One-on-One with New Jersey’s Mayors of Color
An Ongoing Series of New Jersey Urban News
By Zaria Howell
Contributing Writer/Summer Intern
“One thing most people probably don’t know is that I love spending time with the little ones, they bring me so much joy, and that I’m a hockey player as well.” – Sean Spiller
Sean Spiller, son of a Jamaican mother, white father and Montville, NJ native, is a man of many roles: father, hockey player, high school science teacher and Democratic mayor of Montclair, New Jersey. The latter is Spiller’s most recent role, having only been appointed to the position in July of this year.
But for Spiller, this position is one for which he’s been preparing for quite some time.
“It didn’t start out as ‘hey I want to be mayor,’” he said. “The desire to run for office came from realizing just how much of what happens locally at any level affects you. I started to recognize that I spent a lot of time speaking with elected officials trying to encourage these individuals to do the right thing. I just remember driving home and was like, ‘you know I should run for office in my town.’”
For Spiller, the link between these roles has informed and strengthened his ability to serve his community.
“I’m a high school science teacher,” Spiller said. “That’s who I am. I always tell other educators, the very skills that make you a successful educator are what make you a successful public servant. So, in addition to the desire to really help bring forward my ideas that I thought could be helpful, I also felt that there was a base skill that had me well positioned to serve in that capacity.”
Unlike other mayors before him, upon election Spillers was confronted with a national pandemic and a highly-nuanced modern-day civil rights movement. But for Spillers, placing an emphasis on social justice and advocating for the rights of the people in his community was just as important as the normal “quality of life” improvements that he was anticipating.
“Right now, that is the biggest challenge – being respectful of the moment to be able to seize and take advantage of the opportunity to really help us direct lasting social change and racial justice [while] making sure we don’t miss the chance to do everything that we can [and] also being mindful of and doing it under the umbrella of COVID-19.”
And when it comes to doing this social justice work, Mayor Spiller wants all hands on deck as they contribute to needed and lasting change.
“This is a moment for our voices to be heard,” he said. “This is a moment to direct the energy, the frustrations, the anger. The opportunity to get something done, this is that chance. To look at our policies or look at our practices, to really get a laser focus on or look at our practices, to really get a laser focus on institutional racism and what that means and what [role] we can each play.”
When asked if he had any particular message to share with the communities in New Jersey he serves, he said the following.
“My message is that our voices are powerful, you know, not just in this moment,” he said. “We need to own that power at all times. But we also need to make sure that we’re directing that for change – for positive change, for concrete changes and achievable pieces, even if it’s incremental. Even as we progress towards where we know we must go, not everyone is at the same space that we are. We’ve got to get people there. That’s why you have these conversations. But we can keep putting one foot in front of the other, taking those steps to get us to where we need to be.”