Federation hosts forum of local elected officials confronting inequality

By Stephanie Goodling
HAKOL Editor

On the evening of July 20, the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley hosted a program via Zoom to address the systemic inequality that still exists in government today. Zac Cohen, a member of the CRC and moderator for the evening, introduced four local elected officials, all members of minority communities.

Ce-Ce Gerlach, a member of the Allentown City Council, spoke of her experience of being both a councilwoman and a member of the working class.

“We’ve got a lot of issues here in Allentown that we’ve got to face head on about the intersectionality of them,” said Gerlach.

Having only been on the Council since January, Gerlach said she has not had a traditional experience so far due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Nonetheless, she is committed to finding the balance between being an elected official and recognizing that the system she is a part of is broken in many ways.

The next to speak was Olga Negron of the Bethlehem City Council. She spoke from her perspective as the first elected Hispanic woman in Bethlehem, a role she has held since 2015. The youngest of 11 children in a family from Puerto Rico, she feels that her life has trained her to be where she is today.

“Ever since [I was elected], it’s been nothing but challenges, very rough challenges. Many times, it’s been very, very lonely,” Negron shared. “I've been talked down to in public city council meetings. It’s hard. I am an elected official, but I am still a woman of color, and my life experiences are completely different from everyone else seated at the table. But, I’m not a rubber stamper. I’m here to be the voice of the people.”

Lehigh County Board Commissioner Zakiya Smalls is the first Black woman elected in Lehigh County. She spoke next, touching on the challenges that her community is facing. When asked about the local Black Lives Matter movement, she said, “I dont think in the Lehigh Valley there is a hint or even anything anti-Semitic locally here.”

Kerry Myers of the Northampton County Council, who also spent many years as a leader on the Easton Area School Board and is only the second Black man elected to the county council, echoed much of what the other speakers had touched on.

“My dad had a slogan: ‘Don’t be a part of the problem — be a part of the solution.’ I’ve tried to live by that,” said Myers.

“In Easton, the Jewish community and the African-American community have been friends and have worked together for years … That relationship is solid,” he added.

Covering topics from racial inequality to the militarization of local police, the officials each gave personal testimonies to their passion for serving their communities while also standing up for their rights as people of color.

To view the webinar, click here. The second event in this 2-part series will take place on Thursday, August 6, at 7 p.m. via Zoom when David S. Jones Sr., a self-made individual who worked his way out of poverty and the streets of Allentown and brings a diverse perspective to life and leadership, leads a discussion on identity, power and privilege. Register here.