Sunday, December 2, 2007

No Jobs for Kids

When we were young boys we were able to earn a few quarters at a local food market packing paper bags for shoppers and carrying them to their cars. Some of us were even fortunate enough to have regular jobs as newspaper boys with routes making deliveries throughout the neighborhood. Then there were those seasonal hustles that raked in movie money or, in the case of the thrifty kid, provided enough cash to buy an article of clothing or a foxtail for a bicycle. Yep, there really was such a thing as the good ole days.

Strange how all these part-time and occasional gigs for mainly boys, but some girls too, have now become the mainstay employment for grown men and women in our city. And so many of those men and women have been or are currently down on their luck. You can see it in the parade of drawn and weathered faces that peek through your car window when you purchase a newspaper on the city streets. It’s also there in the demeanor and manner of our beggar class. Their pain lingers with us as we watch them walk away not knowing whether we have contributed to a meal or a fix. A surprising number ask for work. “Can I sweep up or do something?”

Even in the supermarket we were stunned to see a full-grown man hawking customers to pack their grocery bags. Where are the kids? Where is my paper boy/girl? What are children doing while grown folks occupy what used to be their jobs?

During the summer months it was a current or former drug abuser with a rickety lawn mower with a single speed and height going door-to-door looking to trim the green. Just the green for now—tools for the hedges are hard to carry around with a lawnmower if you are on foot. That’s if he happened to have any tools to trim hedges in the first place. Of course he must borrow your broom and even an extension cord if his mower is powered by electricity—which is usually the case because carrying a can of gas could be problematic.

Now leaf-raking season is upon us and soon snow shoveling will arrive. Few if any kids at all can be expected to be the solicitors at our front doors. The competition for work has pushed kids out of the “chores for pay” market. For kids looking for something constructive to do, slim pickings define the current reality.

Not that kids we know are exactly assaulting barriers in pursuit of this work. Many don’t even want fast food restaurant gigs, never mind raking a lawn or delivering newspapers. We don’t necessarily believe that desperate adults have driven kids to the margins. We do believe it is important to understand that city kids who seek a less formal work experience than a regular job do not have the neighborhood opportunities that their suburban counterparts have; those “jobs” are now nearly always populated by adults of misfortune.

Our observations constantly instruct us that joblessness whether among teens or unfortunate adults is a horrendous problem and strategies for change are inevitably limited. Long gone are the days when you had to merit a job. Then, behavior was an important factor in landing a job. Character references might well have been as important as experience references. A job was a valued prize sought after with vigor. Too often now those in search of jobs believe they are entitled—even without skills or experience and even with extensive criminal records. All this presents a daunting challenge for both government and the private sector to say nothing of our educational systems.

The challenges of today have rearranged societal priorities. Jobs in urban America have become major crime fighting tools. There is an urgency to give them to people recently released from prison. In other words, people having been incarcerated for some antisocial act. In other words, the very behavior that might once have denied a person a job is the behavior that now places them at the top of the list. And when viewed in terms of the cost of crime, imprisonment and recidivism, many find it possible to justify the inverted paradigm.

So in this “new thought paradigm” we want to encourage special attention for kids. As we consider all the efforts that must be undertaken to assist the successful reentry of ex-offenders into society, there should be a special attention paid to developing strategies and initiatives that focus on juveniles. We believe that if more juveniles were in jobs fewer would be in gangs. We believe that more exposure to adults in responsible roles would help dampen juveniles’ enthusiasm for antisocial activity.

Aggressive steps to maintain a non-gang, non-criminal status for kids are essential. Every effort must be taken to ensure that they don’t fall out in the first place and thus there is no need to think about reentry. But the social dividend to be gained from effective juvenile focus strategy is worth whatever the required investment.

Newark is taking a real look and real steps to address juvenile reentry. The good news is that every juvenile that is successfully reentered is more likely not to become an adult that needs to be reentered. We must all do far more to provide opportunities for young people to be exposed to healthy influences for most of their time. Part time jobs are just one way to accomplish this but their importance cannot be underestimated.

