A quick Facebook search will show you Cherry Hill is an active community both in person and online. As social media groups have played a larger and larger role in keeping communities informed and engaged, the Cherry Hill Sun sat down with Facebook group admins Rena Margulis from Cherry Hill United and Eileen Doran from Cherry Hill ACTS (Advocating, Collaboration and Transparency in our Schools) to share their experiences of how the groups have grown and evolved throughout the years.
The two groups differ in a number of ways. Cherry Hill United has around 14,000 members and is a public group while Cherry Hill Acts has close to 1,400 and is a private group. While Cherry Hill United covers a wider range of topics and meetings like council, zoning and planning board meetings, Cherry Hill ACTS is focused on education and making the schools safer, and limits the group members to students, parents of future/current/former students, homeowners, business owners and teachers in Cherry Hill.
Though they serve similar roles, both groups were formed from different community needs. Cherry Hill United was started in May 2016 in response to a rezoning effort that would allow for 473 apartments to be built along the Cooper River, according to Margulis, who said “it would have been the biggest scandal in 50 years” if the rezoning happened.
“The key purpose of Cherry Hill United was to ensure that Cherry Hill Township is never again able to engage in stealth rezoning of land in Cherry Hill … ,” she said, stating they have watched every single council meeting.
Other purposes for the group include serving as a place where people can discuss local issues of community concern – land use, environmental, transport, schools, and public health.
“Residents and neighborhoods can come together to plan actions and advocate as issues arise, so you see a lot of that in Cherry Hill United,” said Margulis.
Though there are a number of things residents can discuss, the group does have rules. Cherry Hill United does not allow discussion of presidential politics, advertising or requests for money, time, service or donations. It also guards against misinformation or personal attacks or insults within its group.
“Cherry Hill United is a public group, so if you comment, the entire world can see it,” Margulis said, adding they will delete any insults or attacks made.
In a similar vein, Cherry Hill ACTS also does not allow personal attacks. Cherry Hill ACTS was started in March 2018 ahead of the 2018 bond referendum. Doran recalled that at that time, things had been pretty different five years ago.
“Looking back at that time, the meetings were not live streamed,” Doran said. “…if you wanted to participate you had to come and sit through the entire meeting.”
In an effort to combat the lack of transparency, Cherry Hill ACTS was formed with Doran and a handful of other members who have since stepped down from their admin positions. To keep the community informed, Doran stepped up and regularly posts about township and school district meetings and facilitates discussion.
Doran emphasized that one of the unique aspects about Cherry Hill ACTS is that it emphasizes the process and keeping things neutral. Reflecting on the 2018 bond referendum, she noted that there were people who staunchly wanted it to pass, those who felt it was badly done and needed it to be re-done and also those who were in the middle.
“You had people on all sides,” Doran said. “Cherry Hill ACTS didn’t take a side one way or another officially.
“The page doesn’t take a stance officially on these kinds of topics,” she added. “What we do is tell you when the meetings are, tell you what was said at the meetings, tell you how you can reach out to your board members or your admin with your opinions.
“We are more concerned with how the process happens than the end game.”
Doran said “good communication, collaboration with all stakeholders” is a win in her book.
During election season, Cherry Hill Acts has also served as a platform for candidates to submit a bio and to engage with the community.
Since the groups have been founded, the admin have noticed a number of changes in the community. Today, both the council and board of education meetings can be participated in person and via Zoom. The meetings are recorded and either livestreamed or posted after the meeting. Though it may not be directly connected, Doran noted that since she started posting in-depth notes on Facebook, she has noticed more detailed meeting minutes posted from board of education meetings and both admins noted that the agendas for the meetings have been posted more in advance than they had been when the groups were founded.
Margulis expressed her hope that zoning and planning board meetings will continue to be available via Zoom.
“People have jobs and kids and they can’t stay until 11 o’clock,” Margulis said. “But if the meeting is hybrid on Zoom, then they can be listening in on Zoom, put their kids to bed, get ready for the next day. If they don’t get to comment until 10:30, they can still do that.”
For Doran, she hopes to see more discussion on relevant topics to education. She would also like to see less polarization, less attacking each other and assuming motives.
“I think it shuts down true conversation,” Doran said. “It shuts down learning, it shuts down ideas, and if we can’t talk about things, we can’t change it and we can’t grow and learn.
“We have to be able to talk about things. I’d love for Cherry Hill ACTS to be a place where people can talk about the issues.”