A Review of Manning Marable’s “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention”

Manning’s Invention, or, Malcolm’s Reinvention?

Manning Marable’s “Malcolm X” is an adroit craftsperson: an artisan who is skilled at undergoing perpetual “reinventions.” Marable’s thesis, in his now widely discussed and contested Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, is grounded in the proposition that “self-invention was an effective way for [Malcolm] to reach the most marginalized sectors of the black community giving justification to their hopes.” According to Marable, Malcolm’s travels (between his pasts and futures) and travails (to define his self and his politics) in a raced, classed, irreligious (read, anti-Islamic) and imperialist American (and, later, international) context were driven largely by his desire to engage in the process of relentless reinvention: a process of continual, purposeful becomings, not necessarily for himself, but for the “black community” that would eventually claim him as its “Prince.”

Marable’s biography, flowing from this idea, recreates the sometimes tragic, and, mostly gallant, life and death of a martyr who dies for a cause—for others—but also a radical (and complicated) freedom fighter who dies also to his “self” and volition. Malcolm, via Marable, is caricatured as a “social being”—only imagined within the context of his beingness-in-relation-to the larger societal context where there exists a need for a salvific protagonist of the burgeoning black radical tradition and villainous antithesis to the very ideas of the presumed democratic tradition of white racist (and liberalist) America. But, as Baldwin illumines when writing about Richard Wright’s Native Son in his essay “Many Thousand Gone”: “the reality of a man as a social being is not his only reality and that artist is strangled who is forced to deal with human beings solely in social terms” (emphasis added). Marable, who was committed to the task of a historian as opposed to fiction writer, develops a narrative that refuses to allow space for Malcolm X the “human being” who exists without the ostensible proclivity towards “self-reinventions” that benefit others while only tangentially benefiting the human actor himself.

One must, then, interrogate the argument that is weaved into the narrative arc that directs Marable’s historical analysis of Malcolm X the “social being.” If the argument goes that Malcolm’s life “narrative is a brilliant series of reinventions,” as Marable suggests, then it would follow that Malcolm Little/Detroit Red/Big Red/Malcolm X/Malik Shabazz/El-Hajj Malik Shabazz were merely iterations along a continuum of perpetual and purposeful becomings, which were driven by external forces only, rather than the living-into, or, rather, states of beings that emerge and re-emerge as a result of the contextual life spaces and experiences that propel any human being toward self-motivated (and sometimes unmethodical) change. The former is a sign of a tragic life while the latter opens up the possibility for life’s complex beauty.

So, was the life of Malcolm X one defined by reinventions (for the sake of everyone but himself) or was Malcolm X delimited by Marable’s drive to invent a Malcolm X whose propensity manifested towards such desires? And, did such a desire impact the Malcolm X that the reader is left to grapple with? Even if one is not sure of that answer, s/he should read Marable’s work with that question in mind or otherwise s/he might find him/herself guilty of submitting to a politicized historiography of a sociopolitical Malcolm X that fails to fully capture the human being who just happened to be, like all of us, social and political.

Bryan Epps on the NPS Advisory Board’s Vote on New School Options

Jeffries reacts to the states decision to supersede the school board’s vote. 
“I understand the district and state have decided to continue with the proposed new schools for the coming school year despite the board’s vote opposing them. 
I have been clear that I profoundly disagree with the board majority’s decision to oppose all of the new schools, as several of the new schools quite clearly would benefit our kids, and that standard — and that standard alone — should motivate all of the district’s decision-making.
It is also the case that I believe the vote of multiple board members was manipulated by external political brokers motivated by self-interest, rather than the best interests of our Newark children. However, self-determination is the essence of democracy, and state takeover — or at least the indefinite takeover Newark has experienced — is anti-democratic. I am a strong proponent of community-based education reform, which requires decision-making authority to rest with the parents and community of Newark. So, even though I deeply oppose the board majority’s decision to reject all of the schools, the remedy for bad decision-making by local officials is to convince them they are wrong or to elect replacements, not to have their decisions superseded by state actors.” Shavar Jeffries from his Press Release on April 9, 2011.

It’s the system… stupid 
Institutions that aspire to provide people with the right of education and equitable access to all the resources needed to obtain knowledge should consistently assess their impact.  With this said the Newark Public Schools (NPS) and its Advisory Board (AB) should use recent events as an opportunity for growth.  
NPS as a notional model for constructive community based involvement:
Newark can be described as a city of revolution. A place that enthusiastically participated in the nation’s struggle for independence, in the country’s economically based industrial revolution, in the world’s revolution to uplift the marginalized and reassign influence to the disempowered, etc. This is at least part of the city’s history and equally relevant its present landscape. It is my opinion that the school system and its leadership did not appropriate the needed level of regard to this fact during the process to develop premium choices for Newark parents and students. Newark should have one of the most developed systems for community input and democratically determined policy. However conflict regarding outreach and relationships persistently plague all sectors of the City.  The institution with the primary task to educate people can also be a center for which people educate and inform institutions. 
The AB has the opportunity to reassess its impact and engage underprivileged community members to ensure all parents and students have premium choices:
Shavar’s response above indicates the breakdown of a board and its chair (I know because I have experienced this first hand). A board chair should be the voice of unity for his/her board’s decisions not the voice of dissention. The recent vote of the AB is confusing and as a result it is not hard to understand why the State would overrule the vote of a board in frenzy. Shavar himself a lawyer by training, voted against two schools, one of them being a high school designed to encourage students to be civically engaged. Named after a murdered  lesbian identified Newark teenager the school is in keeping with the city’s history of revolution  and ensures safety for some young people who, though provided equal protection under the law due to their identity, still experience bullying and physical attack.  It is clear that the school board is out of touch with best practices and marginalized groups. The school board needs to evaluate its voice in the city.

bryan m-c epps

twitter: @policyepps

Is Newark heading in the direction of catastrophe or progress?

