The Peace Islands Institute of New Jersey Awards Recognize Excellence

Date posted: June 22, 2014

By Michael C. Gabriele

Peace Islands Institute celebrates NJ leaders who promote tolerance, unity and dialogue – June 18, 2014

WEST ORANGE—The Peace Islands Institute (PII) held its seventh annual awards dinner June 16 at the Pleasantdale Chateau, honoring accomplished New Jersey individuals who have demonstrated outstanding achievement in the categories of Media (Mike Schneider, NJTV News); Community Service (Sheriff Richard H. Berdnik); Diversity Appreciation (Assemblywoman Annette Quijano); Education (Dr. Tracey Severns, chief academic officer, New Jersey Department of Education); Peace and Understanding (Rev. Robert Moore, executive director of the Coalition for Peace Action and the Peace Action Education Fund); and Business (Jeffrey M. Vega, president, New Brunswick Tomorrow).

The New Jersey chapter of PII, headquartered in Hasbrouck Heights, is a non-profit organization of Turkish Americans,dedicated to the principles of education, interfaith dialogue and tolerance. Previously known as the Interfaith Dialog Center, the group was founded in the Garden State in 2003.

Ercan Tozan, executive director of PII, welcomed guests to the gala event and praised the award recipients, saying “they challenge us and show us how to make our world a better place.” Tozan explained that PII “is dedicated to being an agent of dialogue. Our mission is to build bridges between cultures and faiths.” As for PII’s focus on supporting middle school and high school students, he hopes each school and every organization that serves young people can become “an island of peace.”

During his opening remarks, Tozan identified disunity, ignorance and poverty as three major problems facing the world, all of which undermine peaceful coexistence among nations. He said PII works to bring together experts with diverse backgrounds to develop innovative solutions and promote critical thinking.

Wahy-Ud Deen Shareef, master of ceremonies for the awards dinner, offered his greeting to those assembled, saying “peace be upon you all,” which he said was designed to set the tone and spirit for the event. “All praise and thanks to almighty God in the spirit of mutual respect and tolerance. Love is the essence of creation. Love is a process, working consciously to develop affection for one another. It is more than ‘getting to know’ each other; it’s a process where we acknowledge the value and worth of others, so that we then can get in touch with the value and worth of ourselves.” Shareef is the deputy director of Newark Works-Port Career and Business Development, and the executive director of ComWealth EDC, Irvington.

The award recipients spoke eloquently and from the heart when they addressed the gathering, expressing their gratitude to PII for recognizing their efforts in their respective areas of service. Most made reference to the positive life lessons they’ve learned from dealing with diverse communities in New Jersey.

Schneider, who is marking his 40th year in the field of journalism, told the audience that “the word ‘peace’ means a lot to me. I was a peace activist before I became a journalist, and my spirit as a peace activist has grown stronger over the years. Knowledge plus experience equals wisdom and with wisdom you can achieve peace.”

Four decades ago, when he chose journalism as a career, Schneider recalled that the United States was a deeply divided nation, referring to political turmoil from the Watergate scandal, struggles over civil rights, and the final months of the Vietnam War. “It was a time that we were fighting among ourselves. It was a time when journalists rose up to tell people what they really needed to know. The honor you’ve given me tonight leads me to believe that I made the right choice to become a journalist.”

Berdnik revealed that, ever since he was a child, it was his dream to work in the law enforcement profession. “My dream has come true,” he said. “My parents came to the United States from Poland. It would have been hard for them to imagine that one day I would grow up to become sheriff. I am humbled to receive this award.”

Last November he was re-elected to a second three-year term as the sheriff of Passaic County, a position that has been the highlight of his more than 30 years in law enforcement. A 1978 graduate of Clifton High School, Berdnik said he began his career as a volunteer auxiliary officer for the city of Passaic, which he described as a great learning experience, working with regular police officers. He joined the Clifton Police Department in 1982 and worked in various assignments such as narcotics and community police. After serving for more than 28 years, he was elected to his first term as sheriff in November 2010.

“I tell every man and woman in my department that the sheriff is only as good as the people who work for him,” he said, praising his staff. “I’ve learned many things from the diverse people of Passaic County.” Berdnik spoke of the many challenges in protecting the public and cited the dangers young people face from drug addiction. “There are no borders for drugs. They affect people in every community. We aggressively target drug dealers and gangs.”

In congratulating Berdnik on his award, Shareef said the English word “sheriff” is derived from an Arabic word that means “an honorable, noble person.”

Quijano began her remarks by recalling the lessons she learned from her grandfather, who was a migrant farm worker and an immigrant from Puerto Rico. She said her grandfather told his friends that his granddaughter (Quijano) was going to be his American dream. “He wanted to be sure his family embraced the United States,” she said. “He taught me to appreciate the value of different people and the importance of accepting them. Each person has value.”

