Executive Director, Garden State Equality
LIVES IN: Asbury Park
Christian Fuscarino moved to Maplewood from his Belmar hometown as a 14-year-old. There, at Columbia High School, he got his first introduction to LGBTQ+ activism through GLSEN, a program that helped students form gay-straight alliances. His path to becoming executive director at Garden State Equality was set when he dropped out of Hofstra University because of student loan debt; the university invited him back on a full scholarship. “They told me, ‘We saw how your activism was making the school better for LGBT students,’” Fuscarino says.
Fuscarino landed his current post in 2016. One immediate challenge: making sure funders didn’t get complacent after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage. “I had to take the approach of, ‘This is not mission accomplished.’”
As executive director, Fuscarino—who is married to U.S. Marine Aaron Williams—has helped pass legislation that will require New Jersey schools to adopt LGBTQ-inclusive curricula across all relevant subjects. Health and wellness is another priority. Garden State Equality is working with Rutgers School of Public Health to identify LGBTQ-friendly health care providers statewide.—Tammy La Gorce
Director, NJ Audubon’s Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed
LIVES IN: Freehold
Sandra Meola’s earliest appreciation for the outdoors came while spending childhood summers at her grandparents’ motel in Wildwood. Her environmental consciousness emerged from seeing—and smelling—the sewage overflow of the Passaic River near where she grew up in Hawthorne. But it wasn’t until serving as communications associate and later policy director for NY/NJ Baykeeper that she homed in on her true calling: battling plastics. In 2015, she spearheaded a statewide effort to ban plastic microbeads from personal-care products. These days, she’s trying to secure a statewide ban on plastic and paper bags, as well as polystyrene foam containers. More than 60 New Jersey municipalities have passed ordinances to address single-use plastics; now, Meola says, it’s up to the state to standardize the restrictions.
A Monmouth University grad, Meola also spends time in Washington, D.C., seeking federal funding to preserve the Delaware River Basin; she snagged close to $10 million for 2020. Applauding activism among fellow millennials, she’s dismayed by the narrow-mindedness of others. “It’s infuriating to have science discounted again and again by this administration,” says Meola. “The most we can do is just keep at it, making sure we’re on the right side morally, scientifically and factually.”—Jill P. Capuzzo
Founder/CEO, Ani Ramen House
LIVES IN: Weehawken
His surname seems a mouthful, but divide it into its components and Sara/bhaya/vanija becomes as approachable as the man himself. The son of Thai immigrants, he grew up working in his parents’ Thai restaurant in Montclair. His favorite childhood food, though, was packets of instant ramen. Later encountering the real thing, he had an epiphany: “The Japanese perfected the ultimate comfort food.”
At 23, Sarabhayavanija opened a Thai restaurant in Vancouver, British Columbia. Although that eventually went sour, he learned from the experience. Moving back home, he worked in a large Thai restaurant group, polished his management skills, found astute partners, and in 2014 opened the first Ani Ramen House in Montclair. Now there are five; by summer, there will be nine.
His formula? For the customer, a consistent, modestly priced, perfectly executed menu of Japanese comfort foods (marvelous shrimp bao buns, a bounteous Ani salad). For employees, “Train well, pay well, promote from within and create an environment of respect and love, so it feels great to come to work.
“We have ramen chefs who started as dishwashers. We have a busser who is now a managing member and shares in company profits. As in sports, you have to build a winning culture. There is no magic pixie dust.”—Eric Levin
LIVES IN: Paterson
Zellie Thomas learned early on that education could be liberating for disadvantaged youths. “My parents were strong advocates of education,” he says. Thomas, who grew up in Paterson, earned his bachelor’s degree in English literature at William Paterson University. He now teaches third-grade math at Paterson School 16.
Thomas is also a presence in the struggle for social justice. In 2014, he traveled to Ferguson, Missouri, to protest the death of Michael Brown Jr., a black teen shot by a white police officer. “I saw what was going on there with the heavy police presence,” he says. “I really thought that it was our generation’s movement.” Back in Paterson, he cofounded the local Black Lives Matter Movement in 2016 and ran unsuccessfully for the city council in 2018.
Last year, Thomas was arrested while protesting the death of Jameek Lowery, a Paterson resident who suffered a cardiac arrest after leaving police custody beaten and bruised. More recently, he helped orchestrate a $1,200 tip for a restaurant employee to help with her holiday needs.
His focus remains education. “You’re going to see,” he says, “a lot more protests and student activism across the country in regards to this battle for erasing college debt and [achieving] free college tuition.”—Royal Thomas II
LIVES IN: Lambertville
More Amy Klobuchar than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Julia Fahl practices a throwback brand of politics, meeting constituents at neighborhood house parties, unraveling her city’s budget deficit, and efficiently solving a persistent traffic problem on Route 29. Such bread-and-butter-issues—plus knocking on nearly every door in this Delaware River city-—helped Fahl defeat Lambertville’s 27-year incumbent mayor Dave DelVecchio in 2018; they continue to mark her success in winning over Lambertville’s 4,000 residents. Married to fellow millennial politico Kari Osmond, Fahl says being gay has posed fewer obstacles to her political career than being a woman. Encouraging other women to run for office is a priority for the Long Branch-born Bryn Mawr graduate.
