The 9-year-old Black girl whose New Jersey neighbor called the cops on her while she was out killing invasive lanternflies has managed to find a silver lining to the traumatic experience: being recognized by several groups for environmental efforts that have inspired others in science.
The Association of New Jersey’s Environmental Commission honored Bobbi Wilson during the city of Caldwell’s council meeting this week, giving her the Sustainability Award for her work to save trees and eradicate lanternflies.
“We were thrilled that she was doing that,” Ann Marchioni of the ANJEC told The Daily Beast, explaining that the organization commends volunteers for being “hands-on” in their community.
Marchioni explained that the commission was impressed by Bobbi’s continuous work tackling lanternflies, which she learned to get rid of with a homemade spray through TikTok videos.
The 9-year-old’s helpful hobby eventually gained national attention when The Progress reported that a white neighbor had called the police on her while she was trapping lanternflies in their neighborhood on Oct. 22.
In a recording of the phone call, previously obtained by The Daily Beast through the neighbor’s attorney, a man tells the police “a little Black woman” was spraying stuff on the sidewalks.
“I don’t know what the hell she’s doing; it scares me though,” he says.
“She’s a real small woman, real tiny,” he continues. “She’s got a hood on. You can’t miss her.”
During a Caldwell City Council meeting on Nov. 1, Bobbi’s mother, Monique Joseph, called the ordeal “sickening and scary.”
“I am not here to label anyone, only to share my point of view as a Black woman, a Black mother, and a Black resident in this town. To bring awareness on racism and implicit bias that we experienced on the very street that we live on,” Joseph said.
Joseph’s 13-year-old daughter, Hayden Wilson, also spoke on her sister’s behalf, saying that Bobbi “was not only doing something amazing for our environment, she was doing something that made her feel like a hero.”
Caldwell Mayor John Kelley apologized to the family for what they had experienced.
An attorney for the neighbor has previously denied to The Daily Beast that his client racially profiled Bobbi.
Caldwell’s council meeting Tuesday, however, had a different tone—and she was finally celebrated as the “hero” her family has always known her to be.
“Sustainability Award presented to Bobbi Wilson for her work to save trees,” Marchioni said, after calling Bobbi, who wore a white ensemble and matching shoes, to the front of the meeting. “My favorite people!—by getting rid of lanternflies.”
A crowd of people bustled around Bobbi, eager to take her picture.
Motivated by Bobbi’s story, Jason Bittel, a science freelance journalist who has written about the dangers of lanternflies, followed the award ceremony with a presentation on the agricultural destruction the insects cause.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, he said that he was inspired by Bobbi and hopeful that the negative experience in her neighborhood wouldn’t deter her from fulfilling her dreams in science. He connected with colleagues who have offered support to Bobbi by sending her science-related books and other materials.
“I’m just so thankful she has people that are helping her,” Bittel said, who noted his privilege as a cis-gender, white male.
“The fact that [Bobbi’s family] had to experience [discrimination], they survived it, and then managed to turn it into—not only opportunities for Bobbi—but she’s laying groundwork for community projects and truly trying to make Caldwell better.”
A group of Black female scientists at Yale University hosted Bobbi and her family on Nov. 16, taking her through various labs and inviting her to submit lanternfly specimens for the university’s entomology work.
“When I saw [Bobbi’s] story, it really touched my heart because this is my life,” Yale assistant professor Dr. Ijeoma Opara explained to The Daily Beast. “This is my passion. Being able to empower Black girls, being able to protect them.”
Opara, also a native of New Jersey, said she mainly stayed indoors as a child because her parents were leery of racism, or experiences similar to what Bobbi endured. However, Opara said she wanted Bobbi to be able to move past the situation and continue exploring her passion.
“I didn’t want [Bobbi] to lose that brilliance,” Opara said. “I didn’t want her to lose that bravery, and having a cop called on you is a quick way to be traumatized.”
Bobbi was also invited to visit the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory earlier in December, where she got to hang with a few friends while exploring a science lab.
The 9-year-old’s time in the spotlight does not seem to be ending any time soon. Next week, the United States Department of Agriculture is taking her on a tour of a New Jersey manufacturing plant. Cecilia Sequeira, Public Affairs Specialist at the USDA, told The Daily Beast that a discussion about the effects of spotted lanternflies will be included on the tour.
Despite the turmoil that Bobbi’s family initially endured, her mother acknowledged that they have been able to persevere.
“[We’ve] been blessed with the positive side of it,” she said, explaining that she saw the ordeal as a spiritual experience. “It feels like my community has grown overnight. I feel like the extension of my family has grown overnight.”
“This didn’t happen to us; it happened for us. It happened to our community. People were able to attach themselves to it because it didn’t have grief with it: This little girl lived.”