New Jersey has over six thousand bridges…
there’s always room for one more
By Diane Alter
One of the less-publicized components of the Newark Renaissance is the “dirty work” that needs to be done to turn vacant lots and rundown structures into new housing and commercial structures. It is hard, manual labor, but still must be done. At the same time, the city’s workforce is unemployed at roughly double the national rate. Many have observed that these two problems could be solving each other, if only someone would step in and establish a connection.
Enter Gerald Whitaker, pastor of Christ Church Newark and founder of the aptly named Bridge Builders. Within a few weeks of its June 2015 launch, his organization formed partnerships with Rutgers–Newark, Hollister Construction and NJIT, putting a small army of in-need unemployed/underemployed Newarkers to work on cleaning up and rebuilding their city.
Bridge Builders is a non-profit dedicated to social entrepreneurship—namely, helping Newark residents earn adequate wages to pay for food, clothing and shelter. It’s aim, says Whitaker, is not just to help someone find a job, but to build a life-long career. In addition to making connections that create work opportunities, Bridge Builders—with the backing of the Profeta Urban Investment Foundation—provides training, teaches skills, and offers support to men and women age 18 and older. While lining up jobs has been a big challenge as the organization gets off the ground, finding volunteers to help Bridge Builders in other ways has been surprisingly easy.
“Yes, there are many people in our community who are underserved, but there are also many people who are willing to help meet the needs of those underserved,” Whitaker says. “As a community, we must come together. Those with resources have come to realize that in helping those who lack resources, they are helping build a better community.”
As a church pastor, a lot of what Whitaker does is spiritual. He provides comfort, direction, mentoring, prayer, and discipline. “But while all of the spiritual guidance and leadership I provide feeds the soul, it won’t do much good unless we can feed the body as well,” he points out. “A well-nourished person thinks and acts clearly. It was with that thought in mind that I created Bridge Builders.”
In improving Newark’s unemployment problem, Bridge Builders also hopes to make a positive impact on the city’s other problem, crime. “The two are not mutually exclusive,” Whitaker explains. “They have a complex yet undeniable relationship. You see, the more jobs you can create, the more you can reduce crime. A lot of people searching for work in the city come from at-risk situations, have served time, and have no real training.”
He cites a recent University of Chicago study, which found that jobs programs—especially those tailored for individuals with prior arrests—helped reduce violent crime by 51 percent. According to the report, if you give people jobs and support the skills (through teaching and training) needed to keep those jobs, people are less likely to commit crimes and are more likely to thrive.
“I didn’t need a study to tell me that, but it’s proof that what we endeavor to do works,” he says. “Without question, it’s a win-win for everyone.”
In addition to construction clean-up, Bridge Builders recently secured a contract for office cleaning with Rutgers. In the long-term, the organization’s goal is to make connections with Newark businesses that can lead to higher-paying jobs and broader opportunities. For now, Whitaker is just happy to be off to a solid start.
“We’re transforming people and the community of Newark by building bridges not walls,” he says. “We’re healing the city and its people.”
Editor’s Note: For more information on Bridge Builders, log onto christchurchnewark.org or call (973) 484–0200. The Profeta Urban Investment Foundation was created by Paul Profeta, the publisher of this magazine. He owns Paul V. Profeta & Associates, a commercial real estate firm.