Notable Newarker Interview #1: Spotlight on Shenique S. Thomas

1. When did you move to Newark, NJ? What brought you to the city?

In 2009, prior to my 30th birthday, I decided that I needed a change. I needed to become uncomfortable in life. I yearned for a challenge, a different perspective, and a change in purpose. I evolved.

In reflecting, I strongly believe that moving to Newark was an essential ingredient to my evolution. I attended Rutgers-Newark Graduate School and resided on the Newark campus for 2 years, but never ventured out into the city. I always stayed within that comfortable bubble on campus (as was suggested by Rutgers faculty and my own family members and friends). For another 5 years, I lived in Bloomfield and commuted to the Rutgers-Newark campus and other locations for work, but continued to remain in familiar territory. In 2008, when I joined the Leadership Newark Class of 2010, I removed the blinders and expanded my view beyond the peripheral. I was actually able to see and appreciate all sides of Newark – the opportunities, disappointments, the movements, hope, hopelessness, the powerful, and the powerless. I began to enjoy experiencing and being part of the rich tapestry of “Newark.”

2. How is Newark different from other places that you have lived? What characteristics are unique to Newark?

For the majority of my life, I resided in suburban towns located off of Exit 9 on the NJ Turnpike – though, New Brunswick is not quite urban nor suburban. I spent college days in the quietly nestled “Home by the Sea”, Hampton, Virginia.  Yet, I find it most interesting, that these small and quaint neighborhoods lacked actual community and collective efficacy. In that, I mean, the community’s ability to develop a shared vision of its future and the means to achieve such vision. Though the structural conditions of Newark, such as poverty, residential transiency and mobility, and high incidences of criminal activity indicate that the organization of the community should be weak, I find that the sense of community and collective efficacy undoubtedly manifests in specific pockets and segments throughout the city. It is important to state, that my realization of this sense of community may in fact be a result of my maturity, social network, and perception. When living in New Brunswick or Hampton, I was not concerned with the greater good for all.

3. Describe one positive experience that you have had in Newark since living here.

I have created many memories and experienced a number of historical events in Newark. The first memorable event that comes to mind is the Open Doors Art Crawl of 2008. Before attending this event, I did not know that Newark was home to so many artists and galleries. The Art Crawl was a beautiful representation of Newark’s talent and diversity. Two other related experiences include being at The Spot Lounge surrounded by other anxious and excited Newarkers to witness Barack Obama win the 2008 U.S. Presidency and being in the presence of the President at Governor Corzine’s Election Event. Throughout all of these moments, I have found love in Newark. (smile)

4. In what ways do you “give back” to the City?

Living in Newark has helped me to realize that serving others is what’s really important in life. I live, work, worship, and play in Newark. I am continuously giving back to the City through my work, research, and civic engagement. Through my work and personal research, I establish the effectiveness of education and prisoner reentry programs as well as examine the impact of incarceration on prisoners, families, and communities. The findings of my research will help to inform the community, policymakers, and legislation. In my work, I also teach undergraduate courses and do my best to educate the community and its young people. I serve as Board Secretary of Stop Shootin’ Inc., (http://www.stopshootininc.org/) a Newark-based non-profit organization with the mission to assist in reversing the trend of senseless gun violence within inner cities by advocating peace amongst street organizations and youth. As a Board Member, I helped to organize community and youth-focused events. Lastly, I am Fellow of Leadership Newark, Class of 2010. Leadership Newark (http://www.leadershipnewark.org/) is a fellowship program that provides a forum for emerging Newark leaders to debate and discuss public policy issues while developing solutions and programs to better the community.

5. In your estimation, what challenges and opportunities await Newark?

As previously stated, a strong sense of community and collective efficacy undoubtedly manifests in specific sects of the Newark population. Newarkers are resilient and faithful people. Newark is a place of activism, individuals fighting for better educational opportunities for our youth, others stating the needs of the LGBT community,  organizations reminding us to consider the needs of formerly incarcerating individuals and their families, workers’ unions, teachers’ unions, the New Black Panther Party, People’s Organization for Progress….Newark is a city of strength, a Revolutionary City. Boundless opportunities exist for Newark and its citizens, the questions lies in, will leadership create or accept the opportunities that benefit all Newarkers, those residents of every Ward? Or, will leadership continue to appease special interests groups? Allowing influential individuals unfamiliar with the true needs of the city to make critical decisions for its citizens?

Additional challenges faced by the City include the mental state and mindset of the citizens. The hopelessness lives on the face (of some) of the youth and parents. The lack of future-oriented thinking; the lack of engagement that results in uninformed or ill intentioned individuals driving decisions on community members’ behalf. Citizens unwilling to move from the past successes or failures of previous and/or current administrations. Individuals holding onto hate and anger. Community members rebelling against the current leadership because they did not receive the City position as promised on the campaign trail. The “Old Guard” of Newark vs. plethora of migrant Newarkers. Newark must do a better job at becoming a problem solver city. The City relies heavily on community-based organizations to assist with solving some of the largest problems, however, in order to empower these agencies, the City must equip their partners with increased technical and skill training and sustainability planning. Lastly, Newark will face the challenge of being in the national spotlight, with a possible negative overture, after the Mayor’s departure.

