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

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.

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