Spirited Words from Yusef Ismail, a Notable Newarker!

Make no mistake about it… I’m an Idealist. I will never stop believing in what this city can be. In the face of violence, I believe there can be peace. In the face of despair, I believe there can be hope. In the face of a politics that has divided us for too long, I believe we can be one people, reaching for what’s possible, building a stronger more united city.

That’s the journey I’m on today. But let me tell you how I came to be here. As most of you may know, I am a life-long resident of the city of Newark. Three generations of my family lived in the Baxter Terrace housing projects. Believe it or not, at one time, all of the people that lived there were like one big family. People looked out for one another.  It was in this “School of Hard Knocks” that I received the best education I ever had, and where I learned the true meaning of family, survival, and faith. Unfortunately, over the years the infamous housing projects became synonymous with drugs, crime and violence. Although my mother worked hard to support me and tried to provide everything I needed, the fascination with street life and the cash I could make from selling drugs was far too tempting to resist.

The only thing I gained from my years of running in the streets was a five year prison sentence and 5 gun shots wounds from three separate incidents. My last and most serious incident dates back in 2002. I regained consciousness at UMDNJ Hospital with a catheter lodged in my throat and several tubes attached to my body. I spent a total of six weeks lying up in a hospital bed. During my stay, through a series of operations and procedures, I was treated for the following: Diaphragm laceration, Liver laceration, colon injury, abdominal compartment syndrome, respiratory failure, multiple organ failure, and abdominal wall reconstruction. The doctors named me the “Walking Miracle” when I finally began to recover.

Believe it or not I gained something from this experience. Because it was in this time of crises, during the darkest hours of my life that I grew closer to God. The seeds of faith are always alive in us, but sometimes it takes a crisis to provoke them to grow. And it took a crisis to provoke those seeds to grow within me. I started replacing my doubts and my fears of changing with Faith. Faith in God and faith in my own abilities to overcome life’s greatest challenges.

It was through faith and an urgent need for change that led me to start my organization, back in 2005 and I’ve never looked back. Stop Shootin’ has continued to be at the forefront of a grassroots movement that has helped the City of Newark set the national standard for urban violent crime reduction. We’ve challenged the community to re connect with one another, and to recommit to eliminating senseless loss of life. There’s been significant strides in community leadership — people pulling together on blocks and in neighborhoods in phenomenal cooperation. We have achieved what many are saying is remarkable success.

But for all the progress that has been made, we must surely acknowledge that Newark has yet to fulfill its true potential. We still have much work to do, and a long road to walk before the truth of our city is fully realized. This is a time where you can go to any community meeting or street corner and hear people express anxiety about the future. I hear them convey their uncertainty about the direction we’re headed as a city. Whether it’s the upsurge of violence over the summer months or the lack of quality education or their jobs, you hear people say that we’ve finally arrived at a moment where something must change.

Now, the people of Newark understand that government alone can’t meet this challenge. We realize that we need to stop looking for some external force, some outside factor, some knight in shining armor to fix our problems. We are the source of our own solutions, our own changes, our own imaginative creations, not our government, our corporations, our political parties. If change is to happen, it must happen down deep in the psychological soil of our own being. We have to decide to change. We have to recognize reality.

Thus we do need change, not the campaign slogan type, but the substantive change. The kind that King talked about when he said, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability”. It must be carried in on the backs of Newark’s most dedicated servants. We are that generation, this is our highest calling. In the months and years to come, it’s time for each of us to understand that we will never solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together because the challenges that are facing our community and our world are much greater than any of our personal, political or organizational differences. We are all in this together.  We may live or work in different wards and communities but we are fighting in a common cause.

Therefore, when our cause seems doomed and the future lost, when despair becomes unbearable and our hearts are on the edge of breaking, let us conjure hope and honor and high resolve in yet one more stubborn affirmation! I encourage us all to summon a new spirit of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other. Let us realize the potential power that our unity can unleash to bring about positive changes in our community.

Author’s Bio:

Yusef Ismail is a self- motivated achiever with a boundless passion to end senseless gun violence in urban communities, nationwide. Yusef is a Co-Founder of Stop Shootin’ Inc., which is a non-profit organization based out of Newark, New Jersey. The agency promotes programs and events focused on providing young people with educational, cultural, and economic alternatives to criminal activity. Since Stop Shootin’s inception, Yusef has managed the organization full-time as the Executive Director. Under his direction, the agency has continued to grow by leaps and bounds. Yusef has been vital in turning an often used catch phrase into an action-oriented organization. Yusef Ismail continues to give of himself, time, and talent selflessly to Newark’s youth and families.

Op-Ed: Newark and the Politics of Fear

Written by: Taquan Williams, Newark Resident

A couple of weeks ago, I received an “IMPORTANT WARNING” from the Newark Firefighters and Fire Officers Unions. It read: “this warning goes out to all home-owners, residents, children, employees, students and anyone else who may enter the City of Newark for any reason.” It goes on to state that Mayor Booker’s proposed layoffs “will lead to death, injury and the unnecessary spread of fire!”