Shenique S. Thomas Bio

Shenique S. Thomas is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Rutgers-Newark School of Criminal Justice. Currently, she is completing her dissertation research on the role management strategies of incarcerated men during prison visitation sessions and throughout their sentence. Ms. Thomas is also executing a project that examines the health outcomes associated with familial incarceration and assisting the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice in developing the infrastructure for a Community Collaborative. The goal of the Collaborative is to provide a shared network of evaluation and research resources to community-based organizations to aid and strengthen their sustainability.  Shenique is a published author, Board Secretary of Stop Shootin’ Inc., and member of the Youth Education and Employment Success Center Advisory Board, American Society of Criminology, Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, American Correctional Association, and Leadership Newark 2010 Fellow. She resides in Lincoln Park, Newark.

Reading Councilman Baraka’s Speech: Newark Politics and Self-Interest? or Interested in Newark?

Ras Baraka’s Inauguration Speech rendered on July 1, 2010 at New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Newark, NJ

To the Mayor of our great city, my council colleagues, my family that have stood by me without prejudice, to the mighty residents of the South Ward, I am honored to be here today on this auspicious and historical occasion to finally after some 16 long years begin to serve you as the Councilman of the South Ward!

It has truly been long and sometimes tumultuous years, but each time we were knocked down we had the strength to get back up. And I know even today (Joan Whitlow) that there are those that question my ability to make this happen to struggle daily with lives of our children and to struggle for greater democracy in our city -that there are many that would abdicate their responsibility or question my intenentions from the shadows of indifference and the crowded spaces of opportunism and cowardice I say differently that often time I sacrifice myself, my family, my time and sometimes my immediate happiness for a cause greater than myself  …but I truly believe that the fight for the safety and future of our children is the same as the fight for our families and our communities- I am also more than certain that History will absolve me- but more important than anything else –is that  the people of the South Ward understood that and showed it at the polls. So by the grace of GOD and the will of the people I stand before you today!

We know that these are important and grave times for working families, children, seniors and the most vulnerable sectors of our society.  We are living in a time where economic freedom and growing markets have become the chief organizing principle of govt.  Where in the so called Post Cold War- post racist society everything is for sale- even culture and race itself, where health care, education , prison, and now even our water has become commodities for continued public distribution but for private profit! Where more privatization is the answer for shrinking public resource and therefore shrinking public discussion and ultimately the shrinking of democracy as we have come to know it; Where the last market is the public market- Where even our ideas are not safe.

This is the atmosphere; the stage for some of the worst economic times that working people in this country have seen in decades. I say working people because while South Ward mothers, raising children on their own, are asked to take two days off a month of an already meager salary- or sanitation workers are threatened with privatization and reduction of benefits Port Authority is making record profits,  while we are threatening to lay off police officers in a city where dead black boys is quicker to come by than a decent supermarket – the Passaic Valley Sewage Company sits on our resource and our land and is woefully negligent in its responsibility to this city; while we use draconian measures to threaten obscene tax hikes for the few homeowners that have been loyal to this city for years we have not found the will to close the doors of the Prudential arena until they pay their debt to the families of this town. While our children’s schools are threatened with closure, overcrowded classrooms, destruction of after school programs and loss of guidance counselors Prudential  as of March 31rst 2010 has at least 693 billion dollars worth of assets,  their net income for the first quarter this year was 699 million dollars way up from 427 million this time last year.  Yes this is a recession for working families, service employees, and transportation workers, for public employees,  and small businesses, for everyone Gov Christie except those that make over 400,000 dollars a year. For those that live in Seth Boyden that risk their lives every night coming in from work or those of us watching homes and businesses disappear east and west of Bergen St. or Clinton Ave.  Not for Exxon Mobile that has more revenue than all but 22 nation states around the globe, or Wal-Mart that has the larger economy than 178 countries,  or those that participate in spending over two trillion dollars a day on speculation and hedge funds.

And I see the only way up is more democracy not less not using local democratic organizations to vote only for your friends and immediate family and closing even the ability to nominate others, its not schemes designed to suppress the vote but educating more voters, its not in putting black against Latinos it was Blk and Latino unity that got us the first Black mayor.  Its not about empowering individual chieftains, and political landlords but seizing and protecting the peoples resources and the right to use them to feed and empower ourselves. Its not about using the church to lure the people in to a dark room but empowering our religious institutions to lead the people out of dark rooms, its not about using our education, multisyllabic words, and high minded quotes to trick the people in to giving away their goods or as a weapon to rob them of their dignity but bring them close to themselves to meet them halfway..To understand that to whom much is given much is required..Not to use your seat as means to gain privilege and wield power but use your seat as a means to diminish privilege and hand over power.

