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