Then, while driving up Clinton Avenue for my weekly haircut, I noticed an ad commissioned by the Newark FOP (Fraternal Order of Police) that read: “Welcome to Newark. Stop Laying Off Cops.” The ad also used the city’s skyline as the backdrop with a strip of red crime scene tape to invoke images of crime and death.

Both public relations campaigns reminded me of the tragic, attention-seeking “Help Wanted Stop the Killings in Newark Now” signs that the Newark Teachers Union (NTU), another deep-pocketed union in Newark. The NUT strategically purchased ad space near all of the Newark’s major highways and high-traffic areas in 2007. The signs garnered national attention because they played into the perception that Newark is a city being overrun by thugs and criminals.

However, this is nothing new. For decades, we have seen this narrative play out over and over again, with little change to the playbook. From the late night Jay Leno jokes of the 80’s, to the movies like New Jersey Drive (1995) to Conan O’Brien’s recent faux-battle with Mayor Booker.

Long before the 1988 U.S. Presidential Election, we have seen the “Willie Horton-ization” of Newark.  The only thing new about this strategy, is that it is being adopted by the very groups that have taken an oath to “serve and protect.” As someone that takes great pride in Newark’s rich history and its promising future, the current actions of the Newark Police and Fire Unions only do harm to Newark’s already fragile reputation and economic recovery.

We are in tough economic times; the worst since the Great Depression. Let me repeat: the worst since the Great Depression. While I’ve disagreed with Mayor Booker on minor issues, I don’t think he is left with many options in order to close the current budget gap.

Instead of invoking and provoking fear in the hearts of “home-owners, residents, children, employees, students and anyone else who may enter the City of Newark for any reason,” we should collectively come together to try to the share the pain that this recession has caused us to endure.

While I do believe that both organizations are well within their First Amendment rights, these scare tactics are antithetical to the oaths that each officer and firefighter are sworn to uphold.  In sum, they only perpetuate the myth that Newark is a dangerous and unlivable city. To me, it seems as if both unions have lost confidence in their own abilities to fight crime and keep residents and visitors safe. Going forward, I hope Newarkers loudly reject these fear campaigns. They only do harm to our great city.

On: Being “African”-American while in South Africa

So, I discovered that I am more American than African.

Indeed, the modifier that I oft use to self-identify as one of Africa’s diasporic children, remains a symbolic insertion, a prologue?, that attempts to place me before/within the context of America’s raciated colonialist, capitalist story of human exploitation and systematic terror. Such usage is more about me attempting to demonstrate a connection to the historical, social, cultural trajectory of enslaved Africans in America (and maybe a connection of my family of origin to a West African source) than anything else.

In no way was this realization a surprise. I had done away with the idealistic and romanticized notion of Africa as “home” a few years back (and now wonder: why so late?). And, even while I am deeply spirited by the fact that Africa, West African countries to be exact, remain the primary “source” of my familial lineage, I feel like I am more of an enigma as I roam (touring actually!) South Africa, in September 2010, than my White American sisters and brothers who are visiting with me today: I get a lot of stares and they walk through town without surveillance. I am treated with speculation even as I witness them maneuver the streets without care for their interactions. The funny thing is: I GET IT!

African-American?

African?

American?

When I walk the streets of Cape Town, my ethnicity-the identifier which supposedly characterizes my place of origin-which, in this case peculiarly places me, partly, in Africa ceases to hold true. It connotes a connection-for some a genetic link-to Africa, the motherland, home. Yet, I was reminded the moment that I walked through Joburg International Airport that my Africanisms can not be found in my knowledge of the African continent, my understanding of the varied cultures and languages and religions and peoples and my deep connection to the struggles of Black people in Africa (and the colorisms that continue to caste Blacks as a class below Colored South Africans). My African ain’t the African of the people that I have fantasized and fetishized, oh no! I, yet, have lots to learn!

Looking into the faces, when I was bold enough, of the workers, producers pushing other folk (Black, White, Red, Brown) in wheelchairs, cooking and serving food at airport eateries, cleaning the bathrooms, sweeping the floors, shining shoes, collecting tickets, directing, signaling, sweeping, I saw my reflection, that is, the reflection of an “African?” whose life had been made easier by the labor of other Africans. I could sense an e(race)ing of the Black African within my African-Americaness as folk surveilled a Black English speaking foreigner in Nike sneakers, designer skinny jeans, an iPhone 4 (that I wasn’t using), Kodak camera, lap top, Jeep luggage and a Western attitude, walk boldly on the floors that were being mopped by Black South African laborers. My African, in that moment, was less impressionable than my seeming economic status. To be sure, my “American” ostensibly was most visible when I encountered other Black (Africans) especially when they found out that I was from Jersey. American: a sign for a certain “class position” and economic status that is connected to an imperialist, neoliberal project of the West that negatively impacts the lives of many in the East (and South), is what folk saw. And, I get it!

