In just a little over five years, Women in Support of the Million Man March (WISOMMM) has become a force for social change and community development in the greater Newark, NJ area. WISOMMM began as a group of women who helped send over 50,000 New Jersey men to the Million Man March on October 16, 1995. But after the march, that fire wasn’t ready to go out; WISOMMM decided to commit itself to continuing the march’s spirit and momentum through work in community service and community education.
WISOMMM incorporated as a nonprofit organization the following month. Its mission was to strengthen families of African descent and rebuild that community through culture, education and advocacy. Over the past five years, WISOMMM has put on a children’s art festival, opened a computer lab, presented forums on prison reform, helped establish a breast cancer support group, opened a holistic child care center, hosted a public access cable TV show and hosted a number of lectures and forums featuring a virtual “who’s who” of activists and historians involved in African liberation issues, such as Winnie Mandela, Minister Louis Farrakhan and educator Dr. Adelaide Sanford.
In 1997, WISOMMM purchased an 18th century Victorian townhouse outside of Newark’s Lincoln Park. Fondly referred to as the “WISOMMM mansion,” the building is a focal point for WISOMMM’s cultural forums and community organizing activities, and houses its holistic child care center and computer lab. The mansion is also an income generator: WISOMMM leases office space to four nonprofit tenants and rents out the second floor as a banquet facility.
The mansion is also a concrete manifestation of the organization’s vision of culture, education and advocacy, and has earned it a trusted place in the greater Newark community. “When you create a trust with the community at the outset, and then the community sees something tangible [like the mansion], it magnifies that trust,” says Fredrica Bey, WISOMMM’s non-stop, forever-forward executive director, who works with a 23-member executive board and nine-member advisory board. “We pooled our own money out of our own pockets,” says Bey. “We asked the community for money; and they gave because of the excitement WISOMMM was bringing forth. People ‘felt’ what we were doing.”
WISOMMM has continued to grow rapidly; it just purchased a second Lincoln Park building for an upcoming charter school.
In the Streets
For all its varied projects, social activism is WISOMMM’s core. It is part of a coalition of community groups that has sponsored a series of public hearings speaking out against inhumane prison policies, and has also been active in ongoing protests in the state capital on the matters of racial profiling and police brutality.
To complement this work, WISOMMM has launched a “Boycott Crime” marketing campaign through cable TV and other media. “We’re sick and tired of our people going to jail,” says Bey. “The mandatory sentences, the disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine – it’s the second coming of slavery! We want to reform the inequities of the so-called judicial system, and on the other hand we want to boycott crime. We want our children and everyone to know that we need a zero prison population.”
Though the Boycott Crime campaign has several community education components, including a juvenile delinquency prevention program, it is not intended to allow politicians or law enforcement officials off the hook, says Bey. “We’re aware of the prison industrial complex. We said to the [New Jersey] Department of Corrections that they should be the first to boycott crime, because what they’re really doing is criminal. Once you’re in the jail, they’re going to make you go for almost life today; and they’re going to make you suffer.”
The Boycott Crime campaign recently received a $25,000 state grant sponsored by State Senator (and Newark Mayor) Sharpe James. It is also supported by several community organizations, including People’s Organization for Progress, Black Cops Against Police Brutality, and the Committee to Eliminate Media Offensive to African People, and one of the giants in local media, Gil Noble, whose public affairs television program “Like It Is” has been a staple of a local network affiliate for over 30 years. State Senator James and Essex County Sheriff Armando Fontoura have sent letters of support. Of course, word of mouth has been effective, too, as community residents have heartily attended and participated in the periodic hearings at Essex County College.
Bey attributes WISOMMM’s growth and success to a sustaining spiritual force. Though its members practice different spiritual beliefs, she says, their collective belief in God has carried the organization through. “The Million Man March,” says Bey, “was a spiritual movement. It was based on God principles without getting into any ‘actual’ religion. We pray at every agenda meeting; if a Muslim prays it’s accepted; if a Christian prays, it’s accepted; there’s one sister who’s Buddhist – it’s accepted. Deep inside we all know we’re in it for the long haul – like family is.”
WISOMMM, 53 Lincoln Park, Newark, NJ 07102. 973-297-1275.