In response to Brad Parks’ article, “Laid off cops, a shattered economy, an $83 million deficit. Fear returns to the tragic city that is Newark,” which was recently published in the New York Post, COIN reached out to Newarkers and asked them to respond to the following:  Is Newark heading in the direction of catastrophe or progress?

Here’s what a few of our respondents had to say:

Fayemi Shakur:

To say Newark is on the brink of catastrophe is a terrible type of propaganda to promote. Giving into so much fear really underestimates the power we actually have. Newark residents aren’t scared, maybe in part because they don’t know how bad the budget really is but they can see the problems it’s causing. Still, when people whine about the economy we keep pushing on because most people in low-income communities have been making due with less for a long time.  Residents aren’t interested in all the political beef going on and I think we all recognize this is a time for meaningful, innovative collaboration. Contrary to public opinion, Newarkers are people who really participate in their city but they want to know their concerns are truly being addressed. We’ve had to sacrifice so much.  Personally, I don’t believe in lack but I do believe in love. There are always resources and creative solutions out there. We just have to find them or create them and we’re going to hold our leaders accountable. But we have to hold ourselves accountable too. Every single resident can be a leader and find a way to contribute to something, a community program, their child’s school, a shelter, something. The type of progress we can create actually makes me feel excited about the future. Otherwise, we’re just waiting to be saved by something or someone and we’ll be disappointed if we do that. I’m not worried though. Tough times are supposed to bring out our best. We just need to get inspired and figure out who we can work with.

Rev. Dr. M. William Howard, Jr.

Newark is in a very delicate predicament right now, and bankruptcy looms on the horizon, especially given the inability of the State to offer help.  Not only is only about 30% of the land taxable, but the housing stock has been dramatically depleted the past 40 years in ways that make replacing it nearly impossible, simply because the land is not available.  When you consider the level of foreclosures or near foreclosures the residents who are property owners face, as well as the threat of foreclosures property owners who rent to Newark residents also face, along with the dramatic shortfall in revenue already, the whole thing could come tumbling down.

In my chats with certain people in positions to know, there is no real clear plan to fix any of this for the long term; maybe even no realistic vision on how to proceed from here.  More than anything else, the residents need viable places of work in order to earn a solid income.  Arguably, a whole segment of the population would have difficulty competing for the kinds of jobs that might come along in the so-called 21st Century Economy.  It is well documented that over 60% of the jobs in the City are held by commuters, and the jobs that are held by City residents are among the lowest paying jobs, and the adult literacy rate is tragically low.  This will not change through rhetoric.  The great truth of Black and Brown political power all over America, and arguably in Africa and elsewhere, is that political power has not translated into economic power. Look at Zimbabwe today, and expect that it will be South Africa tomorrow.

We must have a thoughtful, vigilant, disciplined, not-so-vocal, long-term strategy on how to achieve and sustain economic standing if we are not going to forever be the marginalized, worker-consumer that we still are after all these years of struggle. I remain hopeful, but I also am sobered by what has to be done for this hope to become manifest.

With what its people have weathered especially since the decline of manufacturing and the flight of capital, beginning just after the Second World War, there is cause to believe Newark will be the phoenix it needs to be. Meanwhile, here we are in the now.

Rose Farias:

Newark’s true greatness is yet to be defined.

After reading Brad Parks’ article in the New York Post, for the most part, I agree with his overall assessment about Newark and find his perspective, considering that he doesn’t claim Newark as his home, to be insightful.  He incorporated the critical opinions of some heavy hitters such as Dr. Clement Price and Dr. Dan O’Flaherty, those whose opinion I respect and weigh greatly.  In his article he makes a poignant statement that, for me, hits the heart of the matter when it comes to Newark’s continuous struggle, “There was a far more psychological toll (from the riots)…Fear did more to undo Newark than any bullet could ever have”.

Newark as a community is divided and is unable to see the truth, the reality that we as a people are more powerful than we realize. We as a community must dispose of the illusion of separation, emptiness and abandonment.  The time for angry rhetoric is OVER! We have the right to be angry.  However, it is this very aspect that emotional hustlers seek to capitalize on.  They mystify the facts, or, perhaps they don’t know it themselves, so they utilize our voices to further their desires, all the while the needs of the community are never met.

Our destinies lie in each other’s hands.  This isn’t a black, white or brown issue.  It’s OUR issue. It’s NEWARK.  It is time for us to put our differences and agendas aside and do right by the citizens of Newark. We are all accountable because we all have a voice and are stakeholders who play a major part in the change of Newark. But this voice will not be heard and will be intentionally ignored if it doesn’t actively engage in things such as voting, assisting Municipal Council and Board of Education meetings, as well as play an active role in the discourse about change.  The way to empowerment is demanding information.  We must become informed and we must educate ourselves on the processes / systems from which all government functions.  Critical to this is also the participation of Newark’s true leaders, the “organic” leaders I like to call them, to step up to the plate.  Change is no longer a luxury, but a necessity and the opportunity presents itself to us now.