My short time in South Africa has already been cause for me to interrogate the complicated meaning-making process of racial identification and to realize that class positionality, access to capital (human and monetary) and State affiliation/nationality has everything to do with the project of race-ing. Indeed, I am forced to critique my own place in a capitalist project that continues to draw a wedge between Blacks in Africa and those in USA. I have been forced to deal with my appropriation of “African”: an appropriation that has everything to do with my fantastical ideals about place and heritage and less about the unified struggle against race, gender, sex, class, religious, economic, neighborhood, ability and other oppressions that ultimately have me looking more vaudeville than bona fide African. I now realize that I can no more claim my African than I claim “being from” New York even though I live 20 minutes away in Jersey.  Africa, at least Cape Town, South Africa, has challenged me to examine my conscious and actions in an America that makes invisible the tattered Townships where Black South Africans survive daily. It’s hard to do from the Cape Milner Hotel where I can see way pass the struggles of the valley as I lift my head, with a glass of wine, to the soaring mountains. With my many-a-Rand I can take a privileged ride via a wire car to the tip of Table Top Mountain, but fail to position my Rand so that they can fall in to the hands of NGOs building up the lives of those in the economically-distressed Townships that I’ve passed so that they can soar.

Author: Darnell L. Moore / @dnnewark on Twitter

A Journey Down a Redbrick Road: Reflections of a Black, Queer Newarker

“Get out the street you fag!” The words drifted on the warm spring waft like a dandelion seed. My grandmother always told me that if you can catch a dandelion’s seed with one hand you would be granted a wish. I grabbed his words with my hopeful fist and held them to my heart. Necks rolled and horns honked in this discordant urban musical, as I was suspended in an animated silence. It had occurred to me that the carnivorous driver waiting irately at the red light had just cursed me with the most unforgivable word, and yet while my brain informed me that I should be welling with fury, I was instead strangely roused with electricity. In the middle of West Market Street I pivoted on the heels of my patent-leather oxfords, and now facing my blasphemer, blew him a kiss.  After my grand display I did what RuPaul had taught me and sashayed away…

Hours later while retelling the event to a friend I began to think deeply about the exchange. My “kill-em-with-kindness” reaction was accompanied with a sincere gesture of my appreciation. Why was I thanking someone who had just called me a fag? In spite of the malicious intent of his words, that angry driver acknowledged and affirmed my sexual identity where previously internal and external forces attempted to refute its existence. After years of self-denial and repression, this milestone signified to the world and myself that I was happily queer. To a greater extent, and what I realized a year later in retrospect, the thirty-second exchange between the driver and myself represented a victory in another major internal battle between my identities. That day I remembered why I was a Newarker.

Growing up in the Bricks I’ve always felt like a deviant. Not a gun-totting, drug-selling deviant, but a book-reading, double-dutch-jumping deviant. The hyper-masculine archetype worn by men (of color) from my community was always too baggy to fit my waist. I tried with much effort (and with some success) to perform the black masculinity I observed daily: I chilled on the corner with pants to my ankles squawking at passing women, and on countless occasions defended my ‘manhood’ and feigned heterosexuality. Eventually I realized that my beliefs and actions did not have to be confined to the race, gender, and class specific social scripts that defined the lives of most men I knew; however, I now had no other model to which I could construct my identity. I began to perceive myself as the antithesis to the black, heterosexual men of Newark whom I encountered, and thus concluded that Newark represented everything that I was not. With this attitude I could accept all of my eccentricities and queerness.  Ironically, through the process of mentally liberating myself from the under/working-class schema that quelled my sexual and intellectual being, I was simultaneously denying my very existence: I had distanced myself from the world that I observed daily with the belief that the real people I encountered as I navigated the city and the very real place that is Newark was not connected to who I was.

It was not until I left Newark that I could truly begin to reconcile my clashing identities and resolve my existential conundrum. While living, working, and attending school in Washington D.C. for a year, my blackness, queerness, and working-class upbringing never felt so salient. My wealthy, white peers would bombard me with questions about gang-violence and car-jackings when they became aware of my origins. I quickly learned to avoid the shame I felt from associating myself with Newark by identifying ‘North Jersey’ or ‘Essex County’ as my home, although doing so failed to subdue my internalized sense of otherness induced by my new environment. During lunch one day I divulged my angst to a friend, “black is associated with crime, drugs, violence, poverty, and ignorance. That’s what people think of when they see me, and that’s just not me”. My friend, a white suburbanite, responded, “well, the black people I know are pretty intelligent; are rich, not from selling drugs; and don’t have guns—except to go deer hunting.” Her words made me realize that my ideas of an essentialized identity—informed largely by commercial hip hop, prevailing public opinion, news media, and my subjective experiences—placed me in a state of ideological and moral dissonance.  Hence began the point where I reinterpreted blackness and queerness not as conflicting modalities in the human experience, but as a charming couple that dances salsa and bachata to a soft, melodic guitar. Their nimble steps to the passionate rhythm of life blend into each other, until they spin and dip into an inseparable whirl. My romantic desires, scholarship, and love for jumping rope did not clash with the color of my skin or the place I was born and raised; they were rooted in them.