There is no more room for opportunism and opportunist  whose guiding principle has always been money, that bear no beliefs, take no stance, and hold no positions just gross nihilism and selfish individual consumption at all of our expense. Whose leader is whoever has the upper hand  at the time. Whose only drive is personal ambition.  We need leaders whose ambitions are so big so huge so outrageously vast that there will always be room for the least of us…

I say let this be the beginning the start of a time when all of us in every ward despite the language we speak the music we dance to or the food we eat come together, every worker no matter the nationality or street corner, the block or hood, begin to come together and unite around what we have in common. Every worker from bus drivers to ticket writers, clerks to sanitation workers security guards to teachers declare our undying love for this city simultaneously by vowing to take it back one street sign at a time to protect our resources, to secure our neighborhoods,  to surround our babies and forge our way forward together  to refuse to be victims to no longer be separated to shout against ignorance and mediocrity .. ( I am from Newark born and raised and am proud of it from madison ave school to university high school I succeeded in these public schools played and was reared on these streets and I am no fiend ,no bum, no junky , no drug dealer or gangbanger, Im not incompetent or lazy- I am in the tradition or willie the Lion smith and Sarah Vaughn of Amiri and Amna Baraka of hundreds and thousands of people that struggle everyday to maintain their dignity and hold their lives together)  and I just thank God and the people of this great city for giving me the privilege to be in the front lines of this fight. To take up this mantle to serve the people of the South Ward and the residents of the city of my birth I say thank you to all of you even those that didn’t want to see me here I say thank you to you too and that time will tell and victory will belong to the people God bless and God speed.

“If we are not serious representatives of the people we will wind up on the side of our enemies. And no matter the piles of glittering resources a society might have, remember the people are its most precious resource.”  -Amiri Baraka speech in Johannes burg South Africa 1995

(Published by permission of author.)

A Challenge to Councilman Baraka and the other Councilpersons: “Beyond Personal Ambition…will you be the change agent?”

The City of Newark’s 2010 Inauguration was muddled with diverse human responses ranging from esteem to dissatisfaction. In post review of the Booker Team’s first term, anyone could detail an array of achievements. There has been increased national awareness of Newark and its concerns, enhancement of parks, increased private investment, restoration of attention on the marginalized (be they undocumented immigrants or LGBT Youth), and the institution of innovative operations i.e. (the 4311 help line) to name a few. Yet, I don’t know anyone that believes the term was fully successful. The Mayor and his team would likely agree with this sentiment due to the fact that in 2005 city government was dismal and the administration would be governing in the midst of the worst recession in a century.

Logically, Newark’s voters “shook things up” by electing two new representatives to city government including you, Ras Baraka. You are an intelligent individual that is respected for your commitment to the city, its youth and development. And, your speech demonstrates a strong ability to connect with the people. I interpret a significant portion of your speech as discouraging personal ambition as sole motivation for political involvement. My reaction is that in Newark politics this is a rarity but hopefully you can change that.

The systems and practices of city government do little to change perceptions of personal interest, self dealing, lack of oversight and transparency. It seems that no one is willing to deal with these issues in a comprehensive manner…? Which councilmember will introduce legislation that either reduces the pay rate/benefits of council members or makes the job a full time position? Will there ever be a limit to the number of public positions a Newark councilmember can hold? Who will be the first council person to publically debate the pros/cons of term limits for elected officials? Who will be the first council person to ensure citizens can obtain a list of all city contracts with the dollar value along with the familial/professional relationships that city officials/employees have with city contractors? Who will be the first city council person to decline “the city car” and similar perks that unjustly burden city tax payers? Which councilmember will ensure that no elected official in Newark will ever have the opportunity to travel the road to indictment that Addonizio, Gibson and James took?

Mayor Ken Gibson created the slogan that characterizes Newark as a city of change now coined by Mayor Booker “Wherever American cities are going, Newark will get there first”. Will the city be last on the priority list of self-interested politicians or will our elected officials be the first to abandon their personal ambition in politics…?

-Bryan M-C Epps

Being Black and Male and….in Newark!

What follows is not really a song. Well, at least in the sense that it is not meant to be sung to music but read alound as a meditation, of sorts,  to sound(s). Some words, phrases, statements in this note are purposefully repeated. So, read through the choruses and repeat where it directs you to do so. This piece is about MY experience and fails to speak to the experience of other Black men living in Newark…

Chorus: One would think that existing, living, surviving, thriving as a Black man in Newark would be, of all games, the easiest to master, for a Black man. Considering that Newark is a space where Blackness is daily illumined through the embodiment of sisters and brothers on our streets, captured in the musics that flow through iPod earphones and blazed through loud speakers, a space where Blackness is so quotidian that the city itself is read and raciated as exceptionally black by everybody else (and, that’s alright too), being a Black male-identified body in Newark bears many lessons.

Verse 1: Being a Black/man requires reflexivity, charm, negotiation, boldness, tissues, smiles, tenacity, swag, muscles, a job, a way in, and a way out. It means that our presence is cause for a multi-pronged project of surveillance: I watch the other…the other watches me…we watch one another…and at the same time we are being watched by the State, by the Media, by the Church through a lens colored by race, shaped by heteronormativity and complicated by class…we, too, do the watching through the glasses of our oppressors.

Chorus: One would think that existing, living, surviving, thriving as a Black man in Newark would be, of all games, the easiest to master, for a Black man. Considering that Newark is a space where Blackness is daily illumined through the embodiment of sisters and brothers on our streets, captured in the musics that flow through iPod earphones and blazed through loud speakers, a space where Blackness is so quotidian that the city itself is read and raciated as exceptionally black by everybody else (and, that’s alright too), being a Black male-identified body in Newark bears many lessons.

Verse 2: Recently, while being lectured to in Newark, the White man doing the “teaching” asks, “Why are you looking at me like you are gonna kill me!?” Some time ago, while speaking at a flag raising ceremony commencing the annual LGBTQ Pride Week in Newark a straight? Black man hollers, “Faggot!” It’s been repeated on more than one occasion, by other queer Black men, that I am “bourgeois”, that I am a “guppy” (aka a gay yuppy), and that I am out of touch with the needs and lives of working class Black folk and they were right, I was losing touch.