Newark is at the precipice of Greatness but let us not forget…that while greatness is what Newark must pursue…only greatness lives on the edge of destruction.

Stacie Newton:

For the first time in my life, I am very concerned about the future of my home, the City of Newark. We are in a period of time when most municipalities are learning to do more with less; however, what I do not understand is how is it possible that City’s leadership was fully aware of the growing deficit and chose not to act responsibly. Instead, they’ve acted desperately. The impact of an increase in the number of city employees (especially those who are Newark residents) who are newly employed is likely to have a serious impact on our community. All of these factors, increased unemployment, property tax increases will not do very much to stablize the economy of Newark. When times were “good” the city recieved numerous grants and financial incentives for various projects in the city. The city was even the focus of a national docu-drama hosted by a major cable channel that did not seem to generate much for Newark. Where are these supporters now during a time when the future of Newark is seemingly seriously threatened?  I think what is most offensive is to know that part of the City’s financial issues could be solved if we recovered the back-rent that is owed to the City from the Prudential Center (yet, the city still provides top tier police security for a team that hasn’t made good on its end of the bargain). What our city needs now is a serious plan that will guide the city toward prioritizing our needs and resolving its financial issues in a realistic but progressive fashion. What we dont need is an administration that overlooks logic and the type of commonsense that will advance Newark.

Deborah Jacobs,  Executive Director of the ACLU-NJ:

When Newark Mayor Cory Booker swept into office in 2006, we had great hope that his administration would stay true its campaign promises of maintaining an open, transparent government, improving the long troubled relationship between police and residents and boosting the free speech rights of Newarkers. Now in his second term, the mayor has taken steps in the right direction on some civil liberties, such as immigrant rights and the rights of gays and lesbians. For example, he has worked with community advocates to address tensions over day laborers in the Ironbound and he has spoken about the need to create a “safe space” in Newark for LBGT youth to congregate. No Newark mayor even acknowledged injustices facing the gay and lesbian community until Booker. But when it comes to other issues, such as reforming the police department, the situation is dire. The relationship between the police and residents has been fraught with tension for decades, with few signs of hope for change. Newark has failed to implement even the most basic accountability measures. This year the ACLU-NJ filed a petition asking for the U.S. Department of Justice to step in and monitor the Newark Police Department. The 96-page petition cited 407 complaints of serious misconduct. Instead of acknowledging the need for outside help, the mayor has denied the problems, and attempted to deflect and minimize the complaints of abused citizens, claiming that the allegations – which include false arrests, assaults and deaths in custody – are “frivolous.”  With severe budget woes, layoffs and a drastic spike in violence, the city’s problems are spiraling out of control and lack of police accountability only worsens the crisis. Having the Department of Justice monitor the police department will not resolve Newark’s problems over night, but it is a step in the right direction to protect citizens and avert lawlessness among our law enforcers.

A Guest Post by Rev. Bill Howard: On Newark Education

That there is robust discussion about public education in Newark is, in my view, a very good thing, and it would be unfortunate, no tragic, if this window of opportunity were missed to markedly change the poor quality of education that too many receive in Newark public schools.

There are differing opinions about what to do, but there is little, if any, disagreement about what the broad parameters of what a “good education” is.  Some say less dependence on standardized tests and and more emphasis on critical reasoning and writing skills. But by and large, there is more consensus than some may think.

Where disagreement may surface in the days ahead is in how the “good education” will be delivered.  Will it come through a massive closing of existing schools, replacing them with alternative charter schools, or will there be a genuine effort to infuse existing schools that are failing with proven best practices, in collaboration with the teacher’s union, as shown in the case of Brockton (Massachusetts) High School, and reported in the 9/27/10 edition of the New York Times? While I expect the current discussion of the content of education and school atmospherics is valuable, more focus should be upon the issue of structural delivery.  This is especially important because there is a well-organized, well-funded movement in favor of trashing the old structures and replacing them with something totally new.  Whether this latter approach is sustainable over the long term is yet to be proven.

Whatever is to work must be largely homegrown, built from the inside out, like all fundamental social change—with a very measured, cautious dose of what well-meaning folk not directly invested in the outcome have to offer.

Author: Rev. Dr. M. William Howard, Jr., Pastor, Bethany Baptist Church

Originally posted at http://revbillhoward.blogspot.com/2010/11/newark-schools.html

5 considerations by 2 writers: on collaboration in newark

Newark, not unlike other urban centers in our present moment, is in the midst of incessant change across many areas. However, education reform seems to be taking center stage. For example, some warn that the education reform agenda and community engagement initiative (PENewark) steered by Mayor Booker’s office will bring about a disastrous end, while others who support and applaud the efforts are fueled by the hope that a city-wide conversation will spark the construction of a world-class educational system in Newark. Indeed, there have been vitriolic disagreements between citizens…standoffs between organizers…finger pointing, blaming, debasing and public shaming all in the name of education reform. Visions are spoken of and strategies imagined, but how might they be actualized in the midst of snappish tension? Change is used as a rhetorical strategy, but how can change be made real unless the boundaries that turn friends into enemies are demolished? It seems, at least to us, that the ends (broader visions) often look the same (namely, the shaping of a stellar, cutting-edge public educational system in Newark that shapes every student into a globally-aware, socially responsible citizen of our tomorrow) but the means (the strategies) that Newark must engage such that our vision(s) can be actualized are often very different. Herein lies our issue: one can argue, quite persuasively for example, that a good reform strategy that may work, say, in New York City, might not be the best for, say, the South Ward of Newark. We get that! But, what are the rules of engagement that might make room for constructive collaboration, discussion and, even, debate that result in shared-work and vision? Moreover, how can we do the work of reform and activism with a shared sense of purpose, that is, a desire for the best for our youth, in ways that does not derail the aim of community-building and solidarity? Below, we offer five considerations that may useful guide posts for our journey.