Her education in diversity was cultivated when she was a little girl, spending time in her mom’s beauty salon. “We learned about women from different cultures. We learned about the food they cooked and the languages they spoke. We have to embrace things outside the box.” She then spoke of her work as an assemblywoman in District 20, especially her Emergency Preparedness Program, a comprehensive workshop that trains individuals and community leaders on how to be ready for any emergency, such as the devastating Superstorm Sandy.

“We teach how to bring people together,” Quijano said. “It’s not a hard thing to do. We like to ask people in this program: ‘have you helped your neighbor today?’ We bring that message to accept everyone, no matter who they are or what their religion is. This award from the Peace Islands Institute will make me work harder.”

Severns shared her education philosophy with the audience, saying that “as a teacher, your most important role is to be a good student. You learn every day from those around you. Educators make all things possible. They open doors. To teach children we must learn to love them. As teachers, we work with more than just brains; we also work with hearts. Educators and parents must come together for our students so we can help them to be all that they can be. My role is to serve in this most-important work of teaching and learning.”

Throughout her career Severns has worked as a special-education teacher, vice principal and principal, superintendent, and adjunct professor. She has a baccalaureate degree in psychology, a master’s degree in teaching, and a doctorate in educational administration and supervision. Three years ago Severns received the Middle Level Leadership Award, was chosen as New Jersey’s “Visionary Principal of the Year,” and was named a National Distinguished Principal.

In receiving his award, Rev. Moore said he was reminded of the Gospel and the words of Jesus said during the Sermon on the Mount. “Jesus told the people: ‘blessed are the peace makers, for they will be called the children of God’. For peace to become a reality in our world, we must have peace makers. We have to do more than just hope for peace. We need people who are willing to put their shoulders to the plow and do the hard work of peace making.”

Rev. Moore said that, for him, being a peace maker has been a blessing, not a burden. “We see so much violence around us, some might think of peacemaking as a burden,” he said. “But I’ve found that taking up the challenge of peacemaking is my blessing. We can all be part of peacemaking. None of us can do everything, but we each can do something. I invite all of you to be part of this blessing when we take up that faith-based challenge to be peace makers.”

Shareef picked up on Rev. Moore’s remarks, noting that “it’s been recorded the prophet Muhammad once said: ‘you will not enter paradise until you have faith and you will not have faith until you learn to love one another.’ As peace makers, every word we say carries a spirit.”

Since 1981 Rev. Moore has served as executive director of the Princeton-based Coalition for Peace Action, a regional group dedicated to the abolition of nuclear weapons, a peace economy, and a halt to weapons trafficking.

Due to a family commitment, Vega was unable to attend the dinner to accept his award. According to his biography statement, Vega serves as president of New Brunswick Tomorrow, a non-profit organization dedicated to enriching the lives of New Brunswick residents. “We do this by fostering public and private networks of institutions and community organizations,” he wrote. “The initiatives that emerge help promote self-sufficiency and personal dignity in our citizens. New Brunswick Tomorrow identifies critical community needs and responds to those needs. We serve as a catalyst in developing and supporting solutions that improve the quality of life in our community.”

Vega has been a member of New Brunswick Tomorrow since 1993. He has fostered collaborative community efforts such as the New Brunswick Faith-Based Coalition. In addition, he also serves as the chair of the Middlesex County Hispanic Affairs Commission and is a member of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s National Advisory Council for the New Jersey Health Initiatives.

As the awards ceremony drew to a close, Assemblywoman Sheila Y. Oliver (D, 34th District) was invited to the podium to share her thoughts on the work of PII. “I’ve watched the growth and development of this organization,” Oliver said, praising the outreach PII has done “in every community across the state of New Jersey. The people of PII have established a networking foundation for the purpose of promoting interfaith dialogue and understanding. They’ve helped us understand the concept of diversity. They’ve heightened our consciousness that we all share this planet with millions of people. Diversity is our strength.”

According to its mission statement, PII (website: facilitates mutual respect and collaboration, and promotes education, friendship and harmony. It looks to create “islands of peace” for all peoples in a diverse society. In order to fulfill this mission, PPI organizes activities such as intercultural trips to Turkey, lectures, seminars, conferences, luncheons, dinners and programs for students.

The annual PII award dinners were established in 2008 to publicly recognize the outstanding achievements of those who have distinguished themselves in their profession and service to communities in the Garden State. PII’s goal in presenting the awards is to support a stronger, more prosperous New Jersey by advancing the causes of peace, cross-cultural tolerance and human dignity. With its main headquarters in New York, PII has divisions in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, upstate New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

The New Jersey chapter is located at 777 Terrace Ave., Suite 109, Hasbrouck Heights. Contact PII by phone (201-426-0689) or e-mail ( for additional information on the organization and its programs.




Source: , June 18, 2014

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