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 ( 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.

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