Fahl also works as a registered lobbyist for consulting firm Tonio Burgos, pressing for clean-energy alternatives, but her primary focus is seeing Lambertville through its budget crisis over the next five years. Soon she will announce plans to run again in 2021. “The mayorship is the most interesting and best political job that exists,” says Fahl. “The municipal level is where most people touch government, and it’s where you can really change the way people live.”—Jill P. Capes
Assemblyman (R-8th District)
LIVES IN: Hainesport
Ryan Peters was a sophomore at the U.S. Naval Academy on 9/11. The attack clarified his decision about what to do when he was commissioned. “I said, ‘How do I get to the front lines of this war?’” says Peters, who was recruited to Annapolis for soccer and served as team captain. “I knew the SEALs were going to be the tip of the spear.” He served three deployments with SEAL teams in Iraq and Afghanistan.
After leaving active duty, Peters entered law school at Rutgers-Camden, taking classes in the evenings after mornings spent at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst teaching combat skills to Air Force personnel headed overseas. “I’d show up to class in dirty cammies, smelling like gunpowder.” Married and the father of three, Peters was working as a lawyer when he left for Central America on his fourth deployment.
Peters’s time as an Eagleton Fellow at Rutgers connected him to Burlington County Republicans, who saw him as a strong candidate for freeholder. “Politics just kind of happened,” he says. He won a close race in 2015 and another squeaker for Assembly in 2017. He was reelected in November. “I’ve had three close elections, which is fine with me,” says Peters. “I love adversity. It makes you stronger.”—Kevin Coyne
Law & Policy Director at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice
LIVES IN: Newark
Andrea McChristian has already figured out how to avoid professional burnout: Do something you love. “I learned a lot as a corporate litigator, but working so hard for something you’re not passionate about wasn’t for me,” says the Yale graduate who got a master’s degree in early childhood education at the University of Las Vegas before earning a law degree from Columbia.
In 2016, she jumped from her stint as a Manhattan litigator into the scrum of New Jersey social-justice work. Career highlights so far include successfully lobbying for a statewide bill to restore voting rights to 83,000 New Jersey residents on probation or parole and making inroads on a plan to transform the youth justice system. “I’m excited to have gotten this position at such a young age,” says McChristian.
Single and a homeowner in downtown Newark, McChristian—originally from Los Angeles—plans to stay in the Brick City for the long haul. “There’s so much to do here…I’m learning new things about this city all the time, from the world famous food in the Ironbound to the cherry blossoms in Branch Brook Park.”—Tammy La Gorce
WILLIAM MOEN JR.
Assemblyman (D-5th District)
LIVES IN: Camden
Growing up in Runnemede, the son of a disabled Vietnam veteran and the grandson of two World War II veterans, Bill Moen was pretty sure he wanted to become a state trooper. Then came his internships and American government class at Rowan University, which convinced him that, as he liked to tell audiences in his recent campaign for state Assembly, “I’d rather be writing the laws than enforcing them.”
Moen earned a master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania, then volunteered, interned and worked his way up through Camden and Gloucester counties politics, working as a legislative aide in the district he now serves and as director of Senator Cory Booker’s South Jersey office. Elected a Camden County freeholder in 2015 at age 28, he is now the youngest member of the New Jersey legislature.
On his agenda are some issues of particular concern for millennials, including how to smooth the path for first-time homebuyers and easing the burden of student debt. “I’d like to do some things,” says Moen, “that could try to help keep some of my generation in New Jersey.”—Kevin Coyne
Councilwoman, City of Camden
LIVES IN: Camden
Two weeks after giving birth, Felisha Reyes-Morton returned to Fairleigh Dickinson University for her final semester. She pumped milk in her dorm while finishing papers, returning to Camden on weekends to deliver the milk to her husband and relatives caring for daughter I’ssabella, now 11.
“You’re from Camden, you’re tough. Welcome back,” is how she describes her professors’ reactions. She received a BA in criminal justice with a minor in Spanish language and culture in just three years.
Reyes-Morton was born in Camden. When she was one, her father was killed in a drug-related incident; at 15, her mother went to prison for a drug crime. Returning to Camden after college, Reyes-Morton first worked for a nonprofit, then for the police department and threw herself into community activism. She and husband Bryan started the North Camden Little League to make a local park safe from drug dealers. The league, now citywide, garnered national press and was the subject of a documentary.
Now the mom of three, Reyes-Morton is the youngest member of the City Council. When people criticize her lack of experience, Reyes-Morton says she does her homework and counters with research. “I’m a millennial Latina woman, so I have a lot of factors and perceptions I’m up against,” says Reyes-Morton. “I’ve worked hard to get where I am.”—Sharon Waters
Associate Director, professional development and instructional issues, New Jersey Education Association
LIVES IN: Somerset
Gabriel Tanglao’s father had only a high school education when he emigrated from the Philippines to New Jersey, where he became a computer technician. Now his son has two master’s degrees and leads professional development for the NJEA. “That arc of our story in one generation is the foundation of what defines me,” says Tanglao.
Tanglao began his career teaching economics at Bergenfield High School and volunteered with his local NJEA, inspired by the unionism of his mother, a nurse. In his current post, Tanglao—one of NJEA’s youngest employees—develops and facilitates leadership training for teachers around the state, with a passion to engage more educators of color.
Tanglao is similarly passionate about student debt, wealth inequality and the opportunity to help educate a new generation. “We are charged with trying to help young people understand and grow conscious of the world around them,” he says.
He enjoys Brazilian jiujitsu, a martial art that aims to get an opponent to submit with the least resistance. Tanglao sees parallels with his social activism; both require the effective use of leverage. “We are the underdogs,” he says, “when we are up against the stronger and more well-funded powerhouses.”—Sharon WatersClick here to leave a comment