A high school student and a former mayor join forces to stand up to hate in a suburban New Jersey town founded in 1670. Learn more about Not In Our Town, Chesterfield, NJ.
High school student Eesha Shrivastava and Rita Romeu, the former mayor of Chesterfield Township, NJ, started Chesterfield NIOT in 2020. They decided to start the group after Eesha, who moved to Chesterfield in 2018, noticed some of her classmates made racist jokes. She also knew that before she moved to the town, some teenagers had spray painted swastikas on sidewalks.
We zoomed in with Eesha and Rita to find out more about their town, about their growing group and what it's like to start a NIOT group during the pandemic. This conversation has been lightly edited.
NIOT: I’d like you to start by just telling me a little bit about Chesterfield and both of your experiences in the town.
Eesha: I moved here a little over two years ago. My first thought about the community from the outside, I thought it looked super peaceful, warm and welcoming. Nice. I moved in the summer and when school started I got to see what the kids were like and try to make friends and have a look around.
I immediately noticed a couple of things that stood out. I saw a handful of Confederate flags on school property. You know, a lot of the trucks, like the big ones, they would have like flags on it. They were flags on the cars that they would bring to school, which I thought was alarming. I had never seen anything like that before. And you know, I heard a couple of stories. I heard that there was this one woman in my community who had to take off her hijab because she was getting harassed and I heard that there were instances where people were drawing swastikas [on the sidewalks].
When I started talking with the kids regularly in my school, I noticed a lot of little stereotypical remarks, which is actually social discrimination and racism, but it just gets passed off as a joke. And that bothers me more than anything. I really hate that. The more I noticed these things and witnessed these things, the more I was like, okay, maybe we should do something in my community.
And so at one town meeting, I went up to Rita, who was mayor at the time. And I said, can we start something like NIOT in our community? And she was super open, super ready. We went from there and we started a steering committee and now we're here.
A view of Chesterfield, NJ.
NIOT: Before you talked to Mayor Romeau, did you try to talk to any teachers at the school? Did they help you?
Eesha: Yes, I talked to a couple of teachers. There is one teacher who lives near my community and she encouraged me to do this, but I wasn't sure if my community would be receptive at all. But I never went to any higher authority figures in my school.
I was familiar with NIOT because I saw the Princeton chapter, which is near Chesterfield. Me and a couple of kids were going to do something like this in my old town before I moved here, but we kind of like lost track of it and then I moved. But that's how I came to know about Not In Our Town.
NIOT: And Rita, were you familiar with NIOT before you spoke with Eesha?
Rita: No. When she told me, it was the first I'd heard of it and I immediately went and looked you all up. I also went on the Princeton chapter’s website too, and I was very impressed. It was something I thought was viable and I was interested. Definitely.
NIOT: How did you go about putting together a steering committee for your NIOT group?
Rita: Because I was mayor, I did have a lot of the good connections in the community, so I felt it was important to include some elected officials, some educators, definitely people from the religious community. The people that I approached and Eesha approached initially were very enthusiastic, so that's working out really well. And I should say we're getting some new additions to the steering committee lately. Like this one gentleman who is a farmer who has been in the community for a long, long time. We have a few African American families that go way, way back in Chesterfield. We have a lot of people who have been here for generations.
In fact, we're one of the oldest towns established in the US. I think we were originally settled in 1670. So we're crazy old. And there are some farming families that go way, way back. So we have that. What changed in the last 10 years was that our population doubled. We now have a population of about 7,000.
We have a new development with 1,800 houses within one square mile. Lots of people moved here from out of the area. Some moved from close neighboring towns, but many moved from North Jersey and New York, because the commute to both Philadelphia and New York City is very easy. We’re accessible to the Turnpike, we're accessible to train stations. So yes, Chesterfield changed. It changed quite a bit.
Before the development came, we were mostly black and white. Some of the African-American people who have been here a long time — for example, the farmer who just joined our steering committee, he will tell some pretty crazy stories about racism back in the day. Even though they were very established in the community, they still faced it. And then when the development came, we had a lot of Asian-Americans move in… Eesha, you can kind of pick it up from there since you live in the development.
Eesha: Yeah. I think at least in the area that I live, it's pretty diverse. There are a lot of Asian Americans here and that's also reflected in school because the Asian-American population is growing. So, I mean, we're still not super diverse, but that's like what I would see from the outside of our community and being inside of it.
NIOT: Tell me a little bit about the first activities your group sponsored. I know, for example, you did a film screening over Zoom last summer. How many people came from the community?
Eesha: We had about 30 people. Since that first one, we’ve had three more events and they’ve all been very similar. We do a screening of a NIOT video. We screened the Billings film three times, I think. And then we did the Oak Creek film once. And then we followed each with a discussion. All of them went extremely well.
LEARN MORE: NIOT FILMS AVAILABLE FOR FREE SCREENINGS
NIOT: What are your goals for Chesterfield NIOT?
Rita: Well, one of them — and Eesha can speak to others, but — one of them is to educate. You want to do this on all levels. So we're starting to work with the schools. Just the other day I had a conversation with the principal of our elementary school. She watched one of the NIOT videos on bullying, the one about the elementary school that did the Footprints Project and she was just like, wow. She loved it! I think that really piqued her interest.
It’s hard to get the schools, especially during COVID, to commit to working with outside groups. But we’re hoping to launch a project targeting the older elementary school kids and to do a video screening and zoom discussion because that seems to work well. One of our big goals is to work with the schools.
Eesha: That is our big project right now, but in general, I want to focus on generally making the community more accepting of everyone, you know, race, religion, gender, identity, sexual identity, etc.
NIOT: To that end, I know you’ve mentioned getting some lawn signs made to promote NIOT Chesterfield around town.
Rita: Oh yes, we are very close. We approved a final design and it looks wonderful. And I'm going up to the printers in Princeton, within the next week to start to get that going. So we really want to flood the town with these signs to make them more aware of our group and what we're doing. We also want it to be like in the Billings video, a sign that says, Hey, I'm a person who's going to stand up to hate and racism. And I think that'll start dialogue too.
I guess in any area, but around here, sometimes we have people that steal signs. Usually it's political signs, but people have stolen Black Lives Matter signs that people have up. Really. Yes, it’s terrible. I hope it doesn't happen, but I'm just kind of waiting for it to happen than to really start this dialogue on social media.
Santa Barbara, CA (Courtesy: KEYT)
NIOT: We find that signs really get the message out there. So that people understand, ‘Hate is not something that's wanted in our town.’
Rita: I'm hoping that we can, as we do more events and as the signs come out, I'm hoping we can get going on social media a little bit more and start talking about all this in our community. The first run on the signs is going to be 100. I have a feeling that they're going to be more in demand.
NIOT: Did you have anything else you wanted to say about NIOT or how this experience of starting a group has been for you?
Rita: Just that you all have been extremely helpful. I know Patrice is probably one of the main people responsible, if not the main person responsible, for producing the videos, and I have to say that they're fantastic. They're just amazing. I think they really touch people. They get the point across and they really make an impression. So I'm happy to continue working with those.
LEARN MORE: HOW TO START A NIOT GROUP IN YOUR TOWN
|Farming fields in Chesterfield Township, NJ.|