1.  Know and name the “real” enemy. Too often we point the finger at the wrong people and not the institutions, ideologies, systems and particular leaders that support dangerous strategies. Each of us maintains a particular analysis, and even politic, regarding education reform. For example, charter schools may be seen by some as a neoliberal tool used to further privatization and others may see charter schools as experimental public school models that might serve as laboratories for testing innovative curriculum, pedagogical practices, extended day learning projects, etc.  If you believe charter schools to be more of a problem than a solution, it may be very easy to lump all charter school leaders or components into a singular category of “enemy” without regard for the particularities that shapes individuals’ commitments, politics or education philosophies. On the contrary, if you believe that all (or even most) traditional public schools in Newark fail our youth, it may be the case that you see traditional public school advocates as menaces as opposed to friends. Either way, the contentious stance maintained by both sides creates the opportunity for a certain (dis)solution of community rather than a space wherein all can come together, in a unified spirit of concern for our students, our youth. And, when that happens, we make ourselves the enemy of cooperation.

2. Transparency is our friend: Reform of public systems does not take root when practices include back door dealing, lack robust competitiveness and systems of accountability. In Newark, it can seem efficient to do business through the “traditional handshake”. Yet, projects desiring to create real transformation deserve the influence of method and due process. When business transactions have implications for the public-at-large, leaders must be proactive about 1) vetting potential ideas over a “significant” amount of time before stakeholders (both field experts and community members) 2) sharing the responsibility of implementation (i.e. the person with the idea need not solely control the resources or execution plan) 3) developing a system of accountability that is shared with the public (let the public know how you target goals, empower the public with tools to track/monitor evolution of projects and share conclusions to help provide lessons for  the future).

3. Realize that “parents” don’t always know best and that the “children” too have voices. Often, community members can be heard referring to the “elders” in our community or can be heard making references to “up and coming”, “emerging”, “new”, and “young” leaders.  And, we should note: there are lots to learn from the wise…from those with an array of life experiences…from our elders! But, it is also the case that one’s status as an elder should not predicate the ignoring of the voices of the “young”. In addition, if we are use to the same rhetorical line of thinking, might it also be said that parents can also be wrong? Now, is it the responsibility of emerging (or new?) leaders to attend to the advice of those who have come before? Yes! Emerging leaders should ensure that our elders are at various tables, if nothing else, and to ensure that they are sought out for their advice. The moment, however, when relationships are wrongly ordered based on ideas like “the young should listen while the elders talk” or “elders should move out of the way and allow the young to exercise their autonomy” is the moment when barriers are built that prevent collaboration. The best collaboration is fashioned when the table is set for equals and not hierarchized.

4. Defamation won’t get us to the destination.  Let’s get right to the point: disagreeing with a person because of his/her positions is one thing, purposefully destroying the character of that same person is another. It is possible that folk can disagree without having to malign another, without having to smirk at another’s seeming downfall, without having to participate in the public shaming of another…to wish the worse for another. Social change requires a certain change in the change agent…that change typically tends toward justice and not the reverse.

5.  History is our best teacher. What didn’t you like about leaders from the past? What don’t you like about your peers? …don’t do those things, don’t be that person!  Create an environment that includes people and written policies that regulate your actions and the dealings of people on your team.

darnell moore and bryan epps

A World AIDS Day Speech: A Celebration of Life

T, one of my closest friends during my teenage and college years: a young man that was esteemed by so many, a passionate friend with a heart and smile that was mesmerizing, a jokester, a confidant, a loving brother, a responsible son, a compassionate and gentle lover, an angel…passed on much too early–and too the dismay of many of those that loved him, passed on from this earth with a life shrouded in shock, secrecy and shame.

I missed his going-home service, but discovered that no one was daring and devoted enough to name the disease that complicated his illness and wreaked havoc on his striking, but fragile, body.

His choice of “lifestyle” un-named.

His wrestle with HIV-related illness, un-named.

His ability, strength and witness to a life worth living, even while having to face the fear of public and private humiliation, un-named.

The fact that he shut the world out because of their fierce judgments, un-named.

T, a brilliant, beautiful, bountiful, blissful Black man whose life, humor, generosity, and candor touched the lives of everyone he came into contact with, passed on without having the full story of his life told. T, and many others who are infected with/or affected by HIV/AIDS–should not have to exist in the memories of family and friends un-named because of one’s inability to see beyond the negativity that is too often attached to HIV and AIDS. Thus, I am here to proclaim loudly, in solidarity with all of you, that we can still celebrate life even in the midst of seeming despair.

I know that it seems paradoxical to laugh when a situation may call for tears, to jump up and down in an excitable fervor when the time calls for a solemn embrace, to shout out a heart-felt word of thanks even though the moment may warrant silence; however, we are living during a particular space in time that requires us to be paradoxical, to see light even in the midst of darkness, to laugh when we should be crying, simply, to break the rules that have governed our responses to HIV/AIDS for far too long.