Chorus: One would think that existing, living, surviving, thriving as a Black man in Newark would be, of all games, the easiest to master, for a Black man. Considering that Newark is a space where Blackness is daily illumined through the embodiment of sisters and brothers on our streets, captured in the musics that flow through iPod earphones and blazed through loud speakers, a space where Blackness is so quotidian that the city itself is read and raciated as exceptionally black by everybody else (and, that’s alright too), being a Black male-identified body in Newark bears many lessons.

Bridge: I was invited by a White colleague to eat at a “cultured” restaurant (Je’s Soul Food Restaurant to be exact) as a means to welcome me to campus…I am scared to look for an apartment in the East Ward because I was told by Black friends that my application would be rejected by the Portuguese and Brazilian landlords because of my color…I must decide to be silent or break the monotony when other Black, White, Latino, Asian men are talking about their girlfriends, wives or sex partners…I wear a suit and am thought to be “up there” by those I often assumed were “down there”…I write Amiri’s name on my wall and am told by a White female “You know, I love visiting your FaceBook page but I must admit I have some issues with some of the folk that you associate with”….I wear Timberland boots and feel “bout it” and wonder: “what the hell am I performing/proving”…I cry, alone.

Chorus: One would think that existing, living, surviving, thriving as a Black man in Newark would be, of all games, the easiest to master, for a Black man. Considering that Newark is a space where Blackness is daily illumined through the embodiment of sisters and brothers on our streets, captured in the musics that flow through iPod earphones and blazed through loud speakers, a space where Blackness is so quotidian that the city itself is read and raciated as exceptionally black by everybody else (and, that’s alright too), being a Black male-identified body in Newark bears many lessons.

Vamp: But, I wouldn’t want it any other way. (Repeat ten times)

Fade to Black: that space that is full of silence and noise, beauty and perplexity, desire and pain, love and more love.

-darnell

Newark’s Great Debaters

Those who have seen the movie “The Great Debaters,” witnessed a profound and uplifting narrative about students at a small historically black college in Texas who become champion debaters in the 1930’s Jim Crow South.   Based on a true story, the film’s emotional power lies in the extraordinary sense of nobility of spirit represented by the struggle of those young debaters to smash racial barriers and triumph as “competitors of the mind.”

Fast forward to August 2010, when I had the privilege of experiencing that nobility of spirit first hand during a visit to the White House with a 17 year old debater from University High School in Newark, who was being recognized by President Obama as one of the top winners of this year’s NY Chase Urban Debate National Championships.  The student, Shagun Kukreja, a member of the Jersey Urban Debate League (JUDL), joined three other high school debaters and tournament winners (from Atlanta and Chicago) in a historic Oval Office chat with President Obama.  A little background –Debate in Newark originated at Science High School more than two decades ago and was the brain child of long time educator and science teacher Brent Farrand, who today leads the JUDL.   The victories of the JUDL team – regionally and nationally, beating the best and most well financed teams in the country, has been no less than spectacular.

Never before had the White House invited high school debaters from the nation’s urban communities. The wonder and excitement of this moment for these four students reminded me of the scene in the great debaters where the students enter into the hollowed buildings at Harvard for the climactic debate.  It was and will forever be a special moment for all of us, as it revealed that real life can be even more dramatic than a Hollywood movie.

The D.C. visit by Shagun and her colleagues included a flurry of meetings with senators and congressional representatives, including our own Congressman Donald Payne and Senator Frank Lautenberg.  Several were former debaters.  In these meetings, each of the debaters distinguished themselves as incredibly smart, confident, articulate and poised. Indeed, they engaged Obama with such ease and comfortability that even he seemed amazed.  It wasn’t that they used elegant rhetoric, but rather, that they exhibited overwhelming command of the facts and an ability to speak on topic clearly and concisely.  I wished every resident of Newark and New Jersey could have listened to Shagun talk with the President and answer his questions about her winning arguments in the national tournament. This is what the debate experience at Newark schools is doing for young people.  It is turning them into confident advocates, who spend many hours after school to research, develop and debate national policy proposals and to compete with the best young debaters in the country.

Singularly, the reason is JUDL.   Spreading the gospel of debate, JUDL is serving more than 600 students in Newark in more than 20 middle and high schools.  Debate has even moved into the elementary schools.  More than 94% of JUDL debaters graduate high school and attend four year colleges with more than 75% earning college degrees.  JUDL has even been triumphant in getting young people in gangs to turn their lives around as a result of their debate experience.  Moreover, hundreds of our former debaters are now leading citizens in the public and private arenas, serving as lawyers, teachers, managers, elected officials, CEO’s and administrators.  Some former debaters have come back to Newark to be public leaders, like Roger Leone, former principal of University High school and now Deputy Chief Academic Officer with the Newark Public Schools or Jonathan Alston, a former champion debater who teaches at Science High School and coaches for JUDL.

Evaluation and assessment reports on debate programs have demonstrated that they lead to a measurable increase of GPA in middle schools, a dramatic increase in reading scores, and improved student conduct.  More than 150 colleges and universities across the country actively recruit urban debaters and many offer four year debate scholarships.  Imagine the change in norms of academic excellence as debaters develop and use critical thinking skills in the classroom.  Imagine the benefit to the school, to parents, and to the city of having graduation high school rates above 90% (national average is only 72%).  And imagine the benefit to the community economically and socially when more students graduate on time and engage in productive activity.

