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Newark Mayor Ras Baraka

Photo by Daryl Stone

Newark Mayor

Ras Baraka

Newark Press Office

At one time or another, we have all said “yes” to a job offer everyone else thought we were crazy to even consider. Ras Baraka actually ran for his and, against formidable odds, won. His term as Newark’s mayor is now just over 100 days old, yet it is hardly in its infancy. A lifelong Newarker, he has in many respects been groomed for this particular job, at this particular time, his entire life. He is the son of the late Amiri Baraka a lightning-rod writer and poet praised for his insights (and also criticized for his viewpoints), whose words are literally etched in stone alongside those of Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams across the river in Penn Station. Needless to say, Newark’s future mayor grew up in a home in which the status quo was consistently challenged and where he was surrounded by thought-provoking people who embraced a culture of change, As a student at Howard University—and later as an educator and administrator in Newark’s school system—Baraka experienced the rewards and challenges of leadership, and saw firsthand the impact of potential realized and potential squandered. Perhaps that explains why he is quick to acknowledge the enormity of the task before him, yet at the same time is energized by the promise of the city and its people. Political writer Zack Burgess, a contemporary of the mayor’s at Howard, grabbed 20 precious minutes with him in Symphony Hall on a rainy Saturday.

Newark Press Office

Radius: How would you say that Newark compares to similar cities in America in terms of pure potential?

Baraka: : I think Newark compares well. We have extreme resources that these other cities don’t have. We have an international airport. We have the third-largest seaport in the nation, with the second-highest volume. When they raise the Bayonne Bridge, that’s going to be a game changer for this area. The airport is constantly expanding. We have six major institutes of learning here. We’re a transportation hub. We already have the technological fiber under our ground to make Newark a “smart” city and we’re adding more.

Radius: Every big-city mayor believes he can be a game-changer when he takes office. What part of the game are you determined to change?

Baraka: : Our relationship to power and the people’s ability to determine their own destiny. With all of the things I mentioned, we should be able to use those advantages to benefit the citizens of this city. That’s the road that we want to march upon.

Photo by Daryl Stone

Radius: And does that start with education?

Baraka: : It does. We must leverage these resources to benefit our children so they can get a quality education—no matter what school they attend—to make sure that their buildings are up to par, that their teachers are solidly trained, so we offer after-school programming, so we can start teaching our babies as early as three years old. All of these things are possible here in Newark. We should not have a deficit. We should not be in this level of poverty. And we should have housing for the majority of people in the city. We have the space, the resources, to make these things happen. We just have not had the will or the organizational competency to do so. So that’s what we are going to do. We’re going to organize and unify not just the people, but the institutions in this city to understand why they are here, and to understand that they are a part of our community.

Radius: What are some of the plans you hope to put in place as Newark approaches its 350th birthday in 2016?

Baraka: : We’re going to start a campaign next year to transform and rebrand our city. That includes all of our people, the corporate community, the education community, the business community, small businesses, working people, people that have been here 40, 50 years, immigrants that just came here 10 years ago—the surrounding suburbs—this is what we’re going to do to show the country and the world the real Newark. By 2016, I want to change people’s perceptions and ideas about what Newark is and what Newark can become. We want to put more people on the street, create greater walking traffic downtown. We want to connect the colleges with the central district in Newark, from Ferry Street to the Ironbound. And I want people in a neighborhood to know the city’s plans. Somebody on Clinton Avenue should be able to tell you what the plans are for the city. I want people to be able to articulate the city’s vision, from the barbershop to the boardroom.

Radius: How important is it for Newark to convince people in the surrounding communities to feel like it’s “their city”—for entertainment, food, sports and culture—as opposed to, say, New York?

Newark Press Office

Baraka: : It already is their city. Many of these people are from Newark. Many of the people who live in surrounding communities, their families came to Newark. Newark is a port city. So most immigrants in this area came through the port of Newark. We had a huge Irish community. A huge Jewish community. Italian community. German community. They were all here in Newark. Their families go back 60, 70 or more years in this town. A lot of their businesses still remain. Now Newark is coming back. It is the transportation hub for this area. With the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and the Prudential Center, it is a sports and entertainment center. We have a nationally renowned museum and library. This is the center of the state of New Jersey. People need to reinvest in Newark and watch it become the place that the world wants it to be.

Radius: Is that something that is at least partially accomplished by encouraging businesses to open and succeed in the city?

Newark Press Office

Baraka: : That’s already happening. Panasonic is back here. Prudential is building new towers. More businesses will follow their lead and move into Newark. Also, the country is trending back to the cities, when before it was trending to the suburbs. It starts with young people who want to be close to the trains, to public transportation, to the airport. All of that is in the city of Newark, right? Plus, the real estate market here is not saturated. So the cost of development is not as high as it is in Jersey City or downtown Manhattan. And the investment opportunities are here. Our waterfront is still raw and needs to be developed. Our downtown community is in its infancy. And we’re also about to invest heavily in our technological infrastructure. Soon the people who live and work here are going to have some of the fastest Internet speeds in the nation. And thanks to our infrastructure, we’re going to be able to offer a blank canvas to experiment here with development and technological ideas.