On that spring day as I meandered down West Market Street I recognized the smiling eyes and hopeful hearts that passed me. The sun was peering sneakily between the clouds to catch a glimpse of the liveliness of the city. After my dance with homophobia, I stood suspended in time, gazing afar at the animated miniature figures marching downtown. My spirit was a high as the cityscape, my rust-brick eyes stern but compassionate. After years of navigating the rugged thoroughfares of the Bricks, I could traverse any street unabashedly. That’s when it him me; I’m not only from Newark, I am Newark.

About the Author:

Kiyan Williams is a Newark-bred intellectual and activist. He is 2009 graduate of Science Park High School, Newark, NJ. He is currently doing his undergraduate work at Stanford University, where he serves as the co-chair of Black and Queer at Stanford (BLaQS), a support network and student organization that strives to increase the political awareness and social acceptance of issues surrounding race, gender, and sexuality. Kiyan is hopeful for the future of Newark, and more so excited to be a part of that future.

Notable Newarker #3: An Interview with Allen Kwabena Frimpong

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

April 29, 2009, was the date I moved back to Newark– from Piscataway (yeah I am giving P-Way a shout out)–to be exact. It’s funny how I can recall the exact date, right, but I think it was an abrupt transition in my life when I decided to return back to my birthplace. My parents were selling their house and going their separate ways and I just was making a huge transition in my profession starting to do international organizing work in the drug policy field all while returning to school to get my masters in urban planning. It was the right opportunity to actually live life on my own, so like Elaine Brown, of the former Black Panther Party says, I had to ‘seize the time’.

I had done some prior organizing work in Newark with young people for about two years. I had worked with several community-based organizations and schools conducting focus groups and interviews with young people from all walks of life. A lot of my engagement with social justice issues has been centered on public health.  At the time, I was a Fellow at Young People 4, a program of the People for the American Way, where I worked with the Harm Reduction Coalition in New York City. The Harm Reduction Coalition is an organization that promotes the health and dignity of those affected by drug use through advocacy and education. I was responsible for the creation of an initiative for young people to address issues of drug use called Brick Rebuilding (play off of Brick City..or “brick” aka a kg of drugs- rebuilding the knowledge and understanding we have about drugs and drug use). Before this I had made some really solid relationships with other Newark residents in helping coordinating outreach to people who were homeless in Newark in addressing issues around housing, food, their rights -basic needs. I think a lot of that engagement with folks was different for me in that I was really having exchanges with people that usually I wouldn’t be having – because they were homeless and on the streets. These lived experiences were really teachable moments for me, and the new friendships that came out of those experiences is what really pulled me to return to Newark.

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

I think Newark is going through growing pains. In some ways healthy, in others not so much. You section off the side of town that borders the city where you can clearly see that the town has green grass and gates with ranch style houses (i.e Montclair), but then where the border of the town is…is the city with a sign that says welcome to Newark with abandoned housing, cracks in the concrete with cracked bottles. It’s a patchwork of those images mixed together. It’s going through attempts to be gentrified. Newark to me is a forced mixture of those two environments, and I feel like the people reflect that forced mixed environment. As there are people who move in and out of the city who most likely work for places like city government or Prudential..transient groups of people who don’t have homes, people who are invested in the city with friends, family, or maybe even lack thereof and those who are just trying to survive given their circumstances. Cities and towns are designed-it’s almost like being in a state of what is called cognitive dissonance where you know what the norms are, you know how people act, behave and when they are introduced to a new concept that they feel may or may not be of benefit to them..they are at a state of maybe confusion or resistance in some way, and I feel like that is how I see Newark. It’s the fear of the unknown.

Clearly, its different from Piscataway, because Piscataway I think is reflective of just any other suburb in New Jersey, especially the way its designed. Suburbs are designed as getaways (gateways) from the urban environment. I think Piscataway was very diverse in culture as it pertained to race, ethnicity, and class distinctions now that I look back at it and I think a lot of that exposure early on shaped my view of how I understood those very same things now and how those things impact society. Many people use the Newark rebellion as a reference point because it was such a big representation of an attempt of class suicide for Black people to rid themselves of a system that continuously was doing them harm. I think the thing to remember about Newark and other urban environments in America are that they have always been struggling to survive and live in structures that were designed and orchestrated to keep them out of spaces of privilege and power. In fact, before the rebellion of ’68 there was the rebellion of 1844 so you see Newark has always been at a constant state of struggle till this day.

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

Well, I recently just saw one of the participants in the Brick Rebuilding project, a young brotha that attended Barringer High School who was just really getting into a lot of trouble, and had joined a youth organization as one of the peer leaders when I was coordinating the program two years ago. I saw him two days ago on Broad St. when I was walking to Penn Station to go to work. He yelled my name out, and I saw him wearing scrubs. He was in school studying to be a medical assistant and that really made me feel good that day. I remember at the close of the project I had taken the participants to Baltimore for a conference about people of color and the war on drugs, and so my participants were able to meet other young Black people from Baltimore and DC to share their experiences of how drugs affected them and what positive things they were going to do to change their community. For many of my participants it was the first time they left Newark, including him. He actually got to meet one of the cast members from “The Wire” who actually used to be a major drug dealer in real life, and I remember him along with everyone else really liking the experience and learning a lot so when I saw him two days ago it just really made me remember how much people can grow and progress out of struggle.

