Feature photo of Shelja Touri courtesy Shelja Touri
By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
EVESHAM TOWNSHIP — When someone asked Shelja Touri to put up Black Lives Matter signs in Evesham Township and Marlton in 2020, she gladly took on the task knowing there would be a mixed reaction.
Even after the brutal deaths of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and George Floyd in Minnesota, which sparked social justice protests across the country and around the world, Touri said she was met with not only hostile rejection but personal attacks as well.
“In 2020, the murder of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd put systemic racism and police brutality at the forefront of the national conversation,” Touri told Front Runner New Jersey. “People were finally paying attention.
READ: Juneteenth Mental Health Equity: https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/general/juneteenth-supporting-mental-health-equity-today-and-everyday/
“When I posted on community Facebook groups, as expected there was a mixed reaction. I received a lot of horrific backlash, including personal attacks and threats, to the extent where it felt like it was the 1950s and the Supreme Court had just announced we were desegregating schools. It was clear from the ignorance of many of the responses that there was a clear lack of education around topics like systemic racism, including even basic things like what it is.”
Touri, though, said she was also encouraged by the positive comments as well. It was that mixture that led her and others to create the Diversity Equal Opportunity Network, Inc., or DEON.
DEON will be hosting their Juneteenth celebration at Savich Field, 510 E. Main Street in Marlton on Saturday, co-sponsored by Evesham Township and the Human Rights Advisory Council. It’s an event DEON hopes will not only be a celebration but an education as well.
“I was invited to moderate a Facebook group dedicated to empowering local people to learn more and support social justice issues,” Touri said about the outgrowth of trying to post Black Lives Matter signs in Evesham and Marlton. “Here I became well acquainted with the late Sherry Golden Lee and as people started reaching out and telling us about what their experience was like living in this area.
“It made us think, how can we turn all of this awareness and engagement into actual change, real change. Although we’re all having great conversations, how can we turn it into momentum and action that makes a difference. For us, education was at the heart of it.”
Touri said she felt it was important to impact children before they’re indoctrinated with false information and racist propaganda along with creating empathy and solutions. DEON was born with Touri as chair and Golden-Lee as vice chair in January 2021.
“We asked parents, alumni, students and other community members to join us in addressing the racial, social and economic injustice within local public schools, and in building bridges within the community at large,” Touri said. “The only way forward is to ensure that tomorrow’s citizens of the world receive a diverse, inclusive and equitable education.
“There was a decided lack of organizations whose sole focus was tackling this institutional void. We connected educators, parents, and students to have conversations about curriculum changes, diversity hiring and worked on a proposal while we started the conversation with Evesham Township School district.”
DEON led a book drive to add books representing Indignous People, People of Color, Asian, LGBTQ, special needs and other underrepresented communities to the K-8 school libraries and were able to donate a substantial amount of books.
“We have observed that schools are satisfied with simply meeting the New Jersey standards at a bare minimum, despite DEON submitting a watered down proposal with solutions and several free offerings to partner for expertise by our volunteers and professional network that we have built. Our volunteers represent a variety of professional backgrounds including education, social work, medical doctors, business and more,” Touri said.
“This roadblock led us to getting involved with legislative action. We are currently working with legislatures on addressing Indiginous Education Standards, and seeking connection with the Amistad Commission who are supposed to ensure that the Department of Education and public schools of New Jersey implement materials and texts which integrate the history and contributions of African-Americans, and the descendants of the African Diaspora.”
Touri said DEON is dedicated to calling for accountability from all government bodies involved and allows the opportunity to hear from not just leaders but from the youth and parents themselves.
She said involving youth is an important part of long-term results that create a real impact and DEON has a youth ambassadorship to educate youth on relevant legislation. She said DEON is focused on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging.
“We are lucky enough to be in an area with good school districts academically,” Touri said. “So we want to see them take the lead and be the example for the rest of New Jersey, for the rest of the country. The question that schools should be asking themselves isn’t ‘Are we doing enough?’ It’s ‘Is there more we could be doing to help our kids?’
“This isn’t just about helping specific subsets of students; it’s about helping all of them. Let’s be honest, are we producing students that are globally or culturally fluid if cultural studies aren’t interwoven throughout the entire learning experience?”
Touri addressed numerous topics in the interview with Front Runner New Jersey about DEON.
FRNJ: Tell me about how your Juneteenth program last year came about and how it went?