And while we don’t expect to see a rapid return to newspaper boys and girls up and down our streets, it does make sense to incentivize the private sector to open up thousands of job and exposure opportunities to young people that do not now exist. Every company and agency should have a youth employment budget. We could absorb millions of idle hours and hands that might otherwise wind up working against our collective interest. This would not be hard to accomplish and the payoff would be indescribably handsome.

While the money that kids make from part-time jobs is important, it is no more important than the responsibility lessons they learn about being on time, being polite, finishing what you start and all the rest. The essential lessons that contribute to a civilized society and auger against antisocialism and rage are largely learned through varied exposures. And it is upon this base that a community assures its survival and improves its quality of life.

We acknowledge the societal shortcomings made obvious by adults eeking out survival in the most menial of manners available and pray that solutions are not far off. But we are convinced that an immediate pivot toward kids will yield the most sustainable good. So if you have a lawn to rake, snow to shovel or a chore in need of doing, consider a kid.

November 28, 2007

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Circle of 88

Cities like Newark always have some very unique characteristics and personalities that define them. We are a large country town that often favors gossip over fact. Indeed Newark’s Gossip Mill has become a permanent and relied upon fixture in the local culture, at least in the African American community. Grist for the Gossip Mill is principally produced among a notable quaint society known as the invisible circle of 88. Over a period of years of close observation we have determined that there are exactly 88 people in Newark who circulate low-grade information among themselves (more or less), determine that it is valid and spew it into the broader public as gospel.

They are a relentless gossip subculture made up of cliques that can sometimes be defined by profession, class, political affiliation and even religion. They are purveyors of venom, specialists at character assassination and devoted to devious intention. Sometimes they are effective enough to create a town-wide murmur over something that legitimately does not even deserve a whisper. If you are not careful you could easily be swayed into believing that their mouthings represent popular public opinion. In their heyday they could alter the public agenda and dictate the behavior of the insecure. They once had a unique ability to present themselves as a force but trust us; their sum total is 88.

As already stated the circle of 88 trades mostly in negative, inflammatory and unflattering information. Some of them have even been known to initiate discussions solely to make mischief. And their various expertises have earned them contemptuously admirable titles among their peers. Highest ranked among the 88 are the “Brewglers.” They initiate stories and rumors. They rise to the height of “Brewgler” based on the amount of skill they demonstrate at adding just the appropriate hint of potential credibility to an out and out lie. When an accomplished “Brewgler” skillfully applies their trade, the line between truth and falsehood is almost completely blurred. They have appointed themselves guardians of the city.

And then there is the “Yeast Master.” This able confounder raises the stakes. The “Yeast Master” makes mountains out of molehills. He/she enhances the work of the “Brewgler” by magnifying it tenfold. Once an outrageous or ridiculous scenario is brewed and just the right amount of yeast is added all the ingredients, “Grist” for the Gossip Mill are in place. After an evening or so of marinating in the whisper chamber, the foul mouthed concoction is collected by the “Spreader Drones” to deposit their waste in every receptive vessel.

Amazing is the ability of circle members to convince themselves of their importance and relevance. Most amazing though is that they become infective by their own invective. To them, their madness becomes real and sometimes they go so far as to make it the basis of causes and campaigns. So far as the 88 are concerned, anything that passes through their circle should be taken seriously and reflects the views of the majority of citizens. When you talk to them they confirm their sanity by quoting other crazy people. They gleefully reference people with whom they have spoken that confirm their views or echo the manufactured sentiments that they have validated. Believe it or not, this surreal bunch has actually influenced serious events in our city—and almost always to the detriment of the public.

A new struggle for Newark is underway. Some forces have clear plans to shove poor and underrepresented people aside. We need capable objective advocates and warriors for our causes. So-called leaders who weave untruths and fabricate disinformation have to be exposed and neutered. The time has come to bid all witchdoctors farewell. The circle of 88 has kept us going in circles for far too long. Their influence has helped render us unable to make sustainable progress and continuously grappling with the same issues over and over.

