By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
BURLINGTON â€“ Malikah Morris calls 2020 the year of the “double pandemic.”
There is the coronavirus pandemic, which has taken lives and forced countries to shut down their economies around the world. Then, there is the second pandemic, the call for racial and social justice where the death of George Floyd in custody of Minneapolis Police in May has led to rallies and protests worldwide.
Burlington County’s division director of community outreach and special projects will get her chance to play a role in the second pandemic â€“ and possibly both — in chairing the county’s first Minority and Equality Rights Task Force, established last month.
“This year we experienced what many dubbed a ‘double pandemic,'” Morris told Front Runner New Jersey. “In May and June, if you turned on the news you were guaranteed to see something that was traumatizing or heart wrenching, whether it was the unbelievably high number of COVID deaths across this nation â€“ with Black people dying at a significantly higher rate — or the peaceful protests that turned into riots.
“Ahmaud Aubery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylorâ€¦I dare not continue to list all the names but I will say that many people: Black, White, Latino, Pacific Islander, race and ethnicity did not matter, just many people got tired of the unnecessary hashtags #Justicefor followed by the name of an African American slain by a white counterpart, and many times the murderer was an officer whose duty was to serve and protect,” she said.
Morris has been with the county for nine months but has lived in Burlington County for 14 years. She is a 2015 graduate of Hampton University and has a master’s in public administration from Rutgers University.
“I am a proud HBCU alumna,” Morris said. “I graduated from Hampton University with a bachelor’s in English and a bachelorâ€™s in Spanish with a concentration in business. Instead of taking a gap year, I accepted a full ride to Rutgers Grad where I earned my masterâ€™s in public administration with a concentration in International Public Service and Community Development.
“You will no longer find international public service available as a concentration because they terminated the program after my first year however, I had already satisfied the requirements for the concentration so I ended up with both which I think is pretty cool,” she added.
The Minority and Equality Rights Task Force Morris will lead will be charged with devising ways the county can combat systemic racism and support equality for all, no matter race, color, gender, nationality, religion or sexual orientation. Fifteen of its 25 members were named in August.
Ahead of the Game
“Legislation is often crafted after a crisis, but in Burlington County we’re trying to be proactive and take action before then,” Morris said. “[Burlington County Freeholder Felicia] Hopson and I didnâ€™t even know we were strategizing the same thing until we spoke on the phone in June, and if you know her, she gets the ball rolling quickly.
“Police brutality and accountability are two important issues, but there are several others we intend to take on, including health care and education. Our charge is to develop a comprehensive list of recommendations for how the county can combat systemic racism and support equality for all, no matter race, color, gender, religion or sexual orientation,” she said.
While the task force is historic for Burlington County, Morris said she sees it as “necessary” in addressing some of the injustices of the day.
“Upon reflection, I do believe the Minority and Equality Rights Task Force is historic, and Iâ€™m honored to have been chosen to chair this taskforce,” Morris said. “I do not take the responsibility lightly. I’ve never been one to sit back as though my hands are tied and act like I can’t do anything when I know that there is a lot that I can do, and I plan on giving all that I have and do all that I can.”
Morris said the task force was creative to be proactive and develop lasting solutions instead of waiting for a crisis to come about.
“We’re here to get ahead of the game,” Morris said. “We werenâ€™t established as a quick fix to a present demand. We’re here for the long term and long-term impact. We’re not superficial. We’re delving into issues beyond police brutality like inequity in education and healthcare; weâ€™re looking to identify the root, pick it, and grow something better.”
Ms. Morris talked about how the death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville affected her personally. Taylor, a young African American woman like Morris, died sleeping in her apartment on March 13 when Louisville Metro Police executed a no-knock search warrant even though she was not the subject of the incident.
“[Taylor was] a frontline medical worker and was murdered after police carrying a no-knock warrant broke into her home,” Morris said. “Ms. Taylor didnâ€™t receive medical attention for more than 20 minutes after being shot, and to date, no officers have been charged.
“While Louisville has banned the use of the no-knock warrants, itâ€™s not enough for me, and itâ€™s simply not enough, period. I attended several protests. I watched several riots and I kept saying ‘it’s not enough.’ I said time and time again ‘we need demands, we need requests.’ We’re yelling and trust they hear us. We’re marching and trust they see us, but when will we have something tangible? That’s when we’ll get what we’re fighting for.”
Giving What She Can
Morris said she doesn’t see herself as a role model, but someone doing what she can in this time or unrest.
“I guess to some I might be,” Morris said about the role model question. “I simply think that I’m using what I have to give what I can. Rappers have rapped to bring awareness, creative arts experts have created countless films, songwriters have written songs, Mahalia Jackson went down in history for singing ‘How I Got Over’ at the March on Washington, she simply sang and inspired a nation to press on.
“I’m simply using what was given to me to change lives. The late Congressman John Lewis gave my commencement address at Hampton University and he inspired all who sat outside at Armstrong Stadium. In his posthumous essay that was published in July of this year, he stated, ‘ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary troubleâ€¦ I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe…Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.’
“Thatâ€™s what Iâ€™m doing, thatâ€™s what Iâ€™ll continue to do and if my being a change agent inspires some and makes me a ‘role model.’ I wear the crown with honor but hope that I am always seen more as a real individual, that way the average boy/girl knows all they need is an extraordinary vision and the determination to make that vision a reality,” Morris continued.
Morris touched on several other subjects in her Front Runner New Jersey interview.
FRNJ: Who has and continues to inspire you (parents, teachers, etc.)?
Malikah Morris: Iâ€™m a village child. Iâ€™m the product of a village of people having a common interest in the well-being of a little girl with a big head, big brains and big dreams. Of that village, Iâ€™ve always been most inspired by my late grandfather. He was and will always be my driving force. He was my example of giving until you can give no more, being on the side of justice, and having a heart for the people. I have a small friend group, and we motivate each other. We are our own personal cheer squad. Itâ€™s important to have people that you can bounce ideas off of, that can get you back in line when youâ€™re falling off, that have a different viewpoint than you because youâ€™ll remain ignorant if you can only see your own perspective. Other than that, it has been my experiences that inspire me or experiences that have been shared with me from individuals that believed I could do something. Countless times Iâ€™ve told individuals â€œIâ€™m not a doctor, Iâ€™m not a lawyerâ€¦ I donâ€™t know anything about thatâ€ yet they look at me like they know I have what it takes to fix the problem and though sometimes I am a bit frazzled by the request, its heartwarming to know that people trust me with such delicate yet important matters. To whom much is given much is required is what Iâ€™ve always been told.
FRNJ: Where do you see yourself in five years?
Malikah Morris: Iâ€™ve answered this question several times in several interviews or applications. Thereâ€™s an old saying, I didnâ€™t fully get it until adulthood â€œif you want to make God laugh, tell him what you have planned for yourself.â€ I have learned to stop giving myself these rigid time frames because it can be detrimental if something gets postponed; Individuals sometimes begin to question their competencies and their purpose. If I had to choose something Iâ€™d like to accomplish related to the taskforce and its accomplishments under my leadership it would be legislation that assures equality for all. If itâ€™s legislation that improves fetal and maternal health outcomes for women of color Iâ€™d be happy. If itâ€™s a more diverse curriculum specifically related to Minority Studies in schools, Iâ€™d be happy. The list goes on, I just want to leave my mark and pass down the torch with a burning fire for the next fearless leader to take on this task.
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