Shelja Touri: In 2021, we were approached by Deputy Mayor Heather Cooper from Evesham Township to partner in hosting the towns’ first Juneteenth event. Before Juneteenth was declared a national holiday in 2021, we had already began planning and executing a free community event featuring, Black led vendors, music, Student participation from the African American Club of our local high School who read the Emancipation Proclamation, and and Indiegnous land acknowledgement, two singers; Local alumni student jazz band; Evesham Township School District Students contributed with students reading poetry; a story teller; an Interview with a former Eagles football player and 2021 star football captain of the Cherokee HS football team; a step performance by Alumni from Omega Psi Phi Alumni Fraternity; Sam Still- a descendant of Dr Sam Still who manages the Still House in Medford who spoke about Local Black history and highlighted the underground railroads in South Jersey. The day was full of excitement and rain did not keep people away. Due to last year’s success, we are excited about Saturday. The day anticipates music, food, vendors, speakers, poetry performances and more! Featuring local resident DJ Bishop, Local resident & Historian Marvin Walker, Children’s Dance Group Protected Species,Returning Singer/ songwriter and Ukelele Player Kayla Elsey; special performance by the West Powellton Steppers and drummers (who are also known as the Philadelphia 76ers “Sixers Stixers”) and much more!
FRNJ: Why did you personally feel like it was important to be involved in DEON?
Shelja Touri: As a woman of color who is a first generation Australian born to migrants from Fiji, I have lived experiences of racism and bullying since for as long as I can remember. I want all children to not have to face these issues that are damaging to mental and physical health. With my professional education, experience and skill set in social work, group work, networking and management I bring a unique view and perspective. I also think that not growing up in America and being exposed to the general stereotypes and stigmas, I am able to observe and understand through a different lens. And if there’s anything I’ve learned in the last two years, it’s that our kids need this. The students in our schools need adults to step up and help them. When we started DEON, we invited students to share their experiences as people of color, Muslims, Jewish people, members of the LGBTQ community, differently abled students in the local school district. The results were heartbreaking. They are not okay. Our kids are not okay. As community members we create the environment that they grow in outside of school and this is where we all need to come together. I have met amazing individuals who continue to lead and commit their spare time to DEON with me including Coriell Vokoun, Nicole Lucas and Marissa Rivera.
FRNJ: Is there a particular event or program you think represents the organization? Why?
Shelja Touri: Hosting the “Diversify the Libraries” book drive for Evesham Township School District where we made a wish list online that had a very extensive list of titles that represented Indiengous people, People of color, True Historical events, Asian, LGBTQ+ and other minority groups. We asked the community to make a purchase and have the book/s delivered to us or drop off their choices to a physical drop box. The purpose of this initiative was to add to libraries for representation reasons. We heard parents and children unable to personally relate to characters in what they are being taught or reading. Representation allows minority children to feel validated and allows children to express their opinions comfortably. This creates a sense of belonging, a healthy environment where ideas are diverse, perspectives are varied, and everyone feels valued. It also exposes non minority children to diversity and contributes to their compassion and acceptance We are also proud to be part of Evesham Township history by hosting the first ever Juneteenth and Cultural day celebrations in partnership with Evesham Township.
Juneteenth, which I will answer later. In October 2021, we partnered with Evesham Township to host the town’s first ever Cultural Day — showcasing diversity through dance, art and minority led vendors and performances. We again invited school participation and Evesham School District provided a stage banner made by children from each of the schools including five elementary schools and two middle Schools. The event was a huge success and attended by Governor Phil Murphy where we were able to tell him about DEON. DEON has showcased what building connections between groups with a common goal looks like, and help educate people on what respecting and acknowledging different cultures can do for the community at large. We make an effort to invite partnerships and participation from all ages and families.
FRNJ: What has been the community response to DEON? Why do you think you received that response?
Shelja Touri: The response has been good from people who have compassion, who understand how important it is to build an inclusive, multicultural society where people feel like they belong. What makes DEON different is that we are led by people from such a diverse set of backgrounds—ethnically, nationally, professionally, you name it we are bringing that strength and experience to the table. We are asking questions and challenging existing norms. The conversations we have had are not always comfortable because conversations that lead to real change never are. We are not only having conversations, we are taking action because we are driven and motivated by the children and young people of today. This has invited other local groups to communicate and support us, and our mission to transform what the world looks like for our kids and all kids in the future. We are open to working with anyone and we are here to make things happen for education and community inclusiveness- tell us what you need and we will move whatever needs to be moved to make it happen! We don’t have all the answers by any means but we believe we can make connections to find them through our network.