We are moving backwards in the face of a bold shameless push by huge monied interests to control all of Newark’s assets. This is an observation not a complaint. But outmoded leadership cannot confront the new challenges that we face.

So look deeply into the sources of negativity when they try to engage you. Take care not to become captive of the shallow. Do your best to recognize and deflect the influences of the 88. You probably know members of the circle—or their minions. Identify and reject them. They are dangerous. They are “Punkle Toms.”

Punk•le Tom (puhng’-kuhl tom), n. [ME.; U. S. Dial. < Afr. heriter prut], 1. a person who sells services to his or her master for lowly and unworthy purposes; one who is debased, corrupt, poor or bad in quality, a hoodlum, who works solely for his or her slavemaster's whims; 2. a slavish prostitute who is regarded as being humiliatingly subservient or deferential to white people and who unabashedly sells out his or her own people; 3. worse than an Uncle Tom.


November 15, 2007

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

One More Wakeup Call

Once again the electoral politics affecting Newark is heaving change. A new crop of legislative officials is now slated to replace a crop of seasoned incumbents. Teresa Ruiz, Grace Spencer and Albert Coutino are the new Senator and Assemblywoman and Assemblyman representing the 29th Legislative District in New Jersey, which includes a substantial portion of Newark. Even before last Tuesday's election, gone were Senator Sharpe James who chose not to run and Assemblywoman Odaline Truitt who was defeated in the June primary. It took a sound thumping in Tuesday's general election to vanquish former Assemblyman William Payne who sought the Senate seat as an independent.

The future has not been so up in the air in a long time. What's next? Who will emerge as the dominant political forces going forward? How long will Black politics be relevant in Newark? All these questions and more have wafted quietly in the background of Newark's political scene for several years but are now raging naked on "front street."

In a matter of a few months the political fortunes of the Payne dynasty have been cut nearly in half. In May there were four family members holding five elective offices. Now there are just two members holding three offices. So what's next for the Paynes? Will they regroup and try to rebuild or will they reach an accommodation with reality and forge an alliance to protect their remaining holdings? And if so, with whom?

And what of the next generation political insurgents who were left languishing when Sharpe James departed Newark's political arena? Many rallied around Senator Rice in his primary victory, no doubt hoping it would provide sufficient momentum to jump-start a political movement destined to help them regain their status. Will Tuesday's hide tanning tame their enthusiasm? Will they finally stop dabbling with low risk political skirmishes and step up to the real battle? There are a lot of questions to which answers will no doubt reveal themselves in the coming days and weeks.

But here's what we know now. There is a major political transformation underway in Newark. Its face will be largely ethnic as Blacks yield leadership to Latinos, but its root will be economic as the business community seeks the best front-line political partner with which to execute their aggressive agenda. And so long as the community places its focus on the competition for power between Blacks and Latinos, both will be the losers in the economic sweepstakes that is poised to define a new Newark.

Because African American politicians in Newark have primarily viewed and played politics as an enterprise of individual empowerment, we are fast becoming defenseless in the emerging political climate. All the old horses are going or being sent out to pasture. They did not bother to train and ready a new breed. The competition is well heeled, well disciplined and well financed. Newark's next generation of African American political leaders have been held back too long by the old horses and just might be passed over all together.

But will it really matter? We believe it will not so long as Black politicians are unable and unwilling to translate their leadership into opportunity that breeds sustainable political power and creates institutions that transcend politics and strengthen community. Anything less is worthless-except to some individual politicians. By now we should have had our fill of their type of political selfishness.

We see a significant opportunity for Black political maturation on the horizon. True, Black politics is old. But is it mature? We think not. And the obvious very public dissolution that is now underway gives us all a chance to recognize and openly acknowledge that peril is at hand. We can act all grown up. We can accept collective blame. Then we can choose to work together. Yes. Right now we can move to close breaches, heal rifts, span gaps and rebuild badly damaged important relationships. If we refuse and adopt recalcitrance as methodology, we can chalk it all up.

