Donna Pearson Steps Up In Cumberland County Freeholder Race


Donna Pearson, adjunct professor at Rowan College of South Jersey and Cumberland County Commissioner.

By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media

BRIDGETON — Donna Pearson has already made history as the first African American woman to win a countywide election in Cumberland County and the first African American to serve as the county’s freeholder director.

But Pearson said she could not continue to sit on the sidelines and asked others to step up unless she was willing to do so again. Pearson, who was first elected to Cumberland County Board of Chosen Freeholders in 1997 and director in 2003, will have a chance to return to the body in the November general election as a Democrat.

“Frankly, I was content to work as an adjunct professor and participate in civic organizations and serve as a mentor and advisor to those who were interested in entering politics and community service,” Pearson told Front Runner New Jersey. “Without going into great detail, I was asked by Freeholder Jack Surrency if I would help round out an independent ticket which included him, Amy Kennedy and Tracey Wells- Huggins in the June 2020 primary. 

Paid for by Thelma Witherspoon 2020.

“As someone who had ‘been there and done that,’ I could not continue to tell others what they should do. I had to step up to the plate. I did. That is why I ran again,” she added.

Second Time Around

As part of Surrency’s ticket, Pearson finished among the top three vote-getters in the testy Democratic primary in July. She joins Democratic incumbents Carol Musso and George Castellini to take on the Republican ticket of Darwin Cooper Jr., Victoria Lods and Tony Romero for the three open freeholder seats.

“In this day, we have so much to continue to fight for,” Pearson said. “My mother is now 94 years old, my father would have been 105. There was never a question for me not to continue to be involved.”

Pearson is a graduate of Bridgeton High School and served on city council, including council president in the 1990s. Her father, who was born in Jamaica, and mother from Georgia met in Cumberland County.

Lifetime of Accomplishments

She earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology from HBCU Clark Atlanta University, and is a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority. Pearson would go on to earn a master’s in social work from New York University and is a certified public manager.

For all of her history-making accomplishments, she said one of the things that continues to motivate her is connecting with young people, along with not wanting to see the clock turn back on history.

“There are so many young men and women who want to make a change, make a difference,” Pearson said. “There are so many of my contemporaries who are just plain tired of the status quo and want to be more vocal and participatory in the body politic and to work for real change in the community. 

“I look to my mother and her living siblings who tell me that we can’t go back to stepping off of the sidewalk to let someone pass or riding in the back of the bus. The young students that I teach are eager and full of promise; they motivate me. Connecting with my cousins in Jamaica and in England, and knowing that the struggle is universal. The current climate in this country — change is absolutely necessary. Every day is a motivation to be able to be a public servant.”

Motivated by Public Service

Pearson shared that motivation for public service through a wide range of experiences. She served as a director of a private non-profit youth agency in North Jersey before accepting a social work position in Newark with the State of New Jersey.

She worked for the state for 24 years. She earned experience in the area of county and municipal government administration, federal programs requirements; reporting and monitoring, aging and community services, community organization, and child protective services.

She also worked as director of the South Jersey Office of the Governor and director of Appointments in the Governor’s Office. Adding to her work experience, Pearson served as an adjunct professor for Cumberland County College, now Rowan College of South Jersey-Cumberland Campus, and for Wilmington University.

Pearson said through those experiences, she understood her position as a role model and how young people learned from watching her.

Role Model

“Whether we accept it or not, there are people who look up to us for who we are and what we do,” Pearson said. “We must be cognizant of who we are and the image that we project. We must be the teachers and the leaders. I recall those whom I called role models and they made sure to guide us. It is an awesome responsibility that I as well as those of us who are showing a different way to serve.”

When Surrency did not make the cut during the Democratic primary, it left the possibility of the Cumberland County freeholder board to go without a representative from a community of color in recent memory.

Pearson said she believes that representation is important to make sure everyone has a voice. Cooper, an African American; and Romero, a Latino; are running on the Republican side. According to 2019 U.S. Census estimates, Blacks make up 21.9 percent of the population in the county. The Latino population, which could include Black and Whites, is 31.8 percent.