I am not arguing for us to be ignorant to the grim realities that we are faced with right now as it relates to HIV/AIDS and its local, regional and global impact, no. We can not ignore the disturbing fact that among the five (5) counties in the Newark Eligible Metropolitan Area [EMA], Essex County is grossly impacted by HIV/AIDS. We can not be happy that the city of Newark is home to the largest number of people living with HIV/AIDS [PLWHA] in the EMA. We can not jump up and rejoice because of the fact that women in general, African-Americans specifically, infants, children and men-who have sex with men, are populations that are disproportionately affected by HIV. No!

These facts are and should be alarming to all elected officials, public officers, corporations, small businesses, schools, hospitals, community leaders, adults, children, mothers, fathers, gay, bi, straight, black, white, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, rich or poor…everyone in our city, everyone in our county, everyone in our region, everyone in our country…everyone in the world. Yet, like any other epidemic of this proportion that has ravaged the lives of the most marginalized in our communities we can not allow IT to overcome our tenacity, our strength or our ability as human beings to transcend the desperation and sadness that cloaks even the mention of HIV or AIDS. We can’t! And, we won’t!

Far too many of us are gripped by fear because of HIV/AIDS.
We won’t get tested because of fear.
We won’t tell our status to those whom it directly affects because of fear.
We won’t tell our closest friends about the plight of our infected and affected partners, family members, or friends because of fear.
We won’t sip off of the cup of that person we know is infected because of fear.

HIV/AIDS: it should not be named, we think.
HIV/AIDS: it is a disgraceful disease, we think.
HIV/AIDS: it’s God’s punishment for sinful behavior, we think.

But I am here to advance the argument that as long as we continue to give power to fear, negativity and shame…as long as we allow HIV/AIDS, and those infected with and affected by HIV/AIDS to be pathologized, we will have no reason for celebration. Therefore, if we are to take back our lives, our witness, our communities and our bodies, we must first de-pathologize the epidemic and testify to the realistic dimensions of its impact while at the same time humanizing our fight, our human struggle against it.

But that still doesn’t respond to the difficulty of celebrating when many think that we should be looming in despair. It doesn’t respond to the real questions that plaque the minds of those who daily face HIV/AIDS: Like, How do you expect me to celebrate what some see as an impending death wish? How can I dance when my body still wants to rest? How is it even possible for me to speak about my plight against a disease so demonized?

These questions are real. They are piercing and hint at the reality of what it is like to live under the label of HIV positive. But I am reminded of the ability of the human spirit and the human body to rise above despair. The ability of the human body to still produce a smile even when one is fighting back a tear. The ability of the human spirit to rejuvenate itself even after the most difficult of tragedies. The ability of the human body to resist pain and atrophy even after being told that it is being warred against by venomous viruses. The ability of the human spirit to stand up and rejoice even when the world that it resides in appears to be dressed in gloom and desperation.

Several years ago, I boarded a plane in route to California. I can remember the day like it was yesterday. The sky was a dark and a gloomy grey, a hard rainfall was pouring wetting everything in its path…I entered my plane with sullen, worried and teary eyes…I was crying on the inside and shedding tears on the outside. Life seemed to be at its worst! I felt alone. I felt depressed. I felt as if there was no need to live on. I watched the wing of the plane shift and glide through the wind gust as we took flight…I watched the rain batter the wings…I could see the lightning flashing across the sky…more tears and more pain. As we elevated I sensed a shift in the atmosphere. The rain was slowing down…and the grey was rapidly disappearing. I was still hiding my tears until finally we flew so high above the clouds that the sun was shining as boldly and beautifully as ever. It was almost as if the universe was sending me a message…encouraging me that as long that I could live long enough to see what stood on the opposite side of the gloomy clouds I would have reason enough to live on and rejoice. My tears ceased…my hands dried, I took a deep breathe, and I rejoiced.

In the same way, the world would have us to think that we exist only in the dimension of gloom…in the grey, but I would like to encourage you to stick your head up above the cloud so that you too can see the sun shining bright! I ended landing in California and, yes, it was still cloudy, but I had already seen the sun and therefore still had reason to rejoice. We may not be able to wish away the alarming statistics or the harsh realities associated with HIV/AIDS but we can change the way we view our selves in the midst of it.

It is possible for us to celebrate life, yes, even if it’s in the midst of disparity.

-darnell m.

my challenge: what can i/we do for others in need

I received an email yesterday from a friend regarding the death of, yet, another beautiful soul, Mosey Alexander. I didn’t know Mosey; yet, my heart was/is torn.

I am feeling challenged today because it is clear to me that beyond my/our need to truly dig into and deconstruct my/our understandings of suicidality among LGBT youth (and adults)…beyond my/our desire to call out the systems, the ideologies, the theologies, the state practices/regulations and the isms that oft serve as the invisible hands that kill others…beyond my/our need to pontificate and debate, march and testify in this moment…I am left to consider what it is that I/we are possibly being called to interrogate?