A partnership with Latinos and others is the appropriate course of action. It does not mean giving up aspirations of the Black community. It can mean assuring them. A partnership with the business community is also essential. And a truly equitable relationship will not be possible so long as Blacks and Latinos are engaged in an intractable political struggle over little or nothing. But none of these critical arrangements can emerge if the Black community continues to prove incapable of hammering out the required internal agreements between its vital sectors.

Cory Booker has become a lightening rod of false focus. Truth is, he is a transitional figure. His role is significant and must be acknowledged. Pretending to discount and ignore his significance is folly. He is in place and a transition is taking place. What that transition means for Newark's Black community is murky because we have few collective goals that are driven by clear thinking. Yet our community can still define our future. It will not wait forever though. It is now being defined by events and circumstances not within our reach. This can change only if our behavior changes.

Black politicians have dominated the local scene for too long. And in many ways and for many people they have become irrelevant. Major players in many sectors view them as a nuisance factor. They tend to be engaged only when absolutely necessary or for purely ceremonial purposes. Serious political interaction regularly takes place around them and outside their realm of competency. Members of the African American clergy have even stepped into the void left by ineffective political organization in the Black community. And if you think carefully about it you will be hard pressed to find another community of people where the religious leaders are the political spokespersons. It is an outrage run amuck. But it is our community and if we want to be taken seriously and make real progress we must change it without further delay.

Sharpe James left office at 70 years old, Don Bradley at about 70, Bill Payne around 70. This is amazing. Young political aspirants in the African American community should be livid and determined to end the practice of generational stifling in Black local politics. The election of Grace Spencer as 29th District Assemblywoman is an encouraging sign. But just as soon as one can absorb the positive flavor of the Spencer victory, political talk fast forwards to the notion of a Newark mayoral bid by our good friend Cliff Minor in 2010. At that time Cliff will be around 70. Hard to believe young Newarkers will swallow our man Cliff for the top spot at 70 years old. We are having a hard enough time being taken seriously without behaving stupidly.

Things are changing-moving forward fast. It is no time to entrench ourselves in backwardness or turn aside progress. Forward is where we must go if we don't just plain want to disappear from the political spectrum. History does record people becoming extinct. Let's just grow up before we're gone.

Tuesday was but one more wakeup call. It signals the closing of an era. Perhaps there is still a chapter or two to be played out but by and large it is time to change the subject. We need a new script. It is important that it lean heavily on history but it must portray the present and envision the future. There is no reason that we should not all contribute to its authorship. No good reason. A perfect moment for unity has arrived. Will we take it?

November 7, 2007

Step Up or Step Off

After a weekend of applause celebrating the opening of the new Newark sports arena it is time to look deeper into just what it means to Newark residents. We have been told that hundreds of jobs at the arena have gone to Newarkers. We have not been told how that breaks down into hours to be worked or dollars to be earned. For some, that does not matter...but we think it is crucial.

The New Jersey Devils is a business enterprise. They are concerned with making money. Anyone who tries to convince you otherwise thinks little of your intelligence. As is the case with all businesses, the primary concern of the Devils is their "Bottom Line" (how much money they can put into the pockets of the owners and players. In other words, it is their obligation and intention to look out for themselves. So who will look out for us?

From the way the arena deal was structured in the beginning it is clear that whomever was looking out for us was at best looking through just one eye. It was not the best deal the residents of Newark could have gotten. In fact we would wager that had Devils owner Jeff Vanderbeek been negotiating for the City of Newark he would not have signed the deal that we wound up with. He would have been tougher and gotten more for his side.

Be that as it may, we move on. Just what is the "Bottom Line" for our side? What are we getting out of the arena deal? Jobs. Jobs. Jobs. That is what we are told. There are also a few food concessions in the arena. Not much more. During the construction phase residents got very little and based on what we have seen thus far in the post construction phase, it can be expected that not much will be coming in the future. To whom can we turn to guarantee our fair shake? We must know the answer and be prepared to hold someone accountable.

