Young people promote awareness and involvement in social justice in Clark

Photo Courtesy of John Fortuna
Arthur L. Johnson High School juniors Julia Steiner, left, and Shannon Heaning are forming Young Voices for Clark, a group of students dedicated to promoting awareness and involvement in social justice and quality-of-life issues.

CLARK, NJ — Julia Steiner and Shannon Heaning, both juniors at Arthur L. Johnson High School, recently announced that they are forming Young Voices for Clark, a group of students dedicated to promoting awareness and involvement in social justice and quality-of-life issues.

“Shannon and I originally got the idea back in December, and we really just wanted to start a group where students can talk about what’s going on in the world and have a chance to express their own ideas and, basically, form their own opinion,” Steiner said on Thursday, March 18. “We reached out to Nancy (Sheridan), who is the leader of Democrats of Clark. She really helped us get started. We really haven’t had any official meetings yet, but we have a social media page going with a lot of people who are interested, and we’re looking to have a meeting, starting in April.”

“The idea originally started during the pandemic, when everything was happening and going on with politics,” Heaning said on Monday, March 22. “During that time, I noticed that a lot of kids were forming their opinions based off of their parents’ opinions and what other people were telling them, besides forming their own opinions by learning through different sources.”

The two juniors decided that what was needed was a place where students their age could foster their own opinions and give back to the community through various acts of service.

“Our goal is for students to have an environment where they can have open and honest conversations about what’s going on in the world and have the chance to form their own opinions, rather than maybe their parents’ or what they see all over social media. We’re trying to foster that, as well as provide service opportunities to give back to our community,” Steiner said.

“The goal is roughly to educate a lot of kids on what they can do with their own voice and not just work through adults but work through themselves, and also a lot of community service,” Heaning said.

While Heaning said Young Voices of Clark will focus on social justice issues and division between groups, Steiner touched on issues at both the local and national level.

“It’s important that we look at both,” Steiner said. “But for right now, locally, there are some projects that we’re looking at, regarding the Clark Reservoir. We had a discussion with the commissioner and the director of the parks, because there’s a plan going on right now to turn the reservoir into something like a recreational facility. So we’re interested in that. We’re also interested in a reservoir clean up that can be organized when the weather gets warmer.

“On a national scale, we really just want to look at the issues that are facing our world right now, such as social justice issues, racism, climate change, etc. Obviously, we can’t solve those issues, but I think it’s important that we talk about them and have our opinions on them,” she added.

In addition to planning to support the revitalization of the Clark Reservoir, the teens also wanted to focus on adding Little Free Libraries to the Clark community. Resembling large mailboxes, the little libraries hold books; residents are welcome to borrow a book and either bring it back or return a different one, a kind of “take one, leave one” honor code. The first of these units would be at Esposito Park.

“Right now, we’re sending out letters to get the donations to build the little libraries, and we’re also collecting donations for the books, which we have a few of already,” said Steiner.

“We think they’re important … because we’re trying to make sure there’s a way for people to access books,” Heaning said. “A lot of times, it’s hard for people to get their creative minds going during the pandemic. So, we felt it would be good to help out.

“For the Clark Reservoir, we really wanted to work on that because we thought that it’s a great way for kids to help clean it up and also use it for other purposes, because it’s not treated the greatest,” she continued. “So, cleaning it up and taking care of it is very important to us.”

According to Steiner, the Young Voices for Clark group of outspoken students has been growing larger, and it’s open not just to high school students but to recent high school graduates as well, regardless of where they went to high school.

“The group is for any high schoolers from Clark or Garwood and recent graduates from the town,” Steiner said. “Right now, we have about 20 members set in stone, but our group is all about being open and having those conversations and service projects. We have our Instagram page, ‘Young Voices for Clark,’ where we post everything. If anyone wants to come in and stop by at a meeting, we’re totally open to that.”

Steiner said that, for her, it’s an opportunity to learn more about themselves while being heard, whereas Heaning said that, for her, it’s a way for children to discover an area where they’d like to help within the community.

“It’s just an opportunity to not only better our town but to learn more about ourselves in the process,” Steiner said. “I think it’s just a great opportunity for people to get their voices heard. We have that voice, so I think it’s really important that we use it.”

Heaning said she is ultimately hoping for children to be able to learn and discover their own path. “This is an opportunity to see where they want to help within the community and how they would want to use their own voice and perform for their community in their own way.”

“I feel like it’s so beyond important that we use our voice because, even though we are only 15, 16 years old, in two or three years, we’re going to be the people whose voices are going to be heard,” Steiner said. “By starting now, having these conversations and showing the younger generation that your voice is heard, I think it’s so important. It’s a great thing.”

“I noticed that, during the Black Lives Matter marches, a lot of people would look at us and think that we’re just kids and we don’t know what we’re talking about or we don’t know what we’re doing, but I think that we know a lot more than a lot of adults think we do,” Heaning said. “We do know what we’re doing, and I think it’s important to share that kids can also have this information and have these opinions that can be discussed with other kids in a grown-up-like manner. Not just arguing about who’s right and who’s wrong.”

Clark Democratic Committee Chairperson Nancy Sheridan, sister of Roselle 5th Ward Councilman John Fortuna, met with the two students to discuss ideas for service projects, which resulted in the Little Free Libraries and the support of the revitalization of the Clark Reservoir.

“Shannon Heaning contacted me through our election website and said she was interested in getting involved and wanted to invite her friend, Julia. I got back to her right after the election,” Sheridan said on Thursday, March 18. “We arranged to meet in a diner. We discussed their issues, and they wanted to show that they were another voice in town. I spoke to a couple people within my committee. There were a couple suggestions, and they liked Young Voices for Clark. We have a letter that we came up with, and I had a designer come up with a logo for them.

“I suggested a service project and we heard about little libraries, which require donations,” she continued. “I also had them on a Zoom call with the county Parks Department and the engineers. One arrangement they have is a cleanup for the reservoir. They’re also interested in participating in the county food drive. There will be a Zoom meeting planned for next month. I just thought it was really promising that these young people were getting involved.”

Sheridan said she thought it was essential and bodes well for the future of Clark, if young people can get involved and show that they really care. “Eventually, I’d like to see them take it on themselves and work in tandem with things we can do together. I feel like this is their group, and they know a lot more about social media than I do, and I think that really helps to get different points of view across and spread that point of view among their own peers. I’m thrilled that they’ve taken an interest in this.”