I can recall the moments in my own life when I considered suicide and made actual attempts to take my life. In retrospect, it was in those moments when I felt as if I had been wading through violent waves and my cries for help, as silently-loud as they may have been, had often gone unheard. I remember calling friends and literally fumbling over words as I asked for help. Is it that friends were unable to read my cries for “help” when they were coded by statements like: “I don’t know. It has been really hard for me to get pass this heaviness” or “Sometimes, I just want to end it all” or “Yeah, I know it will get better, but when?” or “I can’t take it anymore”? I actually remember sleeping through the most beautiful and sunny of days on a bustling college campus only to wake up at night–after having missed classes, crying and hiding under my blankets, while situated in a dark room where the sun was blocked out by curtains–to walk and talk with others, while in pain, and, yet,  feel alone the whole time.

But, what is my point? I think that we are being presented with opportunities to intervene in the life of another. Indeed, we have to consider the big system issues (i.e. intersectional structures of oppression, state practices/laws, media affects, theologies etc.) that weigh down on folk, but we must also consider the mundane practices (i.e. they ways in which we relate to family members, friends, and strangers; our presences-or lack thereof-in the lives of those in need; our willingness to listen when others speak; our desire to help when others cry out for our help; our responses-and our responsibility-to say and do something when others may hint at suicidal ideation, etc.)  that order, or dis-orders, our lives daily. In other words, we actually have a responsibility to ensure that we live lives that don’t feed into the systems that we critique as oppressive.

It’s quite basic, what I/we can do:

1). Stop hating! Literally…I am challenging myself to think and utter positive things about other people. We kill with our words and our actions…conversely, we can also give life with our words and our actions. I have to cease the jokes that hurt others…I have to cease the eye rolling, the harmful gesturing, the ignoring, the hubris, the stuff that marks others.

2). Be present! I am challenging myself to not only be by the side of others (beyond moments when they are in need) but to be PRESENT: attending to the spoken and unspoken cues; putting my phone down when we are together-this is difficult for me; empathizing with their situations; answering the phone when others reach out when, in fact, they may be calling out of need (I’ve been there. I’ve called friends many-a-time in pain only to speak to voicemails. I am also guilty of not answering calls when others needed me). Essentially, I am challenging myself to practice what it means to be human, that is, what it means to be a relational being.

3). Take care of SELF! I am challenging myself to get in touch with my own “stuff”…my desires, my ideologies, my prejudices, my dislikes, my joys, my pains, my ish, the negative energy that I might disperse, my vulnerabilities…Not doing so prevents me from being present and possibly perpetuates the kinds of negative energy that harms others. Even more, when I am in touch with self I am better able to be in touch with others.

In sum, our activism doesn’t have to wait. Change, does not have to be imagined as something forward.  It starts with us…now! It begins with me/us answering: Who will I love today? Who will I help? Who will I hug? Listen to? Attend to? Whose tears will I wipe? Who needs a smile? Who needs food? What can I do to make someone else’s cloudy day full of light?

all love…darnell

Creating Space to do the Heavy Lifting: The Potential of Autonomy within the Newark Global Village School Zone

Every day in Newark Public Schools (NPS) hardworking, committed, and knowledgeable people are engaged in the arduous work of transforming schools.   They are principals, teachers, parents, students, and community partners.  Yet, in the flash of press cameras, front-page national headlines, charismatic leaders, and unprecedented private gifts, the work being done as seven public schools join together to dismantle the underperformance shared by their schools is easily forgotten.  Layer on a climate of reform that glamorizes the kind of top-down control that prohibits the collaborative efforts required to transform public schools (or any organization for that matter), this work may even seem obsolete.

However, on a flawless October afternoon a few principals from these seven hardworking schools sit together excitedly recounting how their teachers returned from a professional development day not only brimming over with instructional strategies they believed would improve their teaching, but also convinced they needed time during the school day to observe and learn from each other.  In their conversation, it is quite evident that what has started to take place in these schools is far from immaterial.  It is, in fact, the work that in the long-run matters the most to changing schools.

Supporting the implementation of the very collaborative and deep localized professional learning discussed by the principals are two Memorandums of Understanding (MOU). An MOU is a legal document that creates formal agreements between two or more parties.   The first MOU is an agreement between Newark Public Schools (NPS) and the seven schools in the heart of Newark’s Central Ward that formally joins these schools as the Newark Global Village School Zone (NGVSZ) and grants the NGVSZ schools autonomy from district policies and procedures in numerous areas.  The second MOU is between NPS and the Newark Teachers’ Union (NTU) and establishes modifications to the collective bargaining agreement including among other things compensation for extended-learning time, teacher transfers, and professional development.  These MOUs are the framework through which the NGVSZ will transform the conditions, expectations, and accountability for public education in the Central Ward.

As is the work of any legal agreement, the MOUs are technical articulations of the roles and responsibilities of the NGVSZ schools and their relationship to the school district and teachers.  However, the roles and responsibilities articulated in the NGVSZ MOUs are directly tied to best practices in core aspects of school organization, teaching and learning, community engagement, assessment, governance, and accountability—all of which are widely held levers for creating excellent schools.

While it’s true that much of what is laid out in the MOUs has been done—for example, school based decision making, local governance, and extended-day—what chomps at the bit of change are three things. First, is the acknowledgement that to build sustainable change these aspects of schooling must be transformed in concert; change must occur across every domain of the educational process simultaneously. Second, is the recognition that to have meaningful impacts on the opportunities and outcomes experienced by students, transformation must occur at every point on the developmental pipeline along which children travel; resources must be mobilized to address every aspect of children’s lives. Lastly, is the belief that sustainable change requires those most impacted by the problems that exist in schools and communities are an integral part of identifying problems and creating their solutions; organizing parents, teachers, students, and leaders to produce critical analyses of problems leads to transformational solutions.

