The CEJJES Institute: Rockland County’s unheralded jewel

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Nestled in the foothills of the New York/New Jersey Ramapo Mountains, just 30 miles north of New York City, is an unheralded jewel, the CEJJES Institute. Founded in 2001 by the children of Edmund W. Gordon, Ph.D., and Susan G. Gordon, M.D., to honor the work of their parents, the institute is a cultural, educational and research foundation dedicated to improving the educational and social conditions for all disenfranchised people, especially for the peoples of color in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York. It consists of a conference center; a cultural center; a library commemorating the work of Edmund Gordon; an art gallery celebrating the art of the late Charles W. White, the great American painter who depicts the Black experience; an environmental education and nature trail; and a fledgling museum of the African Diaspora.

The institute occupies two buildings on the southeastern edge of 15 acres of undeveloped land in Rockland County, N.Y., across the road from the oldest farm in America, which is under continuous cultivation. The first building, a modern-style ranch enclosed in glass doors and huge windows, houses the art gallery, heritage center, library and conference center. The gallery, named after White, houses the Gordon collection of etchings, drawings, lithographs, paintings and prints of the celebrated African-American painter. The gallery, which is also a venue for other artists, families and students to gather to learn about White’s work, is open by appointment for special events. It will celebrate the 90th birthday of the late artist in October 2008.

The Rockland African Diaspora Heritage Center, which the institute operates in collaboration with the Rockland African American Historical Society and the Spring Valley NAACP, is an exhibition space showcasing authentic artifacts that tell of the history and contributions of peoples of the African Diaspora to Rockland County. They include sale receipts for slaves and pictures of students at newly integrated schools.

The Edmund W. Gordon Library features collections of articles and records pertaining to the African Diaspora in the county, with such unique pieces as the African American History Collection, in honor of Jacqueline and Albert Holland; the Education Collection, in honor of Doxey Wilkerson and Ella Baker; the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Collection, in honor of Josiah Gitt, Conrad Lynn and Thurgood Marshall; and the African Diaspora Art Collection, in honor of Charles W. White.

The CEJJES Conference Center can accommodate approximately 50 people and has become an integral part of the small-business community, as it is regularly used to host meetings or intimate receptions, largely because of its affordability and sophistication.    

The second building, a two-story wooden house, is used as a retreat. Companies from neighboring cities that use the CEJJES Conference Center often take advantage of the retreat’s inexpensive accommodations. Doing so also allows them to take in the scenery of the Ramapo Mountains and get some exercise while walking the Susan G. Gordon Nature Trail.

The Gordons

Edmund Gordon, a nationally renowned developmental, cognitive and educational psychologist, is the John M. Musser Professor of Psychology Emeritus at Yale University and the Richard March Hoe Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Dr. Susan Gordon is a retired associate professor of pediatrics who taught for more than 25 years at New York Medical College and the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University. She delivered health care during her teaching career and in private practice to tens of thousands of infants and children.           

Once described by The New York Times as “perhaps the most distinguished African-American psychologist of his generation,” Professor Gordon, as he is fondly called, is revered as a modern-day W.E.B. Du Bois. Recently, Gordon was asked how he felt about the generous gift from his four children—Chris, Edmund T, Jessica and Johanna—to him and his wife. A man of a modest 5-foot, 5-inch frame, he removed his glasses, tilted his head as if to indicate deep thought and replied, “Well, I think Susan and I showed our deepest appreciation. We named the organization after them.” He was referring to the fact that C.E.J.J.E.S are the initials of the Gordon children.

Mission exemplified

The mission of the institute is exemplified in the Gordon’s continuous efforts to celebrate and proclaim the history, cultures and welfare of the African Diaspora. Through programs and activities promoting social justice, principally in relation to issues of health and education, the institute strives to achieve its foremost objective: to encourage the well-being of children, with emphasis on children from marginalized communities.

Its many activities include the Mental Health Symposium, Education Summit, Graduation Reception, African Diaspora Art Festival, Voices from the African Diaspora Film Festival, College and Career Mentoring Program and the Kwanzaa Celebration.  These annual events currently serve more than 4,000 Rockland County residents. With education as a focal point for the institute, the Coretta Scott King Book Club for Children and The W.E.B. Du Bois Literary Collective are major vehicles by which the institute promotes active reading for all community members, children and adults alike. Members of these reading groups meet at the institute on a regular schedule to discuss specific pre-assigned books.

New initiatives

Aided by the efficiency of the CEJJES staff and the community’s support, the institute strives relentlessly to take on new initiatives to reach its desired audience. This spring, for example, the institute, in collaboration with the Rockland Community College, a State University of New York school, will open a Parent Resource Center named TRACS, based on the model portrayed in the book Supplementary Education: The Hidden Curriculum of High Academic Achievement (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), which Professor Gordon co-edited with Beatrice L. Bridglall and Aundra Saa Meroe. The book posits that the learning that occurs out of school is as important as the learning that takes place in the traditional classroom setting.

Jamila Shabazz Braithwaite, The CEJJES Institute’s program director, says that while she is responsible for implementing the institute’s initiatives, it is the Gordons’ vision that inspires and motivates her to bring the ideas behind these initiatives to fruition. “Working with Dr. Edmund and Dr. Susan Gordon at The CEJJES Institute has been very gratifying.  I have the opportunity to work with two individuals who believe strongly in community service and whose daily lives typify this principle,” she says. “The events and programs of The CEJJES Institute embody the Gordons’ conviction that education, cultural enrichment and the nurturing of the wellbeing of children empowers a community.”

She adds that the CEJJES staff works with many committed families and community leaders who believe in what the institute does and support its efforts wholeheartedly. “Each year, CEJJES continues to grow and to offer more distinctive programming.  We have a fundamental role in the community and with continued public support and through collaborations we will certainly achieve our objectives,” Braithwaite says.  

What began as a gesture of appreciation from children to parents has grown into a vital fixture in a once-unnoticed community. Through dedication to and celebration of a group of people that have made remarkable strides and contributions to their community, The CEJJES Institute has vigorously embarked on its mission to promote the history of the peoples of the African Diaspora.