Thankfully, JUDL’s sponsors and supporters understand that debate is more than a scholastic sport; rather, it is an educational experience that teaches young people the skills that lead to critical thinking, intellectual confidence, excellent oral communication, and public leadership.  Indeed, Debate is so successful in Newark that it should become a critical component of the sweeping educational reforms underway.

Let me close with a story which I often tell because it makes my point about the need to illuminate the talent and abilities of our Newark students. Several years ago, while at a Rutgers college fair, one of the Newark JUDL debaters, approached the Rutgers table to ask about the University.  I began to sing Rutgers’ praises and the benefits of living on campus when she suddenly said, “I’m a debater and I need to be challenged.  I am not sure that Rutgers could provide me with the rigor that I need to feel challenged as a student.” There was an embarrassing silence. It’s unusual for me, or to be sure, most lawyers, to become speechless.  However, this might have been the only moment in my life where I can remember being struck silent.  Why?  Not because I didn’t expect a Newark student to so boldly present her intellectual persona, or to be as fiercely confident in her abilities, or to challenge the legitimacy of the academy to train and educate her.  In fact, I was somewhat amused and impressed at the hint of intellectual arrogance.

Rather, it was that after all of my years as a supporter of debate in Newark, this was the first time that I really understood its transforming power.   Communication is, I would argue, at the very heart of what it means to be a human being.  Debate provides our children with this precious resource in order that they might not only persevere but triumph.  It is my belief that Debate is the best investment we can make in our children. It may indeed save our schools.

If you haven’t yet seen the great debaters, you can rent it on DVD and revel in its storytelling.  But if you want to see great debaters live and in living color, check out the Jersey Urban Debate League  (www.judl.org).

(Marcia Brown, Esq. serves as board member of JUDL and is Vice Chancellor at Rutgers University – Newark.  She has been a debate advocate and supporter since 1988 when her daughter was a debater at science High School.)

Reprinted with permission.

The Alchemy of Activism: Newark’s LGBTIQ Community is Focused on Turning Concerns into Action

Flag Raising in Front of Newark City Hall

Dear Newark,

I hope this letter finds you well.  I am writing to report on a movement for change, occurring right here, within your borders.

I write to you as an ally of the city’s LGBTIQ community, and someone who has just recently began contributing to its community organizing efforts.  I also write to you as an attorney whose intellectual awakening and life’s work is very much informed by the American civil rights movement, and this country’s inherent struggle to live up to both its ideals and fundamental precepts of human rights. Thus, my theory of change is driven by the understanding that real systemic change cannot occur until communities can create a civic infrastructure to translate injustice, injury, and complaint into agendas, coordinated action, and execution.

I believe that this process of translating problems to solutions–or what I call the alchemy of activism–is taking place within Newark’s LGBTIQ community.  I write here to share some of my observations.

Please understand that I do not, and would never would, purport to speak for the entire community.  Rather, these are the observations of one individual, recorded here as a step in my own process of understanding, and shared so that others may join me in that process.  While I try to provide nuance and context to any generalizations contained here, these meta-observations are intended to crystallize abstract and often-unspoken things like value judgments and group norms, not to paint any one community with a single broad brush.

As I write this letter, small groups are meeting over coffee and putting together agendas, drawing up org charts, planning fundraisers, and doing the boring but necessary little things necessary to stitch a civic fabric that will drive this process of activist alchemy for generations.  This fabric includes threads of government issue (with the City of Newark’s newly-established LGBTQ Concerns Commission, and a county-level commission being discussed), threads of local, independent origin (with local community activist groups building their capacity according to national best practices and allied small business owners lending their support), and threads of an origin outside the city (with state, regional, and national LGBTIQ groups becoming more involved).  This fabric is integrating the strength and wisdom of older generations of threads with the energy and temerity of younger generations.

As this movement focuses on building civic infrastructure, it has entered a process-centric phase, where local discussions around communication (who says what to whom), jurisdiction (where should they say it), and collective decision making processes (the how) predominate.  Paradoxically, it is through these debates over process that I have come to a deeper understanding and more profound respect for the values and normative assumptions that undergird this truly organic effort at community organizing.  However, I have also become increasingly frustrated by the failure of certain social justice activists from outside the city who, for all of their zealotry for a common cause, evidence a fundamental lack of understanding and thereby lack of respect, for these local values.

Allow me to explain what I mean.   Once news broke that an unarmed man named Defarra “Dean” Gaymon was shot and killed by law enforcement in a part of Newark’s Branch Brook Park that is a known for “cruising”, leadership from Newark’s LGBTIQ community and statewide groups convened informally.  This diverse group of community activists, social service providers, religious leaders, and their allies decided to embark upon a collaborative and coordinated advocacy effort in response to this tragedy.  Some were concerned about improper law enforcement methods and the unjustified use of force, others were concerned about the unspoken public health ramifications of the problem, and still others stressed the need for additional safe social spaces for LGBTIQ individuals.  Nevertheless, there was a spirit of chemistry amongst the older and newer leadership of the various organizations at the table, and, for this coalition, it was clear that consensus-building, community engagement, and coordinated communications were the strategies of choice.   While never explicitly mentioned by anyone in the group, I thought that this proposed coalition was actually a test as to whether the city’s LGBTIQ community had yet achieved a critical mass whereby their combined efforts could achieve more than what they had previously been able to achieve as individuals or small, ad hoc contingents. 