“Considering the demographics of Cumberland County, it is absolutely critical to have representation of color on the board as well as representation from the western side of the county, which includes the city of Bridgeton,” Pearson said.   

Pearson touched on other important topics in her interview with Front Runner New Jersey.

The Rest of the Story

FRNJ: Tell us about your family. Anything you would like to share.

Donna Pearson: My parents came to Seabrook, New Jersey through Seabrook Farms in Upper Deerfield in the early and mid-1940s.  Seabrook Farms also relocated former Japanese citizens who were interred in concentration camps by the federal government, refugees from the war in Eastern Europe, from the Appalachias and German POWs. The Farm also contracted men from the West Indies and college students from the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s). My father, with many other young Jamaican men, was among the first who came under contract to Seabrook Farms in 1943 from colonial Jamaica. My mother. who was born and raised in Central Georgia in the segregated South, came from Clark College in Atlanta to work during the summer. They met and married. My mother returned to Clark and commuted, graduating in 1948 with a degree in sociology and education. She returned to New Jersey and set up a home. Growing up, my playmates were Jamaican, Japanese, German, Ukrainian and other children of the citizens of Seabrook Farms.

My father, who was educated in Jamaica, became the head purchaser for the camps at Seabrook Farms.  My mother, who had a college degree, applied for teaching jobs in the area and was told that she would not be hired as a teacher because she was a Negro or because she was not from Cumberland County.  The closest school district that would hire her was Atlantic City. She was starting a family and driving to Atlantic City each day was not an option.

As a child in the early 60’s, I asked my father why he had to go to so many meetings. His answer, in his beautiful Jamaican accent was “because we don’t want you and your little friends to have to walk home from school in the dark.” There were split sessions; we ended up walking home after dark. Through the NAACP, which met in our living room, we watched how they fearlessly organized to elect the first Black school board member, how they became politically involved to make a change in our community. Most of the members were from the West Indies and from the south; they all took a tremendous chance in 1950- 1960s Bridgeton to make a change. They did. Our school was back on regular schedule. The connection between taking action and making change was clear. They laid the foundation for who we, their children were to become.

I was taught to listen, to respect, to advocate for the people and not sit back when others are in pain or being mistreated. I firmly believe that each person is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect — not as if they are inherently unworthy of it. That doing the right thing is much easier than not. This holds true for every vocation, but especially for an elected public servant.

In this day, we have so much to continue to fight for. My mother is now 94 years old, my father would have been 105. There was never a question for me not to continue to be involved.

FRNJ: If elected, what would you like to accomplish in this new term?

Donna Pearson: Among many issues:

Social justice — Our country is ripe with social injustice and Cumberland County is not immune from it. Equality, recognition and respect is the task and duty we all must respond to. Today, social injustice is at the forefront in the media, during national debates and in our day-to-day discussions with our family and friends. It is a topic that has been long overdue, but is right before us now. It is what we do with these conversations and these debates now which will create a better future for our citizens today and those that come after us tomorrow that count. Our response must be consistent, clear and bold when we demand justice and equality for all of our residents. 

It is vital that we get to know our neighbors and those around us as we promote social justice on a broader level. Without this sense of community and a meaningful dialog with our neighbors, it would be impossible to effectuate the change needed. My goal is to have our residents get to know each other on a more meaningful level.

Additionally, I will encourage residents to travel to neighborhoods, communities and events that are ethnically focused to gain a greater appreciation of diverse cultures. I encourage members of different communities to get to know and understand Cumberland’s diverse population so to gain a better understanding of our neighbors and their thoughts.  

Tax relief — The Freeholder Board has implemented a 5-year fiscal plan which includes tax relief. I want to continue to be a part of that plan and work towards additional components which will ensure a sound fiscal approach to utilizing our county’s tax dollars. It is imperative that our county residents be afforded the services they need and deserve, but we must work to ensure that these services are performed in the most efficient ways possible. 

Job creation — As far as job creation, I will continue the established practice of promoting both public and private investments inside the county, while developing a technical workforce that is ready and able to meet the needs of our new employers. 

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