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

In my international work I felt really disconnected from the things that were going on in my own neighborhood. I think part of that had to do with the fact that people in the international community don’t view the United States as a part of that community, particularly in the global south despite the fact that many of the issues they face are comparable to the issues marginalized people in the U.S. face. Now that I have parted from that for the time being and have returned back to doing national policy and capacity-building work I feel like the skills that I have gained are transferable in really valuable ways in how I can engage with people in my community better and be more present. One of the things that I would like to start doing is really reframing how we utilize people in our communities to develop self sustaining communities. When we say we are “giving back” I think one of the basic things to think about is – Why do we give back? (For what purpose?) Motivation and intent are very important for me and I feel like those things are driving forces that give us the ability to believe that we can succeed in our endeavors. More importantly, it allows for us to be transparent and honest with why we do the work we doThe other question that I think we should think about is who are we really giving back to? and to what end? I want to start really doing work from a place of asset building rather than from deficit, because I do think there are skill sets present in the community already that could be tapped to help develop safer communities, sustainable communities. I think it’s because we are conditioned to work from deficits we maintain deficits. I’d like to start engaging with environmental justice issues in Newark more, so since I have spoken it into existence hopefully it will happen.

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

I just talked about working from deficit right? Just as a case example…I was just reading about how the American Civil Liberties Union of NJ (www.aclu-nj.org) filed a petition to the U.S Department of Justice to intervene with handling the abuses and misconduct of the Newark Police department. While I do agree that there needs to be some level of accountability on the part of the Newark Police Department a part of me also wonders what will be the way forward for them in improving the way they operate, and how will the Department of Justice influence that. Again, working in an asset-based framework what ways can we have the community in Newark uphold justice in their own community. What ways can they use their collective efficacy to hold people in the community accountable to a set of standards agreed to by the community? What restorative justice models has the city considered in dealing with its issues of crime? In what ways has the city improved community and police relations? What has been the end result? How does the city define community policing? And, again, who does it ‘serve’ to ‘protect’? I think answering these questions can open the door to some opportunities in improving how we sustain and maintain healthy communities not just in Newark but in other urban communities facing the same issues. We do not need to continue a cycle where communities are going through their own cycles of recidivism, and punishment. People who want to be invested in the safety and security of our neighborhoods should put their energy in building better relationships, and better communities, not conspiring on getting people in the community to snitch on each other and creating community distrust, stopping people and frisking them without any real probable cause, beating and locking up people- violating their rights.  Questions like this would be central in moving forward with changing how Newark Police Department operates.

Allen Kwabena Frimpong is from Newark, NJ currently working at the Harm Reduction Coalition in New York City as a capacity building assistance specialist for HIV prevention programs nationally. Harm Reduction looks at using public health interventions that meet people where they are at in mitigating the harms associated with potentially risky behaviors such as using drugs and having unprotected sex. He was the International Network Coordinator of Youth RISE the only youth-led global harm reduction network working on youth and drug policy issues internationally. Before Youth RISE, he coordinated HIV testing/counseling and support affected and infected youth in NYC. He is also an independent consultant whose work focuses on capacity-building with community based organizations, and also has a background in youth development & childhood safety/prevention. Allen has a strong history in doing community organizing work around social justice issues. He currently is obtaining his master’s degree in Urban Affairs and Planning at City University of New York, Hunter College in New York City.

Love in the City: All bricks no love?


Can I be honest?

On occasion when I come back to Newark a sense of gloom engulfs me. In contrast to the gentrified fantasy so many other downtown destinations offer Newark appears miserable. It lacks polite aesthetics and diverse upscale amenities. Even the city’s sole accessible Starbucks came and closed in a heartbeat. The chic restaurants and graceful parks where lovers and friends would gather in other cities seem limited in Newark. Underneath the surface lies crime and crisis and above the State’s suburban centric policies and the racist/classist decision-making of upscale retailers are situated. All of this leads me to ask and answer how people may find opportunities to connect hearts and minds in a city that seems to lack a “lover’s lane”.

An old neighbor once told me that he decided to purchase a house and settle in the city of Newark once he developed quality friends. For me, his decision was the literal interpretation of the phrase “home is where the heart is.” The first question a new arrival to Newark might ask is how did he meet those friends? Better yet how does love take root in a city like Newark?

I understand the love my old neighbor found in the city despite the visually provoked depression brought on by my travels back there. I grew up in a family that chose to move to Newark during the derisive 80’s. The decision was based on the thought that too many other communities were striving to be privileged while Newark was inescapably a microcosm of the world. Still racially diverse and segregated, impoverished and affluent, full of calm and crisis, historically rich and systematically underserved I think they were accurate. They knew what my neighbor learned: joy in the city exists not in the attractiveness of its market place but in the robustness of its people.

