Eldridge Hawkins Jr. ’01 could have started small, but he refused to ignore the call of opportunity and a struggling community’s need for sweeping change. As a result, the 28-year-old political neophyte was elected mayor of Orange, N.J., last year, and immediately put his signature on the city. Hawkins shared his thoughts on leadership, heritage and horizons during his keynote address at the Alumni of Color Reunion, part of Rider’s Reunion Weekend 2009 on June 13, inside the Student Recreation Center.
It was no surprise that Hawkins, a police officer in neighboring West Orange, N.J., made safety a priority during his campaign. The upstart candidate, backed by such Garden State political stalwarts as state Senate President Richard Codey and Newark Mayor Cory Booker, won the confidence of Orange residents and was elected to run the city of 33,000 in May 2008.
He got right to work, transforming the police department “from top to bottom.” The result was an 11-percent drop in crime over Hawkins’ first four months in office as opposed to the same period in 2007.
Hawkins, who earned a bachelor’s degree in Public Administration from the University, was featured in the April 2009 issue of Ebony magazine. The issue cited the mayor as one of 21 African-American “talented and committed men and women, age 30 and younger … who are excelling in their careers and giving back to their communities.” The group includes young leaders from the ministry, government and politics, business, and nonprofit organizations.
“Rider prepared me for life after college. All I had to do was ask myself ‘what do I want to do when I grow up?’” said Hawkins, now 29. “Previous generations had an easier time with that question, because their options were limited. Now, since the Civil Rights movement, we have choices.”
Hawkins says that the hard-fought gains made by Civil Rights leaders led him and others of his generation to think as though doors were truly open to them. “We were raised to believe that we can do anything,” he said, “so now, we have to pay the debt for their struggles.
“Nobody taught me to start small,” he continued. “No candidate had a strong base citywide, and at the time last May, Barack Obama was surging in the polls. There was really an air of change. So, I didn’t wait for my turn. I jumped to the front of the line, off the shoulders of those who came before us.”
Though nearly 80 percent of Orange residents are African-American, Hawkins made it perfectly clear that he is a fierce advocate for all who live inside the city’s borders, cultivating fertile ground for businesses and making neighborhoods safe for his residents.
“My job as mayor has very little to do with race and everything to do with making Orange better,” explained Hawkins, who said that crime remains the city’s No. 1 challenge. “It’s the right way to run a city.”
In May, Hawkins was elected president of the New Jersey Junior Chamber of Commerce, or Jaycees, a nationwide nonprofit that supports young entrepreneurs and encourages volunteerism. He was also one of 30 Rider students and alumni under the age of 30 featured in the spring 2009 Rider magazine.
Rider’s Alumni of Color affinity group will also host the 2009 Alumni of Color/Multicultural Picnic on Saturday, July 25, from noon to 6 p.m. at Liberty Lake, 1197 Florence-Columbus Road, in Columbus, N.J.
The cost is $30 per person for those ages 12 and up, and $28.50 for children ages 3 through 11. For more information, contact Ursula Baker at 609-538-1404, or firstname.lastname@example.org, or download your registration for here (http://alumni.rider.edu/Document.Doc?id=6).