Dispatches from home: Coming together to make a difference

At rallies, local civic education activists register voters and educate on the ease of vote-by-mail.

Deptford native Rachel Green speaks at the One Community in Unity Rally in Woodbury on Saturday, June 6. Green, the Civil Rights Director of Action Together New Jersey, is using the time of heightened awareness to get people to register to vote for the upcoming primary and the November general election, too. (Photo provided)

I glanced into the rearview mirror. I looked like I was nearly ready to go into the operating room. The teal and white mask was firmly affixed to my face.

But as I exited my car, I felt vulnerable, naked even. To walk into a crowd of people for the first time in months felt downright unnerving.

At least a few hundred people gathered in the Ella Harris Recreation Park parking lot of Route 77 in Harrison Township on Monday, including members of Mullica Hill’s council and police department, for a candlelight vigil in remembrance of George Floyd and other African Americans who died as a result of police brutality.

They also gathered during a global pandemic, the part that was making me uneasy. 

But masks were plentiful, thankfully (and also readily available), and members of the community were smart and respectful, generally following the 6 feet distancing rule.

More than that, though, it was a crowd that felt warm, and not just because it was the second week of June. People were welcoming and peaceful, united for something they truly believed in.

And as someone generally tired (embarrassed?) by the divisiveness that has defined our country for the last half decade, I was hopeful, too. 

Rachel Green, a Deptford native I’d spoken to for a story a couple of years ago, agreed with the sentiment. I thought of Green because of a conversation we had regarding race relations, activism and civic education, and it felt like everything was coming together at an opportune moment, though it shouldn’t have taken a needless tragedy for that to happen.

As individuals, the first thing we can do to form a stronger, more unified country that values every man and woman — regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation — is to listen with both respect and empathy. 

The second thing we can do, like last Monday in Mullica Hill, is come together for an important cause. In addition to having our voices heard at a rallies this spring, those same voices can take the form of votes in November’s general election.

One day last weekend, at another peaceful gathering in Woodbury, Green got 30 people to register to vote. 

“Normally you go places and you might get one or two in a crowd of people,” Green said. “So that was nice. They weren’t registered before. Think of all of the people you can get involved in the civic process of our country?”

Hundreds of residents came out when Harrison Township held a candlelight vigil in memory of George Floyd and other acts of racial injustice in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement on Monday, June 8 at Ella Harris Park. (RYAN LAWRENCE/The Sun)

Green is the civil rights director of the nonprofit Action Together New Jersey, a progressive, grassroots organization for civic education founded four years ago. (You can find them on Facebook and at atnj.org.) The items listed under “values” on their website couldn’t be less controversial: an informed citizenry, elected officials who work for the people, collaboration with like-minded people and organizations, kindness.

Also high among the group’s priorities: informing people how easy it is to vote. 

Voting is easier in 2020 than sending out a Christmas card or filling out your annual car registration: You don’t even need a stamp!

Active registered Democrats and Republicans should receive a prepaid,  mail-in ballot in the mail this spring, while inactive registered Democrats and Republicans will receive a postage-paid application to vote by mail. If you fall into the third category — an active or inactive registered, unaffiliated voter — you should also get a postage-paid application to vote by mail in your mail.

For the upcoming primary, the last day to register to vote is June 16. For the general election, you obviously have a lot more time: All of the details are readily available and easy to digest at the user-friendly website votebymail.nj.org.

“A lot of folks don’t realize how easy it is,” Green said. “Instead of worrying about getting to the polls, whether they have a ride, or, God forbid, they get sick or their schedules (conflict), you have a mechanism that, no matter what, you can vote. So that’s the most important message.

“No one should be disenfranchised with their vote because you have the opportunity. If you’re a dad and you’re working two jobs, you can take five minutes to come home, fill that form out, and get it in the mailbox. You voted. You don’t have to worry about leaving work early, going in late, or figuring out an hour or time to go and vote.”

Do you know what your Mail-In Ballot may look like? While the ballot itself will look differently in all 21 counties,…

Posted by Action Together New Jersey on Tuesday, June 9, 2020

I honestly hadn’t realized how easy voting is until I met Green and her friends at Action Together New Jersey back in 2018. And I’d venture to guess that I’m not alone. We’re creatures of habit and routine, so accustomed to driving to a polling station on Election Day, when we can save ourselves a trip — and gas and practice social distancing, too — by going the painless route of voting by mail.

That’s why Green is among the army of volunteers at Action Together New Jersey who have been busy in recent weeks setting up tables at rallies, taking advantage of their target-rich environment.

“You hear ‘Oh my God, I need to vote. I need to help make things better and change the process,’” Green said. 

Even if the current news cycle can be troubling, Green sees people making their voices heard and has hope. She has conversations with her husband and their two children, millenials in their 20s.

“They’re the ones to me that are out there leading the charge,” Green said of the younger generation. “And right now, with the civil rights movement and pushing the pendulum to equality for all, I kind of feel like it’s such a diverse group of thinking, young people.

“They really do try to (look out) for their fellow brothers and sisters in America. And with that being said, it’s really exciting to see how much more engaged (they are), watching the debates, watching the news, paying attention.”

If people attending rallies this month show the same vigor, energy and enthusiasm in November, putting forth the effort to vote (you don’t even have to leave your house!), perhaps we can all feel comfortable wherever we venture out, post-pandemic, in a country free of division and hate and, instead, true to the word within its very name: united.