In the past two decades so many other cities, towns and villages have become atheistically identical. As a result finding relatable people in other cities may be as easy as getting cups of coffee with a recognizable “starbaucks” taste. In Newark, lover’s lane still has no street sign; yet, my experience has been that the human connections, development and life in general are that much more authentic.

bryan epps

To be, or, not to be: On being a “true” Newarker

What qualifications must one meet to be considered a “true” Newarker? Must one be born-and-bred-in-Newark? Should a person rent or own a place in Newark to be considered invested?  And, is there a term requirement (say, no less than 5 years) that one should adhere to before he or she is considered legit? Should a person be required to work IN Newark?

Since my arrival in Newark, I’ve seriously pondered these questions. When I meet folk, some are sure to note the fact that they were “born and raised” in Newark and others acknowledge that they are “lifelong” residents. To me, the responses that I usually receive in this regard signifies that one’s Newark-status is connected to one’s rootedness in Newark and the length of time s/he has lived in the city. It speaks to a people’s need for protection: protection from leeches who could care less about the city’s potential (unless it grows their pockets) and the city’s most precious resource, its people…protection against those who dismiss the particularities that characterize Newark as place (i.e. it’s social and political history, cultural productions, spirited legacy, etc)…protection against folk who show up with promises but leave having not fulfilled any of them. I get it.

As an adolescent living in (and, later, adult resident of) a city, like Newark, the sentiments of those shared by Newarkers are all too familiar. Camden, though it has its own particular issues and historical context, is a city, like Newark, that has a rich history and complicated present even while it maintains a bright future. For that reason, many Camden residents-including me-cautiously gazed upon any person from the “outside” moving in. I wanted to know what they wanted from us, from the city that we called “home” and others called “ghetto”. I wondered: what were they attempting to gain…what dollars were being made…what was in it for them…what would Camden residents lose? I pondered all of these questions and allowed my suspicions to guide my responses until I was challenged to reconsider my own stake in the city that I so vigorously sought to protect.

Case in point: During my final year at Seton Hall University, I sent resumes to nearly every company on the planet. My very modest resume, which touted a degree in social and behavioral sciences, made its way into the personnel departments (or trash bins in those departments) across the country. I wanted a good job, great pay and dope place to live. Not once did I, Mr. Concerned Life-long Citizen of Camden, consider heading back to South Jersey. Indeed, I wanted to do everything but. As it turned out, I did not receive any call backs from the many places I sought to work and ended up interviewing, with angst, for a non-paid, youth missionary position located where, you ask? In the place that I had been running from the entire time: Camden. I returned in my role as a disgruntled “urban youth missionary” serving middle-school aged youth in an afterschool program making a $30 a week living allowance.  I actually lived in a house three blocks away from my mother’s house–the house where I grew up–with 14 other people who hailed from other states and countries. During that experience, I discovered that my 14 housemates–non-lifelongers, strangers, perceived parasites–who moved to Camden to serve, for no pay, actually did so because of their commitment to the city and its people even while my commitment had begun to wane.

As I prepare myself for, yet, another stop on my life’s journey outside of Newark, I am harnessing the wisdom gained from my own experience. It is possible for one to be committed to and passionate about a place whether he or she resides in that city or not. It is equally possible that one can tout a life-long resident card and lack the commitment to and passion for a city that s/he claims. Personally, I am committed to the revitalization of urban spaces and the uplift of the people who live/work/pray/play within them. Such commitment remains and ties my personal mission to the broader social and economic justice platforms of the Camdens, Newarks, Trentons and Patersons of the world. It seems that we might all consider what it means to be “true” to Newark and “true” to ourselves in that process.

In community,

darnell

Martin Luther King Jr. – Where Do We Go From Here? by Richard Cammarieri

Although we have several months to go before we, once again, turn to the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a spirit of remembrance and celebration, we’ve decided to post this timely essay, penned by Richard Cammarieri, as a means of reflection on and critique of our times and those who attempt to hijack King’s vision of social justice. As we trek forward in Newark let us examine our ideologies and practices by way a rubric of justice, equity, uplift and harmony.

MLK at Southside High School (Malcolm X Shabazz)

Once again we are in the midst of another January filled with programs and celebrations that lay claim to honoring the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Unfortunately many – not all certainly – but far too many of these observances dishonor Dr. King’s memory by trying to transform his life into a kind of Hallmark Card with simpleminded platitudes about ‘brotherhood’ and ‘kindness’ or ‘compassion’. And while these things informed the essence of Dr. King’s mission (after all he did say “We must all live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools.”) it is morally wrong and historically wrong to reduce him to these vague virtues and ignore the concrete challenge with which he confronted our society.

His real legacy, the real action he took in life to challenge the profoundly ingrained elements of racism, of economic injustice for all people, of imperialism and militarism as practiced by the United States is corrupted by those who simply want to reduce him to a sanitized, safe symbol of ‘brotherhood’ and ‘kindness’; those who only want to refer to Dr. King’s “dream” as though he was just a dreamer and not, using his words a “drum major” for fundamental social change.