At a time when the public debate about how to solve the problems of public education is locked into caricatures of superheroes and villains and dichotomies between the “status quo” and “real innovation,” the NGVSZ MOUs concretize a vision of what it takes to do the work everyone is talking about.  When Newark Public School Superintendent, Dr. Clifford Janey, charted the path of the NGVSZ schools in this direction, he drew on a long history of experiences that had shown him over time how public schools could use autonomy to achieve greatness while remaining part of a larger school system.  For example in Boston, where Dr. Janey was previously superintendent, a network of autonomous schools called the Boston Pilot Schools have lower retention rates than other Boston Public Schools, and higher test scores and higher college persistence rates for their graduates.  But, students in the Boston Pilot Schools are not just scoring higher.  They are scoring a lot higher.    In fourth grade—just to pick a grade—the proportion of students scoring advanced proficient on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) was 59% in ELA and 76% in math.  The framework through which the Boston Pilot Schools Network was able to utilize autonomy to achieve this success while remaining a part of Boston Public Schools was made possible through the collective efforts of the superintendent, the mayor, the teachers union, and the school committee in a school district under Mayoral control.

When the MOUs for NGVSZ were crafted, the principals of the seven schools went directly to the Boston Pilot Schools’ model for a blueprint of what needed to be in place to support this kind of student success within the zone, and within NPS.  What they encountered were policies, structures, and practices that had created the flexibility called for at the school-level to organize schools, staffing, and curricula in ways that best meet the needs of the students in each school.  This autonomy allowed the Boston Pilot Schools to differentiate their practices to support the specific strengths and needs of their school communities.  With a well-documented and scientifically evaluated model to guide the direction of their vision, the NGVSZ principals incorporated the following policies from the Boston Pilot School model into the NGVSZ MOUs:

  • Waiving of rules and policies that are not specifically applied to NGVSZ or that are necessary for compliance with state/federal laws or applicable collective bargaining agreements.
  • The flexibility to plan, design, and implement curricula and assessment developed by teams of classroom teachers, Department Chairs, coaches and other relevant professional and to work in collaboration with university partners with expertise in these areas.
  • The option to extend the school day for all instructional personnel or stagger the schedules of all instructional personnel according to the work hours required by the current collective bargaining agreement.
  • Authority as to allocation and expenditure of site-based per-pupil allocations, including Title I funding and grant funds, consistent with regulations of the state of New Jersey.
  • Collaboration between NGVSZ and NPS in the hiring of principals and development of a process for selecting and assessing teachers and paraprofessional.

Some will say what worked in Boston will not work in Newark.  Others will argue that when something has been proven to dramatically transform schools it should be tried in other places.  In my experience, both perspectives are correct.  Of course, very few things can be replicated in exactly the same way in new contexts where they are influenced by entirely different sets of relationships, histories, politics, cultures, and events.  However, that does not mean a good idea should not be considered because it took root some place else first.  It does mean, that a critical part of replication is understanding the particular local context and assessing how this context maps onto a “good idea” or a scientifically proven program or a best practice.

I might suggest that creating a zone among a feeder pattern of NPS schools is just one way in which the local context played out in determining how to move autonomy within a network of schools forward as a best practice in NPS.  Another example of how local context is extremely relevant to NGVSZ is in the extensive work that goes into building support across many layers of stakeholders in Newark.  While the Boston Pilot School network was developed out of partnership among Boston’s mayor, the superintendent, and teachers union, in Newark building the collaboration where stakeholders from every level hold NGVSZ and NPS accountable for meeting the terms of the MOU is an essential underpinning of the work.

At the heart of autonomy are vision and accountability.  When the teachers mentioned earlier in this post returned from their professional development session they were not only invigorated by a vision of what their practice could look like, they were inspired to open their classrooms, thereby establishing a level of public and collective accountability that by most accounts did not exist before.  Supporting this energy requires that principals and the schools they lead can deliver what these teachers need to reach the pedagogical expertise they envision and to ensure that accountability becomes an authentic tool for driving meaningful teaching and learning.  Research shows that this depth of responsiveness requires the kind of attention to school-level needs—the local—that the vision of autonomous schools set in motion by Dr. Janey and articulated in the NGVSZ MOUs call for.

The state of public education is at a new high in the public imagination.  While public schools may be the “sexy” reform agenda of the moment, our children and communities have been calling for the best education possible for much longer than the public memory will allow.  NGVSZ has created the scaffolding through which it can bring everyone’s focus in on the work of building great schools that are responsive to students and communities they serve. There are, of course, bumps in the road, fit and starts if you will.  However, the true vision of NGVSZ resides in what can happen when those who work directly in schools and classrooms have the opportunity to respond to the learning and other needs they see their students and colleagues struggle with everyday.  For those who doubt that the majority of teachers and principals we already have can do the heavy lifting or make the professional choices that this change demands all you have to do is look to Boston for strong evidence that autonomy yields achievement.

Lauren Wells, Ph.D.