Radius: Safety is always an issue with people coming into the city. How do you address this issue in a way that translates into meaningful change?

Baraka: : We have an aggressive police hiring plan in place. We’ve put 70 percent of our force on the streets. We’re doing innovative things like community walks, and encouraging people to do call-ins, focusing most of our deterrence on the violent offenders in society. We also are focusing on providing more social services for people to steer them in another direction. And we’re developing a one-stop social services resource for individuals who are re-entering society, because based on our research, 96 percent of the people that we arrest are going to find their way back to the city—which means we have to do something to make sure they don’t return to jail or involve themselves in a life of crime and become a problem for our community. We have to make sure they have housing, that they have the skills to market themselves so that they can get jobs. We have to encourage businesses to hire them. Or encourage them to develop their own businesses. That’s extremely important. And we’re going to make skills like financial literacy components of our one-stop reentry program.

With LL Cool J/ Newark Press Office

Radius: Is reducing crime part of the rebranding you’re planning?

Baraka: : It’s a huge part. When you rebrand a city, you get more investment, you get more people on the ground, you get more people believing in the city and putting money into the city. That, by and large, helps people to have a change of heart about the city, which in turn leads to people’s perception of the city as a place for opportunity and investment. I don’t know if people see that. Think about Chicago. It has 400, 500 murders a year, but it doesn’t stop people from going to the food festival, right? New Orleans is probably one of the most impoverished cities in the country, with high crime, but it doesn’t stop people from going to Mardi Gras. The stigma surrounding Newark, that it has more gangs or violent crime than any other city, it’s just simply not the facts. Projects like Radius, which help us correct these perceptions, are a good thing.

Radius: When you talk about the future of Newark, you’re also talking about the potential of the city’s young people. As a former principal in the public school system, you know them as well as anyone. What are some of the positives about the city’s young people that outsiders might overlook?

Baraka: : Young people in this town are very creative and innovative and have a perseverance that I haven’t seen in many places. That’s because they deal with a lot of issues and they feel like, if they can overcome the types of things they are dealing with in the city of Newark, they have the idea that they can do almost anything: “I made it here on Clinton Avenue, I can do it anywhere in the world.” When they are given the right information and the right guidance, a lot of these kids are unstoppable. The other day I was at a debate academy. Newark has a very robust debate culture, and one of our young ladies is the only African American on the United States National Debate Team. This kind of commitment to whatever endeavor that they choose to take on—I’ve seen it in so many of these kids.

Radius: Are they having an impact on the school situation in Newark?

Baraka: : They are. Even with this issue of the state takeover of the schools and with the whole charter movement that’s going on, these young people have taken the bull by the horns. They have organized and they have walked out of schools. They are making the politicians and the leaders accountable to their concerns. People think they are being organized to do that…well, they are doing that on their own. These kids have been very, very astute as to the issues that are going on around them. Like most cities in America, a lot of our kids grow up in deep poverty. They come out of neighborhoods that have violence and a gang culture that we’re trying to flip on its head. That they’re overcoming these obstacles and are being successful anyway, that speaks volumes to the capacity and the capabilities that they have.

Photo by Daryl Stone

Radius: Was that the case when you were growing up here?

Baraka: : You know, I grew up in the same neighborhood that everybody else did. Same block, same communities. Avon Avenue, Clinton Avenue. And the same things that were happening then are happening now. But I think growing up in a household where I was not just surrounded by my mother and father, but a larger community of artists, activists and community-oriented folks, helped me to see the world differently. It gave me a different perspective not only on the country and the world and my people and my ability to overcome these things, but also my responsibility to help others overcome them.

Radius: When we were at Howard University, I remember you as a passionate student leader. At what point did you sense that you could be an advocate for change, someone who could shake up the status quo?

Baraka: : In high school I probably didn’t embrace it like I should have. It was all around me, but things happen in the right time. It was actually when I got on Howard’s campus that everything started to click. There was an organization called Black United Youth that had these study sessions and circles, I went to a couple of them because I was curious. They were reading books about capitalism and slavery and how Europe underdeveloped Africa—all these books that I had never read, but I saw in my house as a kid. So I was like, Wow! I started thinking about what’s happening in the world and what I should be doing. Ever since then I have been on a non-stop road.

Radius: What’s changed about Ras Baraka: in the ensuing 29 years?

Baraka: : I’ve got gray hair. I’m a little older, a little slower. And although a lot of the issues I’m passionate about remain the same, my approach to them may have changed a little bit. I think I’ve become more thoughtful about how we begin to transform our condition. As a young boy coming into Howard University, my friends were going to jail. Newark was the stolen car capital of the world. We had projects that were 30 stories high. But we’ve transformed. Before I left, we didn’t have a performing arts center. We didn’t have movie theatres. We didn’t have a Home Depot. Newark has come a long way, and it still has a long way to go. So just like the city has transformed, I think I have transformed with it. And that’s helped me be able to do the things that I think should be done.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Zack Burgess is a columnist for Black America Web. To read more of his articles and interviews on politics, sports, culture and entertainment, log onto zackburgess.com. 

