Every year, the NJ Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Commission, a subdivision of the NJ Department of State led by Secretary of State Tahesha Way, hosts a commemorative event the day before Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service (MLK Jr. Day). Typically held in-person at the State Museum, the event provides hundreds of youths with a day of inspiration and insight through panel discussions about Dr. King’s legacy and the impact of civil rights history on current issues. The commission had to readjust this years’ commemorative event to fit a virtual platform amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are not gathering as in the days of old,” said Rowena Madden, Executive Director of the NJ Commission on National and Community Service. “We’re doing it completely remote on a special platform that we’re going to be using.” 

On MLK Jr. Day, Monday, January 18, 2021, the NJ Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Commission will be hosting the youth conference titled, ‘Youth, We Hear You,’ from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. through a virtual platform. Despite the remote adjustment, the celebration will be as big as ever.

“Governor Murphy is participating via video, Secretary of State [Tahesha] Way is playing a very prominent role in in two ways, and we have, also, a presentation by Attorney General [Gurbir] Grewal,” said Madden. “So we’re very excited.”

In addition to the the Governor, Secretary of State and Attorney General, the virtual youth conference will be having a special panel for their “main stage” event at noon. The main stage panel, ‘Justice Matters,’ will be moderated by Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae.

During the Justice Matters panel, Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson will discuss some of her legislative initiatives along with Retha Onitiri, the Director of Community Engagement for the NJ Institute for Social Justice. Two youth representatives, one from the NJ Institute for Social Justice and another, who is a resident from the Juvenile Justice facility in NJ, will be speaking on the panel as well. “I think that’s going to be an amazing panel,” said Madden.

Throughout the day, students and young adults taking part in the day’s events will have the opportunity to choose from multiple information sessions and workshops that highlight an array of topics. Some of the days workshops will include “Save Your Money, Stack Your Coins,” “3-Pointers of Success: in the Classroom, on the Court and in the Global Economy” and “That’s What’s Up: How to get involved in media.”

Secretary Way will present a session called, ‘Dr. King’s global impact,’ where she will set the scene for two international diplomats whose countries were deeply involved with Dr. King, according to Madden. “We’re having a representative of the Council General of India and an Ambassador from Ghana; both of those countries, Dr. King was very inspired by and spent considerable time visiting them…It’s going to be great!”

To end the day’s events, the last panel discussion will feature six young individuals who will talk about their engagement in creating a better country and a better world, including JeTiah Foster of the Black Student Union and newly admitted Harvard University student, Azeez Richardson, from Newark. The panel will be called, “Youth Spotlight.”

“2020, and the beginning of 2021, has been such a tumultuous year from the pandemic, the racial protest, to the recent events at the Capitol,” said Richardson, who will also be introducing Governor Murphy. “So being an African American male, it’s been very interesting and profound to take part of the conversations and to listen and hear different perspectives and that’s something that I really cherished.”

Richardson was chosen to be a facilitator at this years Youth Conference after his exceptional participation in the Novartis Multicultural Teen Corporate Mentoring Program. With a passion for health care and public service, he is hoping to offer insightful conversations at this years’ event.

“It really gives me a chance to put out my story, my narrative, my passion, my fervor into a space like the MLK Youth Conference,” said Richardson. “It’s a really nice time for people to come together to celebrate an icon like the king.”

During this final session, attendees will have the opportunity to participate in a Q&A session with the youthful panel. The commission hopes this space to speak openly will encourage today’s youth to speak out and gain inspiration from others.

“It’s really targeted to eighth grade to 12th grade, and above because it’s not just going to be students in high school and middle school,” said Madden. “We’re going to have college students involved, as well as young people who are involved in the correctional system. We really want to get them involved and hear from them, and hopefully inspire them with their second chance as they are coming back into the community.”

She continued, “The name of the conference is, ‘Youth, We Hear You’ and so we really want to address and give opportunities for young people to express their interests, their concerns and their activism.”

For more information and to take part in the NJ Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Commission’s Virtual Youth Conference, Click HERE.