By Emily Hamilton | AC JosepH Media
WESTAMPTON — Carolyn Chang, an attorney of Family Law in Burlington County and resident of Westampton since 2002, has served her community through various governing committees to impact the community.
In 2009, Chang ran for the governing body of Westampton then later in 2013 was sworn in as mayor until 2016. From 2017 to 2018 Chang then served as president of the Association of Black Women Lawyers Association.
During her career, Chang has developed a deep understanding of women’s obstacles and challenges in this field of work.
Chang’s time as mayor was very eye-opening to the demographics of the area she had lived in for about a decade by the time she became mayor in 2013.
“I would say at the time that I ran in the race, the town was probably somewhere around 33 to 35% of color,” she said. “We have black individuals, we have people from the Philippines, people from Haiti, we have some Hispanic folks there. So, a fairly diverse town.”
Chang continues, “… I found this out almost immediately just by looking around in the actual town hall or township building. One, the police force didn’t reflect the diversity of the town. Two, the municipal court personnel, damn sure, excuse my language. They did not reflect the diversity of the town. So as a lawyer who happened to be a mayor, I decided, I’m short in stature. I don’t know if you remember me. I’m not even five foot tall …”
To fully understand the disparities in race Chang would discretely sit in the back of municipal courtroom sessions where she observed, “… that although we were in a town where the people of color were only 33% to 35%, 80 to 85% of the defendants in our municipal court were black or of color …”
This led Chang to do more research as to why this was occurring only to find out that the local police departments in not only Westampton but in other New Jersey towns were primarily pulling over people passing through town.
“So they weren’t stopping residents per se, they were stopping people who were traveling through the town,” Chang said. “And they were stopping people from Willingboro, from Edgewater Park, from Mount Holly.
“And those towns have a greater diversity of residents. So what was happening is those people from outside of Westampton who are of color were actually the folks providing the dollars to the covers of the town through tickets. That’s one of the things I found out,” said Chang.
In her time at the back of the municipal court, Chang observed the judge’s behavior which she can only describe best as, “Rude. Rude to litigants, rude to the attorneys, vindictive, just should not have been there …”
Chang did not let any of this behavior or disparities slide during her time as mayor. She took action to incite change in the town to close the gap in those disparities by first appointing the first ever black Westampton judge, Rodney Thompson.
“I, with the help of the other members of the governing body, appointed the first Black female prosecutor in town, Shelia Ellington, who is now a municipal court judge in several municipalities,” said Chang.
This change did not go unchallenged or easily accepted during Chang’s term as mayor. Those on committees and within the town’s governing body were not accepting of these changes, but Chang persisted.
This experience led Chang to understand that it is difficult to make a change in some South Jersey municipalities, so she had to appeal to a common factor among most members of the governing body, their children.
Many of those parts of the governing body had children either in college, graduating college, or graduated children. This came as a valuable talking point when advocating for affordable housing in Westhampton.
“So that’s how I got them to kind of buy into the issue of let’s get some more affordable housing in the town, was not to say, let’s get affordable housing in here for poor folks, because they’re going to reject that. I said, ‘Your own children can’t live here,’” said Chang.
Even residents pushed back at the affordable housing proposal with comments such as “… Chang is trying to make Westampton a little Trenton or a little Camden …” Chang recalled.
“… and that was my experience as a mayor. A lot of what I did to try to make appropriate changes to include diversity and inclusion and equity, I was under attack like you would not believe,” Chang said.
These obstacles and comments lead Chang to really reflect if this position was worth the $3,000 stipend she received a year. In her reflection, Chang really came to understand the need for support being a Black woman in this field.
“… I really stress the need for support. Because one of the problems I saw was there were a lot of folks when I knocked on doors who were very supportive of my policies, but those people never showed up to the meetings,” she said.
But the people who were opposed to affordable housing, who were opposed to a diverse police force, who were opposed to a diverse municipal court, those people would show up to the meetings, and those people would make a lot of noises,” said Chang.
Chang is still an active member of the Black Women Lawyers of New Jersey, even maintaining a role as chair of the association’s Social Justice Committee.
“… a part of the social justice committee is to bill watch for legislation in Trenton and either support or object to certain legislation that we believe may either be good for our communities or bad for our communities,” said Chang.
Apart from this committee, Chang also takes part in the vetting process to help individuals seeking positions as judges, but more specifically in higher court positions such as Chief Prosecutor and Administrative Law Court.
“I see equity, diversity, and inclusion as a positive thing for our entire community, not just for Black folks and Brown folks, but for the entire state of New Jersey. I believe diversity is a spice of life. And so, I will promote it, I will advance it, I will do whatever I need to do to make sure there’s diversity everywhere,” said Chang.
Over the course of Chang’s career, she has advocated and pursued equality within the field of law, in her community, and throughout the government.
Her ideas and agendas have been challenged throughout her career, but that hasn’t stopped Chang’s goals and passion for change.
Although stepping away from her position as major when she didn’t choose to run again, Chang took on roles within the Black Women’s Lawyer Association to further enact change. Where there are obstacles and disparities Chang has made motions to bring diversity to legislative and governing branches that were guarded with outdated mindsets.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Chang’s story was based on interview by FRNJ Editor Clyde Hughes last April.
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