Radius editor Andy Clurfeld reached out to the leaders of four major cultural institutions in Newark and asked them to speak to the issues facing Ras Baraka as he completed hs first six months in office.

What is the most important thing the new mayor has accomplished so far?

Photo courtesy of the Newark Museum

Steven Kern, CEO, Newark Museum: Mayor Baraka brought diverse community leadership—in the broadest sense—to the table, first for transition and now continuing through his administration. By including so many voices, the mayor empowered his community and assured for himself multiple points of view and strong information for his decisions in guiding the city. This also provided me, as a newcomer, with the opportunity to interact with an astonishing range of constituents—within a very short time.

Amy Niles, CEO, WBGO Radio: Mayor Baraka has made it clear that he is interested in engaging community. That is a very significant pathway to address many of the issues we face in Newark.

John Schreiber, CEO, NJPAC: Reduction in crime in the city of Newark.

Photo courtesy of City Without Walls

Ebony Simpson, Executive Director, City Without Walls: In my opinion, not only as a resident of Newark, but director of an art gallery that has been in existence for the past 40 years within this city, the most important thing that Mayor Baraka has accomplished so far has yet to be seen. I believe that his good intentions for Newark and community collaboration—in and outside of the Downtown district—has been seen and felt by anyone in attendance at community town hall meetings. I believe that, in time, his accomplishments will be felt throughout the city. But that time has to be given…not rushed.

What is the most important thing the mayor needs to accomplish in the coming year?

Kern: Fiscal stability will be the mayor’s greatest accomplishment of 2015, as we join him in assuring that resources are provided for safety, infrastructure and services.

Niles: Newark is at a crucial juncture for future growth and development. In making sure that the city continues to move forward, (putting) safety, commerce, transportation and the arts at the forefront of every discussion (will be) vital.

Photo by Daniel Hedden

Schreiber: Successfully connecting Downtown with the wards, so that all citizens feel a sense of connection to the entire city.

Simpson: I think one of the top priorities of the mayor is to get a handle on crime in the city. It is a hindrance for anyone living, working and attempting to bring cash flow into Newark.

What critical component of the Newark community can the mayor harness to help him accomplish his goals?

Kern: By bringing together the corporate and nonprofit communities, along with residents in Newark’s neighborhoods, the mayor cannot fail.

Niles: We applauded his efforts setting up a transition team to engage community leaders. Continuing to activate this diverse group of spokespeople will keep the mayor as current as possible.

Schreiber: The arts community. Newark has an abundance of world-class cultural assets, which make the city an attractive destination for fans of art, music, dance and drama. The mayor is an educator and a poet, and no one is better qualified to spread that message.

Simpson: Historically, having the residents rally behind any mayor’s efforts has made all the difference. But who is to say there isn’t a component in this vast city that has yet to be harnessed to accomplish goals? I believe that, in time, what works for Ras Baraka will work for him and his administration to then benefit Newark as a whole. (As) with anything worth accomplishing, there may be several roads to the goal.

What actions can the mayor take to foster synergy in Newark?

Kern: He’s already doing that! It began with his slogan, “When I become mayor, we become mayor”—and continued with his transition teams and now with his community conversations.

Photo by Daryl Stone

Niles: Conversation.

Schreiber: Keep doing what he’s doing. He is, daily, sending a message of inclusiveness that is welcoming and reassuring to all.

Simpson: The mayor can continue what he is currently doing by including the community and creating an open forum for real, comprehensive dialogue about Newark’s issues. Everything starts with a discussion.

What key contribution can you and your organization make to help promote Newark’s greatest strengths?

Kern: Newark’s greatest strength is its people. The Newark Museum, as the city’s arts anchor, has been serving and unifying the entire community since 1909. Arts education as we know it, for example, began under the leadership of the founding director. From the beginning, our collections and programs have made arts enjoyment accessible and relevant to all of the city’s residents. Carrying our mission forward into the 21st century, we will invite every household to join the museum with a free membership. This will provide for personal empowerment, community enrichment and civic pride.

Niles: We are viewed as the beacon of the Newark community. A significant role we play is to articulate to the residents—and indeed the world—an idea of the breadth of offerings in Newark. While the topics that we illuminate are broad, we are committed to developing a Community Arts Calendar, which we hope will be the center of activity for the arts community within Newark, as well as a tool to shed light on the riches we have in our city.

Schreiber: Keep doing what we’re doing. NJPAC presents almost 400 events per year, free and paid, and has the most diverse workforce of any performing arts center in the country. Our team is a reflection of what’s best about our city.

Simpson: City Without Walls will continue to place the needs of Newark’s artists, residents and youths as a main organizational focus.