The fact is many of the people and institutions that claim to honor Dr. King today would have had nothing to do with him when he was alive. Many of the institutions honoring him would fail the scrutiny of his eye for social justice were he still alive. The fact is many of those pretending to honor Dr. King know little more about his critical social analysis than the slogan “I have a dream.”

For those people who seem to profit in more ways than one off of that slogan, I would ask if they have read the entire speech he gave that 28th day of August 1963? Did they understand the stinging indictment of American hypocrisy he put forth in the image of America having “defaulted” on the “promissory note” of equality promised by the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

Do people understand that Dr. King lived five long years after that speech? He made many other speeches that clearly outlined the social issues and solutions our society should have addressed. Have those people whose notion of Dr. King begins and ends with “I have a dream” even read any of his speeches, especially those written over the last years of his life and especially his last book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?

And if you think his tone did not change from 1963 to 1968 then just consider one example in two references to Abraham Lincoln. In the first paragraph of his  “I Have a Dream” speech he refers to Lincoln as “a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation.” Five years later in his last speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” given the night before he was murdered he refers to watching “a vacillating president by the name of Abraham Lincoln finally come to the conclusion that he had to sign the Emancipation Proclamation.”

There are many essential things Dr. King said that one probably will not hear at most Dr. King “lite” ceremonies. In ‘Beyond Vietnam’ a speech he gave on April 4, 1967 he talked about the need “to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history” and later states that “Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.” This kind of thing would have him branded un-American today and probably exposed to arrest under some Patriot Act clause.

He called for our nation to “undergo a radical revolution of values” that we must ‘shift from a thing-oriented society to a people oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” And later, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” This theme of racial injustice, economic exploitation through unregulated capitalism and militarism reflected his own axis of evil, a message he would return to consistently over the last year of his life.

In his speech “Where Do We Go from Here? On August 16th, 1967 he called for a national full employment policy. He called for a “guaranteed annual income” and provided an economic rationale to support it. He questioned capitalism. “Why are there forty million poor people in America? And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. I’m simply saying that more and more we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society.” And that “…the problem of racism the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.”

In “The Drum Major Instinct” on February 4th, 1968 he noted the interracial and class issues of economic exploitation. He talked about speaking with white wardens in the Birmingham jail who objected so strongly to civil rights and integration and intermarriage but when talk turned to the subject of money he said:

“And when those brothers (the white police) told me how much they were earning, I said, ‘Now you know what? You ought to be marching with us. You’re just as poor as Negroes.’ And I said, ‘You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people. And all you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white…”

He even raised the notion of reparations for Black people in  “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” on March 31, 1968. He takes on what is still a popular theme of neo-conservatives, including many Black neo-cons when he cites “…another myth that still gets around: it is the over reliance on the bootstrap philosophy.  There are those who still feel that if the Negro is to rise out of poverty … he must do it all by himself… must lift himself by his own bootstraps. They never stop to realize that no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil. The people who say this never stop to realize that the nation made the Black man’s color a stigma. But beyond this they never stop to realize the debt that they owe a people who were kept in slavery two-hundred and forty-four years.”

He then makes a very cogent economic argument comparing the lack of resources provided Black people freed from slavery with the economic subsidies provided European immigrants through land grants, training and loans.

In Dr. King’s final book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? he continues and expands upon many of these themes, especially economic justice. He notes the “need for a radical restructuring of American society…For the evils of racism, poverty and militarism to die a new set of values must be born.” He called for affirmative action in establishing proportional job set-asides. He called for a direct attack on poverty by providing a guaranteed annual income as noted in an earlier speech and called for government subsidies for businesses to employ people of limited training and education.

These are the words and ideas of Dr. King. These are the things that should be highlighted and discussed by those who say they want to honor him. We should read him and study him. We should teach our children about his ideas for social transformation and not just reduce his memory to a competition for ‘acts of kindness’.

We should truly honor his memory by making his ideals real today through our actions and work to confront and challenge that which is unjust in our society. Every aspect of our society from education, employment, housing, health, law enforcement, and criminal justice just to name some major areas, reflects in various measures that fact that racism, discrimination, economic exploitation and militarism still infects our society locally and nationally. And it is our charge as responsible, moral beings to help expose and cleanse these wounds whenever and however we can – protesting as best suits our convictions.

Reprinted by permission of the author.

About the author:

He was born, raised and remains a lifelong resident of Newark with a long family history in the city that began with the immigration of his maternal grandfather from Southern Italy in 1899. He has had extensive experience in Newark grassroots community organizing and neighborhood policy development.  He is a published poet and has had featured readings in Newark, surrounding towns and in various venues in New York City and he has served as the poetry editor for the Newark Arts Council Newsletter. He graduated from Rutgers University Newark with a Bachelors Degree in English.

