, so we can bend the curve. It’s a different time, but it’s an exciting time.”

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