In many ways, this coalition-building exercise embodied the core values that I have observed throughout many of these process discussions in recent months (to the extent that I can generalize on behalf of such a large, diverse group): the community over the individual, consensus over individual prerogative, egalitarianism over paternalism.  Lest it appear that I am ascribing any sense of orthodoxy or suppression of the will of the individual to this group, I must observe that these values are buttressed by the type of profound respect for diversity of thought and persuasion that only a collection of lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/intersexed/questioning groups can have.  It is only within the space created by this respect for diversity that these quasi-collectivist values have gained acceptance.

However, I would later witness that these values are not always respected by organizations from outside the city, eager to release their own statement to the press, or send an email blast to their membership within minutes of an event.  This is to be understood, on some level.  State and national organizations do not have the same level of interpersonal contact with their constituents that local, community-based organizations do.  Ensuring a voice in state or national press, or up-to-the-minute internet updates, can assure a distant and detached membership that their organization is active and engaged.  For local organizations, the people know if you’re working or not, because they can knock on your door, or look for you at events.  Local groups can afford to take the additional time required for consensus building and coordinated communication, because they do not live and die by the mass media’s 24-hour news cycle.  That being said, where the prerogative of state and national groups may conflict with the values of local groups most directly affected by events, it my sense that notions of respect and dignity should compel non-local groups to at least temporarily yield to those of local groups and engage in a process of reconciliation to find a workable compromise.  Many non-local groups have not fully embraced this principle, which was made evident to me during the organizing effort described above.  Further complicating—and sometimes inhibiting—these mirco/macro, state/local, insider/outsider relationships are the dynamics of race, class, and privilege, which Darnell touched on his prior essay on this subject.

While I must report that this process of reconciling divergent values or methods of non-local groups has indeed been a struggle, I can also report that the local coalition building effort described above has been highly cohesive, and remains intent upon developing an ever more solid infrastructure and deeper coalition building.  For all of the frustration with non-local organizations expressed above, it is this hum of activity at the local level that engenders the optimism with which I began this writing.

This week saw the Newark Pride Alliance and City LGBTQ Commission’s first of five community forums in each of the city’s wards over the next several months.  These forums will record and catalog the concerns of community members in each ward and this record will be used to support various advocacy efforts—especially at the city level.  The Newark-Essex Pride Coalition’s planning efforts are already underway for Pride Week 2011 and it is engaged in deep internal review and capacity building process.  The Newark Pride Alliance and Hetrick-Martin Institute are prepared to roll out their school-based LGBTIQ student drop in center this fall.  The African-American Office of Gay Concerns’s Status is Everything HIV/AIDS awareness campaign has been highly successful by most accounts, and many other service provider organizations are reporting that they are expanding programming, in an otherwise difficult economic climate.

I started off this letter by referring to these social phenomena as a “movement.”  I close by emphasizing the literal sense of that word–that is, something that is in motion, and has not yet reached a destination.  What I write here is not a story of triumph, but rather one of potential built upon the tireless work of prior generations.  The ultimate test will be whether this new and unique milieu of individuals and groups can deliver on an agenda that is relevant to the community, by standardizing this process of activist alchemy.

I invite you to witness this movement and contribute whenever possible, my dear Newark.

Kyle Rosenkrans

Newark Letters

Dear Newark,

I know you are going through a lot right now. It almost feels like two parents who are getting a divorce. They are fighting over money and assets. Particularly, the MUA- Municipal Utilities Authority, or what I call the MUA-Mis Understanding of Assets. The citizens have become a product of the divorce gone bad. Originally you agreed to resolve this matter amicably, but somewhere along the line the agreement wasn’t kept. All too common in divorces one party somehow manages to get the children involved and begins to use them as a pawn. Guess who the children are? The citizens. Depending upon which parent you have more of an endearment to; and no doubt you love them both you become torn and must now choose between the two. So we have become a City divided, not into 2, but 3. Those who are for it, those who oppose it and those who don’t really know what’s going on or what to think because there is too much descension.

Do we not know that a house divided can not stand? When did we get here? How quickly have we forgotten all the wonderful things that has happened in our city over the past 4 years? When did we become so disrespectful to our Leadership? These are the same people who we have entrusted to make decisions for our city for the best interest of the people. We are supposed to pray for our Leaders, not ridicule and talk about them negatively.

As I sat in the community meetings last week my heart was being broken over the turmoil that our City is in. We wonder why there is so much violence in our City. People are hurting, our children have become products of our unhealed pain and we are passing it down from generation to generation. We don’t know how to resolve our issues in a civilized manner but we expect our children to. Their behavior is learned. We allow no grace for one another so where do you think our children get it from. Trust me they are watching us, they are listening and while they may not understand exactly what’s going on, they do understand emotions. What message are we sending? Let’s not let the MUA- Mis Understanding of Assets continue to divide our City. Let us make the best decisions for the people and allow those we have elected to their jobs. I pray they do it with conviction, humility, grace and courage.