FRNJ: What do you hope people will get from DEON’s presence?
Shelja Touri: We want to give communities an experiential education on the true meaning of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. In recent years the focus of many DEI initiatives across the board have been about having tough and potentially uncomfortable conversations. While this remains an important step, the movement can’t stagnate around dialogue only. The conversation must transcend into mission reflective practices. Individuals need to see the value of diverse voices in their community. DEON has not only spearheaded events and initiatives that showcase the beauty and rich culture of marginalized communities but we have invited policy makers to partake and learn. Advocating for your constituency is much easier when you see them through an authentic lens. Building these bridges is the value DEON brings to the public. Our initiatives are propelled by the change our teen ambassadors are calling for with the pure strident dedication, characteristic of youth. They are guided by the pragmatism that we have thanks to the myriad of experiences our team utilizes to move goals forward. The ONLY way forward is together. Together we must improve the educational system so that it accurately reflects those it seeks to inform and enlighten. Together we must enact legislation that reflects the needs of the entire populace and not just a privileged few. Together is the only way sustainable progress has ever been made and that’s the value DEON has and will continue to bring to the masses.
FRNJ: What are your future plans for DEON?
Shelja Touri: In January 2022, we were faced with the incredibly heartbreaking loss of our Vice Chair and co-founder Sherry Golden Lee to her long term battle with cancer. Until her last days she worked hard and dedicated all of her time to DEON. We will continue to work towards the changes that Sherry envisioned and we want to honor her by starting an initiative called “Sherry’s Closet” which is a wardrobe of gently used and donated formal attire available to anyone who may need an outfit for job/ college interviews, prom and other events.
● DEON has developed training, educational and speaker workshops to offer education facilities, large corporations, organizations the opportunity to further develop skills in their teams and workplaces in the realm of being inclusive, presented by People of Color. We are excited to offer this in the very near future and we will share more details on our website and social media.
● We are working with local youth on launching a student-led DEON Youth Club to promote leadership skills, meet like-minded people and create a sense of belonging. We will offer them a safe space to talk about and work on initiatives that are important to them such as inclusion and social justice. We also have volunteer opportunities at DEON events, provide social media content, attend meetings with legislators, local leaders and sponsors.
● We are working on hosting a networking event called “Brunch and Brilliance” in August for non profits with a shared and similar mission. The goal is to bring together a community hub of non profits to connect and work together, share advice, debrief, discuss hardships and share ideas on solutions. Nonprofits need support and are faced with unique challenges and we are working on a line up of advisors and speakers that are directly related to nonprofits in NJ. This includes legal advice, benefits of having a bank account with certain banks, memberships with certain chambers of commerce businesses and opportunity to share their own journey.
● We continue to seek new partnerships and will continue to work with current ones including: ○ Individual activists and activist groups including Black Lives Matter New Jersey by supporting their monthly community outreach where they are feeding the underserved and providing basic necessities to the communities in Trenton & Camden.
○ Other non profits include Building Kings & Queens Inc based in Willingboro and TIME Mentoring Program based in Mt Laurel.
○ Councils & township including Evesham Township, Human Rights Advisory Committee, Burlington County Minority Human Rights Taskforce
● We will continue to partner and host community events involving government, schools, businesses, and other organizations including Juneteenth where we promote Black history, culture and businesses. This includes cultural day in October to promote diversity and promote all minority led businesses, and showcasing cultures that make up our community, Diwali Celebrations in partnership with Indian Temple Association, and Promoting Health by partnering and hosting wellness days.
● We are also open to helping anyone hold a diverse Book drive for their school libraries from preschool to grade 12! 8. Anything else you’d like to add? We want everyone to know that education is not just for kids. Everyone, no matter what their age or background or location has the opportunity to learn, to shift perspectives, to consider building a world where people aren’t penalized for things like the color of their skin or who they love. We are all in this together. At the school level that means all staff interacting with kids and at the community level it means working with government, business and other organizations– we want everyone to have the benefit of the kind of work we are committed to. Because at the end of the day we all should have the same goal, to give children our future workforce, the tools to have the best possible future.
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