Remember the discussion and derisive commentary about Newark not having a "Luxury Box" in the arena? By mocking and dismissing the notion, spin masters distracted us all from a serious point. Here it is: Except by extraordinary happenstance, most Newark residents will never savor the delicious lifestyle experience of a "Luxury Box." This fact would not be noteworthy but for the obscenity of what is likely to be "our more than " $310 million contribution to building those boxes when the counting finally stops. We might have built schools, parks or other things that average Newarkers could experience in the normal course of community life.

So let us reframe the "Luxury Box" issue and propose a just course of action. Here's what the Devils could do: Designate a "Luxury Box" for community use. Allow registered Newark voters to place their names in an on-line lottery. Conduct a drawing and allow the winners to sit in the box at arena events. Remove the names of winners from the list of those eligible for future drawings. With an expected 300 events a year and some 20 to 25 people per box, a lot of residents will get in. And it's a small return on our investment. It might even be an incentive for voter registration.

Far more important is who will benefit from the enormous economic swirl that will be created by the arena development. Will residents who have held fast during many years of downward spiral be rewarded for their tenacity and loyalty to Newark? Or will they be callously brushed aside to make way for a favored class? This is the question. It has been the question since the conceptualization of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, which can now be appropriately described as a cultural BETA in a long-term gentrification study. The arena is the next phase. And its development is under girded by the same self-righteous hypocrisy that characterizes most insidious social experimentation. The basic unarticulated critical question surrounding the arena is: Will White people come to Newark in huge numbers for essentially White activities? The events of the past week provide a resounding yes so long as security is extraordinary.

Be sure, the gentrification of Newark now has a full head of steam. Much substantial economic activity and opportunity lies ahead. But future deals must be better than the arena deal. We can never permit a similar economic travesty to take place in our city.

It is a bittersweet irony that Mayor Sharpe James accused candidate Cory Booker of having a strategy to return White people to Newark. Having witnessed the arena opening no one can deny that history will credit Sharpe James with bringing more White people to Newark than Cory Booker could have ever engineered on his own. And it can all work to the benefit of Residents if the leaders display courage and creativity. But who will lead on this critical point? Be sure, it won't be the Devils. And it won't be the business community. They have an astounding record of walking away from critical institutional realities that negatively affect minority Newarkers. Public education tops the list.

African American businesses and business people along with other minorities must be leveraged into the "New Newark" economic game right now. Any talk of "eventually" is an unacceptable stall designed to fake out an entire community. We recommend that the Mayor convene groups of minority economic and business types to help him develop appropriate strategies to insure the parallel development of economic prosperity in Newark. We further recommend that individuals and organizations ready themselves to support and defend the recommendations that come from our economic experts.

Going forward in Newark's immediate future cannot rely upon political leadership alone from the African American community. We desperately need input from our business leadership, a robust entrepreneurial spirit, social and cultural discipline all guided by a steady moral compass. Anything less will breed more dysfunction and hopelessness.

The arena is here and so are the White people. Get over it. We have talked over and over about "Doing for Self," and others are quietly wondering if we will ever get it. Whether political or other leaders act in our behalf or not we are obligated to act on our own. Our moment of decision has arrived. If we are to be a viable sector of Newark's society and economy, we have to get busy. No one is waiting for us and we can no longer wait for each other. Those who are ready must go. We pray that those who are not can catch up or be rescued. In the inimitable words of the hood, it time to "Step Up or Step Off."

October 29, 2007

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Check Child

Reprinted from 1999.

Few things are worse than a hot muggy night. The air stands still with no hint of a breeze. Everything feels thick and sticky. Thank God for air conditioning. It must be unbearable for those who don’t have it. They must be in a state of absolute misery. Of course, having always described myself as a cold weather baby I am certainly exaggerating—a little.

No matter how you cut it 98˚ at 2:30 in the morning is toasty. I remember these hot days from my childhood. Actually summers seem to be cooler these days than they were when I was a kid. We used to sit out front on our porches (stoops) and try to cool off; antidote to our railroad flats. As late into the night as midnight you might see adults lingering with a cold drink. A few always stayed later. They were the avid hops and barley crowd.

