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 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.