Yesterday, December 10, 2020, Lead New Jersey (LNJ) held a virtual ceremony for its 2020 graduating class of Fellows as leaders reflected on one of the most challenging years in LNJ’s history. The LNJ Class of 2020 bonded through a tense year of social unrest, a debilitating pandemic, and the loss of a dear friend due to COVID-19.

With precautions surrounding the pandemic, LNJ’s Class of 2020 had limited face to face interaction. Sadly, the year took a turn for the worse with the loss of Cheryl Morrison, LNJ ’20, Directory of Diversity & Inclusion at New Jersey Resources who passed away due to complications from COVID-19. Heartwarming moments of reflection were captured throughout the ceremony from LNJ friends and colleagues who were deeply moved by Morrison’s passing.

“Cheryl was a warm, beautiful, compassionate and charismatic individual with a passion for diversity and inclusion, professional and personal development that made her one-of-a-kind,” said Anne-Marie Peracchio (LNJ ’15), LNJ Board Secretary. “She was ready to go above and beyond and she would have been on, not just your LNJ journey this year, but she would have been on the longer journey with you as well, looking to make a difference.”

“The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic hit New Jersey like a tidal wave this year, throwing every business, every institution, every plan and every family into almost instantaneous disarray,” said LNJ’s newly elected Board Chair Matt Baker. “No class in LNJ’s history has gone through what you had to go through. This has been a difficult year in many different ways.”

In addition to all LNJ 2020 graduates across the State of New Jersey, a special congratulations goes out to the Trenton-area contingent of graduating leaders including our own Bryan Evans, Vice President of Marketing and Communications at Greater Trenton and Founder of TrentonDaily; Marisa Benson, Grants Manager at Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; Jackie Burke, Assistant Executive Director of NJ Council of County Vocation-Technical Schools; Margaret Cowell, Director of Operations at Arm-in-Arm; Tom Gilmour, Executive Director at Trenton Downtown Association; Karla Pollack, Principal at Association Business Solutions; and Michael Mancini, Chief of Staff/Chief Operating Officer and Secretary to the Board at Thomas Edison State University.

“Congratulations to Bryan Evans and the entire 2020 LNJ graduating class for staying the course, particularly during such a challenging year,” said George Sowa, Greater Trenton CEO.

During the year, the class only met in person a total of six times. According to Mark Murphy, president of LNJ, the Fellows were set to meet in Camden around March to observe the state economy, the history of the residents and to understand more about the Camden story in person. “We were robbed of that opportunity because of an international pandemic that quickly came to dominate every portion of our lives,” Murphy said. 

However, with quick adjustments and evaluations by the LNJ team, the fellowship program was able to persist and provide the Class of 2020 with an interactive remote experience that challenged their ability to adapt to the new realities of the current time. 

You have experienced a year, not only marked by this unprecedented disease, but also marked by some of the most hateful speech and some of the most outlandish action and the taking of lives we have seen in a long time,” said Murphy, addressing the graduating class. “These external events of racial injustice, of the pandemic, became our year together.” 

Although a troubled year faced with many challenges, the 2020 class gained immersive experience in leadership. To make up for the limited experience this year, all 2020 LNJ graduates were extended a warm welcome to join LNJ’s 2021 in-person seminars throughout the year.

“I have a sense that your class (LNJ 2020), in ways that we wish never had to have happened, had a level of intimacy that some of the other classes haven’t,” said immediate past LNJ Board Chair Michael Van Wagner during the virtual graduation ceremony.

“In some ways, Zoom has done that,” added Van Wagner, highlighting the recent success of Greater Trenton’s virtual 3rd Annual Caren Franzini Capital City Award, which he co-chaired as a member of Greater Trenton’s Board along with Bristol-Myers Squibb’s global lead for the Organization for Latino Achievement Leticia Ferri.

Confronting the realities of a year marked by social unrest, Rachel Wainer Apter, Director, Division on Civil Rights at the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General, provided timely remarks on leading to confront rising hates crimes in the Garden State.

“I know that bringing people together with diverse perspectives and backgrounds to cross boundaries, foster common ground and to commit to making our state more equal and more equitable is a core part of the mission and vision of Lead NJ, and it is, of course, also, a core part of the mission and division of the Division of Civil Rights, and I really look forward to hopefully being able to work with many of you in the months ahead to make that vision a reality,” said Wainer Apter. “Let us all make a renewed commitment to paying attention to the light that is shining now on the systemic racism and systemic inequalities that continue to plague our country, and to coming together to build a more just and equitable New Jersey.”

As tradition goes, each graduating member of LNJ had the opportunity to announce how they lead at the end of the ceremony. Wrapping up the year, Baker addressed the class with wishes for those to proceed in their leadership roles with the knowledge they obtained over the course of 2020. He said, “My hope for you all is that you take what you’ve learned this year and apply it, really really apply it, in as many ways as possible, and when you have to, don’t hesitate to take the hard right over the easy wrong.”