Notable Newarker Interview #2: A Conversation with Diesa Seidel

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

I began volunteering for international service projects in 2004.  Through my experiences abroad, I was compelled to bridge the gap between domestic and international service work and in 2007 organized a ten day service project with a friend (who was a teacher in Newark). During the project, we created three professional peace mosaics (donated to recreation centers and WISOMMM on James St), worked with kids at the Boys & Girls Club on Avon Ave, cleaned trash off streets, and worked with the Newark Housing Authority. From that experience I started to build my professional network in the greater Newark area. In 2008, I incorporated United Initiatives for Peace (UIP) and started graduate school at Rutgers-Newark (MPA). I officially moved to Newark (Central Ward District) in 2009.

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

I was born in Toronto, Canada and spent most of my childhood in New York. As a first generation American and tri-citizen (Canada, France, USA), I have always valued the opportunity and freedom that America’s legacy stands on.  As a citizen and resident, being immersed in my global and local community brings a deeper sense of empowerment and responsibility into my life. And through this ownership, I believe a new paradigm for positive social change can be born.  Just as Newark is often unjustly highlighted and criticized for its crime and economic instability, it is equally unjustly overlooked for its innovative reconstructive programs and selfless residents who indulge themselves in services that cater to the greater good. People are what make the world what it is… and people are what make a city what it is. The question is: do we define ourselves by the worst within us, or the best?

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

Just one? Ok, I’ll go with running…the streets that is.  For the past several years I’ve been training for different endurance events as fundraisers to support UIP (triathlons, marathons, etc), and to keep myself motivated I started using a map to check off every block and every street that I’ve run through Newark until I ran them all. Twice! All 325 miles of Newark streets… twice! Every district, every neighborhood, every block, every street. People would often tell me that the streets are dangerous and I shouldn’t run them… But I believe that they are safer because I run them. Your fear is your perception.

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

Since 2008, UIP has hosted three “You Got Schooled” college scholarship girls basketball 3-on-3 tournaments in efforts to promote higher education, awarding over $26,000 to 39 girls from the greater Newark area. The financial and in-kind support from local Newark businesses and residents have shown me what great achievements can be done when people unite for a higher purpose. Aside from UIP, I love volunteering with other non-profits… the vision of United Initiatives is that of collaboration. So I make it a priority to make myself available to help with all kinds of events, programs, and community outreach in Newark.

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

I believe true sustainable change must come with spiritual conviction. We can create thousands of innovative programs, but unless they are coupled with an internal shift of perception, appreciation, and value for life, change will only be temporary.  The challenge is to create both. The challenge is to go beyond the statistics and “photo ops” and focus on the hearts and minds of the residents. When people feel joyful, they feel empowered, and it is through empowerment that we will rise to live our greatest life and leave our greatest fears to die.

Diesa Seidel is an activist for positive social change and Founding Director of United Initiatives for Peace (a 501c3 non-profit organization promoting higher education, creative recreational opportunities, and  grassroots social reform through female empowerment in communities worldwide). Visit http://www.unitedinitiatives.org/diesa.html

On Newark Public Libraries: From the mouths of 1 adult and 2 babes

This morning I decided to make a brief stop at City Hall in support of the Newark Public Library (NPL). With no fiscal relief in sight, Newark is poised to witness the closure of some branches and a decrease in operational hours at others. While I am no expert in municipal budgeting and am the first to admit that there’s much that I still don’t know about the severity of Newark’s budgetary woes, I am often alarmed when indispensable and critical services are sacrificed as a means of repair.

Newark is among many locales across the country where the budgets of public libraries are on the chopping block. Earlier this year the Boston Public Library closed 4 of its 26 branches, Los Angeles has critically reduced its hours of operations and Camden, New Jersey, was set to close its entire public library system before it was rescued by the county arm. In Newark, pundits may argue that reductions are consistent across all City of Newark departments and that NPL should proactively respond to cuts accordingly.  Yet, as a proponent of the NPL system in specific, and public libraries in general, I argue for an approach to budgeting that contextualizes reductions based on services rendered through various departments. In other words, should the administration force all departments to make reductions based on a fixed-percentage or should certain departments, based on services rendered, be asked to make provisional cuts set specifically for that department? I defer to the advice of fiscal experts in that regard…but, what I do know is this: I have personally benefited from the free internet access made available in public libraries…I have personally benefited from the access provided to books and other cataloged materials, including films and historical archives, made available in public libraries…research papers as a high school student were completed because of access to public libraries…resumes written as a college student and grad were completed because of access to public libraries…as a child growing up in Camden, NJ I found safety and enjoyment during out-of-school-time in the public library. Now, more than ever, our residents need the public library for some of the same reasons.

Ironically, as I was walked to work after spending a few moments in front of City Hall marveling at folk who had staged a 24-hour reading I walked by two young sisters. As I hurried by, an older woman who apparently had a relationship with them asked, “…Where are y’all going?”

“To the library,” they replied gleefully.

I walked pondering the irony and decided to stop to talk with them for a bit.  Check out the video.

Listening to the two young people gave me pause for reflection. Hope it does the same for you!

peace, darnell