The Broader Bolder Approach to Education

Metropolitan Center for Urban Education

Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Development

New York University





The Trouble with Intellectuals and the Culture of Poverty

by fayemi shakur

As a young person, being identified as an intellectual always made me cringe. In elementary school, I loved it because it seemed to make me special in some way. By the time I reached high school, I seriously disliked the association and rejected opportunities to attend a school for the academically gifted. Even in college I gravitated more to community meetings than classrooms. Back then I couldn’t articulate why the academic intellectual label rubbed me the wrong way. It’s a good thing to be a person who thinks. However, intellectuals go too far sometimes and yet not far enough. I am cautious and mindful of the way intellectuals share their gifts and how much authority and influence they are given to define people and places.

My brilliant friend and cultural anthropologist, Dr. Aimee Cox, shared a recent New York Times article about the culture of poverty making a comeback among scholars. It reminded me all over again why some intellectuals and intellectualism still rubs me the wrong way.

The article shares “new” studies that are surfacing about the culture of poverty. For those who remember or studied the Moynihan Report of 1965 similar studies were used back then to influence policy in ways that negatively impacted impoverished communities. So this resurgence of scholarship on culture makes me stop dead in my tracks.

Why? The article acknowledges that the topic generates much interest on Capitol Hill because so much of the research intersects with policy debates.

Then I read this:

To Robert J. Sampson, a sociologist at Harvard, culture is best understood as “shared understandings.”

“I study inequality, and the dominant focus is on structures of poverty,” he said. But he added that the reason a neighborhood turns into a “poverty trap” is also related to a common perception of the way people in a community act and think. When people see graffiti and garbage, do they find it acceptable or see serious disorder? Do they respect the legal system or have a high level of “moral cynicism,” believing that “laws were made to be broken”?

Researching levels of moral cynicism and disorder, Sampson did a tired and lame study dropping stamped envelopes around a housing project to see who would mail it back as a sign of caring about members of their community. Is he serious? That’s what he’s using to judge whether or not these communities look after each other? And he teaches at Harvard?

Next the article mentions a favorite topic: why low-income women are unmarried. The findings report these women noted potential partners are not “marriage material”. Simplistic, trite findings like this don’t give me much faith in what these studies will report. It should be common knowledge that marriage rates in low-income communities are low due to the high numbers of men who are incarcerated and under the probation system and therefore unavailable. Some women are also rejecting and reconsidering marriage altogether for an array of reasons. The research doesn’t go far enough. It still sounds like making judgments based on values.

I get seriously territorial and protective when I hear things like this. I want to know who is doing the studying, how is it begin done, why is it being done and how it will be used.

Forget the conversation about values and morals. We know the answers already but nobody’s listening. Crime is connected to joblessness. Duh.

Morality? No, how about a discussion about spirituality, overall health and the impact the lack of quality supermarkets and high concentration of fast food restaurants has on low-income communities? Or what about how media programming influences young people?

Education? I can’t. I’ll be here all day. All types of excuses are used to explain why our children are left at a disadvantage, underprepared for their futures, and guaranteed a continued cycle of poverty –and how we, not government must fix it. It’s a sad truth but then where’s the accountability. It’s just not the same in places like Montclair, NJ and don’t tell me it’s because the parents are more involved. I’ve seen them, most of them just drop their kids off at school like most people do.

Attempting to explain why or how neighborhoods become “poverty traps”, blaming a “culture of poverty” or “shared understandings” sounds dangerously close to blaming the victim. I don’t support the idea of victimization. I’m glad some social scientists are willing to examine sustained racism and economic factors that create the isolation and “culture” in the first place. But, the fact that these studies are being reignited at all tells me that low-income communities are under the microscope again and policy related decisions will soon follow.

The only point that matters to me is: these challenges low-income communities face are honestly too big to expect individuals to be able to overcome on their own. The pull your self up by the bootstraps philosophy may have worked for some, but that type of individualistic thinking rarely helps the collective. Some people need more support than that and we should care more.

Thank goodness there are some intellectuals who really get it. Be an intellectual by all means, but be an intellectual that affects policy with a clear understanding of the people’s needs, rather than an elitist or simplistic perspective.

It’s always fascinating to me that some elitist intellectuals hold so much value but because of their own conceit they don’t know how to best use their influence to help others. Some just don’t care to think about it in that way.

In 2004, I had an opportunity to help organize and produce the National Hip-Hop Political Convention. There I met hundreds of grassroots activists from all over the country doing incredible work. No one waited or cared about the results of any study to roll their sleeves up and get involved in affecting real change. From prisoner rights groups to reproductive health activists, these young people were on it and truly involved in the communities some people only talk about it. Why not work with them and frame new perspectives and solutions? Some scholars actually do this and believe in the value of collaboration over mere research.

One amazing woman I met briefly was Adrienne Brown, an activist from Detroit and current Director of the Ruckus Society and a National Coordinator of the 2010 US Social Forum. Reflecting on a short story by Ursula K. Lee entitled “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, Adrienne recently wrote an analysis of Lee’s work. Her words stay with me. She says “we must transform ourselves to transform the world. We have a moral imperative to reject happiness or luxury that relies on the systemic dehumanization of another – even if we don’t know what the alternative might be. We have to be willing to confront and walk away from systems founded in inequality…and we need to evolve our community organizing practices to be collaborative, not competitive.”

Is the academic community ready for that? Should policy decisions be made based on intellectual pap? I know lots of brilliant people who can do this effectively. If the academic community seeks to define our communities it should be done by intellectuals who inspire, support and create solution oriented action in a forward direction. And they need to really think out of the box. We don’t need Moynihan revisited – at all.

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.