May God Bless Us,

Towanda McEachern

Concerned Citizen

Newark Speaks. We are a conurbation of people. As a people anywhere would, we hardly ever share identical opinions or beliefs. All too often this fact creates crisis instead of opportunities. Too many of us feel aggravation, stress, pain and fear instead of appreciation of what is ordinary, our differences. We are peoples; Asian and white, transgendered and women, temporary inhabitants and long term residents. Our Mayor frequently states that “Newark is a city for everyone”. The problem is we habitually overlook that this requires us to connect with an unfamiliar person too which we have failed to value. Everyone contains us and them, Newark is we.

As challenging as this provision may be it appears that in one term our Mayor has forgotten to make this connection. Here is one example: during the 2010 election few people were provided the access to engage his administration on diverse issues in community forums, candidate’s debates, or even methodical campaign literature. If Newark is a city for everyone, and we believe it is, then shouldn’t everyone be privy to its political agenda? Congruently, Newark’s Council of representatives has for too long failed to adequately support the administration by providing critical analysis of its community based initiatives and financial plans. The four year relationship between this Administration and the City Council has failed to create a solution to the city’s budget woes. As a result a double digit tax hike may be imposed. This may be evidence that amalgamation is not always ideal. However, a city is not defined by buildings, a budget or its leaders but by its people. Is it possible that true to representative politics both the mayor and the city council have mirrored our values and behaviors?

Being a city for everyone does not require us to hoist token representatives but requires people to make connections to one another as unique individuals. Being a city for everyone does not require us to take part in assorted initiatives because we are neighbors or friends but to appreciate our distinctive missions and movements for their respective contributions and outcomes.

I respect the present divide between Newark’s Council and Administration and hope that their efforts to reconnect will produce vital political exchanges and meaningful legislation. Alas, successful policies will only take shape when they adequately put the concerns of people first and are respectfully presented to the public. Similarly, recent protest and forums around the MUA summon the best qualities of democracy and the ability for people to represent themselves. However, until the people can proactively collaborate unique persons with out bias for their neighbors they will never see the leaders and environment they hope for.

Bryan Epps

A Response to a Response to a Response: On White Liberal Organizing

So, I recently responded to an email correspondence between several Newark-rooted LGBTQ leaders/activists and a few representatives from a larger, regionally-focused organization regarding our responses to the tragic shooting of DeFarra “Dean” Gaymon at the hands of an undercover police officer in Branch Brook Park in Newark. In sum, I argued that their approach was wrong (as it is often, in my opinion) and a rep responded by ostensibly suggesting that responses like mine impede collaboration. I’ve decided to post the conversation (and a response from a comrade) because it speaks to the problem of macro-level organizing that doesn’t account for people, communities, and cultures on the ground.

Here’s my response to a Board Member’s argument for the opening of space for partnership between the larger, regional organization and that of the local organizations/groups:

Dear Friend:

Thank you so much for your note/testimony! I am glad that we were able to sit next to one another yesterday, as well.

Personally, I am quite thankful that this discussion, particularly as it relates to collaboration and “community”, is taking place. I think that such times push us to re-examine our relationships and those aspects of our relationships that, both, advance and impede our activist projects. Yet, it also presents us with the opportunity to speak honestly about the ways in which power and privilege operate in our interpersonal and system-oriented relationships. Let me try to explain what I mean by referencing, what I think were, teachable lessons from my short time/work in Newark.

When I began work in Newark, I thought that there existed a monolithic “thing” that we could name a “LGBT” or “queer” community.  I was of the opinion that every LGBT person in the city (because I imagined that there were many) knew about the programs and community-based organizations whose missions and work focused on LGBT issues. I thought that we could organize one meeting to discuss LGBT issues and everyone would come out of their concern for the “community.” It wasn’t long before I discovered that there were many points of difference that complicated this notion of a unified/monolithic community in Newark. I soon realized that economic status and perceived class factors kept certain LGBT contingencies from venturing into different parts of the city, from attending certain meetings, from buying tickets to specific events. I realized that race and ethnic identification would play a strong role in group formation, and community partnerships. I realized that age, neighborhood, religion, historical era, Newark nativity vs. Newark newcomer status would sooner have a stronger impact on the ways that one would imagine “community” than the mere sharing of a particular “sexual identity” category or politic. In other words, I realized that to get to place of shared politics, concern and collaboration much work would have to be done on my behalf to ensure that I HEAR the different perspectives maintained by other folk (who lived in different Newark neighborhoods than me) and to RESPECT that some folk didn’t prefer my approach to organizing (because some felt that I maintained a top down approach that didn’t consider the needs of those who lived in economically-stressed neighborhoods, folk who weren’t in my intellectual/academic/social circles, folk who walked balls, danced at the Armory near Baxter Street Terrace Housing Projects as opposed to those who look down at the ball scene and preferred exclusive parties in the brownstones of James Street). This is my experience. But, what I am sharing it? What am I trying to say? Well, for starters, I think that we need to acknowledge the following:

1. While I will not/can not argue against [said organization’s] amazing national and regional work and people-strength (e.g. many thousand members across the county, including more than thousand plus in Newark), it is my opinion that [said organization] comes to the “table” with the belief that our ideals, politics, advocacy positions, and modes of activism are the same. Again, this, in my opinion, and is a problem shared by many large regional and national LGBT organizations, namely, the belief that the work done at the “macro” level speaks directly to the needs and interests of an imagined LGBT “community” at the “micro” level-or on the ground. That understanding does not allow for a serious consideration of the multitude of spaces we inhabit, the diverse perspectives we maintain (e.g. we may be LGBT but some of us choose not to fight for marriage equality because it does not cohere with our politics), or the reality that we need to examine and check the blind spots that may prevent us from seeing how our practices and perceptions shield us from engaging in ways that are equitable.

2. Why Gaymon’s tragic story is not owned by Newark and, indeed, is the story of a man who lost his life in Newark, Essex County, New Jersey, it is one that pulls at the heart of those who live in this city, whose bodies daily maneuver through the streets here in Newark. And, why strong connections can be made to Maplewood and South Orange, the real-time effects of racism (i.e. the disproportionate number of people of color who are victims of police perpetuated violence and institutionalized oppression at the level of the courthouse and jailhouse) and economic injustice (i.e. the disproportionate number of economically distressed and working class folk affected by the same) and heterosexism (i.e. the number of cases of folk harassed on our streets by citizens and cops) makes cases like the Gaymon story that much more “real” and “felt” in the lives and bodies of those living in Newark. The maintenance of analysis at this level, in my mind, signals a respect for the space and place that certain communities exist in and a nuanced understanding of the systemic issues that plaque such communities on the ground.

3. Lastly, collaboration does not necessarily mean that everyone should be at EVERY table. Collaboration means maintaining an understanding (and process) that is advanced by the group regarding who the group feels should speak, when they should speak and what should be said. Yet, collaboration, at least as I understand is, is a continuous process of engagement. That is, we don’t sit at the table when a situation spews but are always already present. I am thankful that despite the many challenges leaders face here in this city, many have taken heed to the idea of commitment and presence. Frankly, [said organization] shows up when it is campaigning for marriage equality and when high-profile incidents take place. There are meetings taking place all the time…Pride celebrations…scholarship dinners…positive/asset focused events that I have not seen [said organization] reps or its 1200 Newark members present at.

I apologize for the length, but am sharing my thoughts in love. In some ways, I felt inspired to do so by your free sharing. Let’s start a fruitful discussion regarding how we might “collaboratively” collaborate.

Peace,

darnell

The response of the organization’s representative:

Darnell, thank you so, so much.   We would be delighted to attend Newark-based events on a regular basis anytime the invitation is there – when we’re invited, we almost always show up, even when we know that sometimes we’re going to be in the figurative hot seat.  That’s okay.  We will never give up on trying to have closer relations, even if the road is bumpy.   It is worth it to invest the time into another, so we don’t base our perceptions on assumptions – whether assumptions about Newark’s LGBT community or assumptions about [said organization].

By the way, about a third of our work is on marriage equality, and most of the laws we’ve passed and actions we’ve taken over the years have had nothing to do with marriage equality.   Other issues on which we’ve worked so hard include transgender rights, youth at risk and equal employment opportunities, and we’ve done particular organizing in faith communities.

We respect the unique role that Newark LGBT organizations have regarding a tragedy that occurred in Newark.  X’s view that [said organization], too, has a role in this situation, as other statewide organizations do reflects that of our other members, to whom we’re responsive.

And, now a metaphorical response to the problem of White Liberal Organizing by a comrade, C. Riley Snorton:

Dear White Liberal Organizer*

I realize that your tone — a mixture of condescending self-congratulation and bureaucratic coldness — is a reflection of two larger problems: the non-profit industrial complex and the inheritance of certain white liberal traditions, which probably prevent you from even understanding what’s wrong with your response both to the email, which proceeded your own, and to the tragedy of the fatal killing of Mr. Gaymon by a Newark police officer.  Please understand, WLO, that the indignation in this letter is really not about you, at all.  Rather, it is about a need to articulate the weariness produced by witnessing similar types of responses time and time again.  It is tiresome, WLO, because of the systemic nature of it all and the variety of responses (similar to yours) that undermine the race, class, gender, and sexual specificity of the tragedies for which your organization feels it should be responsive.  It is also tiresome that an email that is supposed to be in support of local grassroots responses to Mr. Gaymon’s murder is principally about protecting the interests of an organization who implicitly feels a need to defend itself against perceptions and assumptions that it is pursuing a mainstream gay agenda.

Before changing careers, I worked alongside you as an employee of two major LGBT non-profits.  So please understand that when I say, it’s not about you, it really isn’t. I know the position you’re in–the role you play–very well. But the problem as I see it, is that the more we internalize the values of the economic structures that support and unfotunately implicitly lead the kinds of work we do, the less we are able to understand and undo a cycle of paternalism that structures the road of organizing (for pay).  I believe it is also this set of systematic incentives from our funding structures that cause larger organizations to deride local community organizing as either ineffective or threatening–making the path to cooperative action and social justice bumpy indeed.

So let me conclude this letter with an invitation.  I invite you to show up–not simply physically, with your bodies, at a community action, but to show up with some reflexivity and a connectedness to the materiality of social justice.  The price of a human life should never register as an obligation to respond to one’s members.

Sincerely,

Tired Black Activist

* This note is my version of a letter to a young (white liberal) activist.  To be clear, this letter is not an actual response to the content of the email but a metaphorical response to the kinds of rhetoric that characterize what is most problematic about white liberal organizing.