As these fond memories coursed through my mind I pulled the sheet up around my shoulders. Thank God for air conditioning. I was awake now. My mind tracing my spent childhood making comparisons to today. Trying to hold both thoughts in my head simultaneously caused me to think even more deeply about the past. I got up for a cold drink and turned on the TV. Aimlessly I surfed through the channels. Even though nothing interested me I did it again. As I started through for yet a third time I hit the off button and reached for my clothes. I was wide awake, out of cranberry juice and restless with my thoughts. I headed for the all night supermarket.

Man was it hot. A stifling blast of air surrounded me the moment I emerged from my front door. Hesitating, I considered changing my mind. I forged forward. Out into the steamy night—missing were the wavy lines in the air that let you see heat rising from the pavement or the hood of a car which could only be seen in daylight. On this night, sundown showed no mercy.

The supermarket was six blocks away—should I drive or walk? Feeling uneasy but testing my sense of discipline I decided to walk. Probably wouldn’t hurt especially since I could use the exercise to counteract the crunchies I would surely snap-up along with the cranberry juice.

As astounding as the heat that flushed my senses were the number of people on the street. It was late. I am usually not on the street at this hour. And when I am, I am in a car and travelling a highway. People dotted the sidewalks and front porches everywhere. They were young people in their twenties and teens for the most part, at least it seemed so. I wondered what Emma Dawson would have done if I were hanging out that late at twelve or thirteen—I shuddered to think. I remembered how she broke down my tough-guy image once by calling me from the window of our four story walk-up and embarrassing me in front of my boys. “Carlie,“ she yelled, in a singsong tone, “come in the house—it’s time to go to bed.” It was only ten o’clock for God’s sake. And even though I usually went in at 9:30 PM my boys had no way of knowing that 10:00 was my bedtime. Thanks mama, you might have saved my life. Many of my boys are gone, victims of the mean streets.

What amazed me most was the number of small children on the street. Tagging along behind young adults who were clutching beer cans and/or fingering cigarettes—these toddlers were struggling to keep up. Their guardians were usually engaged in conversation or some other activity and it was clear that the child was along as an inconvenience. My heart ached. Why weren’t these babies home in bed? They looked tired and disoriented, not knowing night from day. The heat was no excuse. This was child abuse of the worse kind. I didn’t see one or two babies holding onto a pant leg for dear life, I saw many. I was reeling with disbelief. Where had I been? Why was this a shock to me? Everyone was acting like it was normal. No one seemed in a rush to get inside and put their kids to bed. In fact, precisely the opposite seemed true.

Occasionally one of these tortured children would cry out for something or simply fail to keep up with a beer toting parent and then the real horror began to unfold. I saw a young woman snatch a barely walking infant by the arm with such force that I was certain her shoulder was dislocated from its socket. The baby screeched with pain and mother was unrelenting. She had no words of comfort or mercy. From her mouth, as though encased in the dirty gray puff of smoke she blew, she unleashed, nose to nose with the child, a foul trail of vitriol and invective. Cursing at the top of her lungs she issued warnings to the child to shut the #$%* up. By now the baby was howling. No amount of threat would soothe her. Another snatch and verbal assault directed at the child was the mom’s response. I watched from fifteen yards away feeling helpless. How could this baby understand what was happening. And did it really matter?

My staring attracted the attention of several onlookers. To them the scene was obviously not uncommon. When the mother finally noticed me watching in horror, she directed some of her wrath to me. I told her she should not treat a baby so viciously. She told me to mind my #$%*ing business. I left the scene and headed to the supermarket—confused, angry and heartbroken. I remembered my first child at that age. I never abused him, but now I was sorry for ever having yelled at him. I thought that when I got back home I would call him and apologize—he’s 38 now.

Who are these babies being dragged through the streets late at night? Parents who treat them like the enemy? What chance do they have to develop into normal productive folks? These are the “check children.” They are the economic appendages of their parents. They are not progeny, lineage or family. They are “check children.” They represent money. The cold hard truth of a hot angry night for children who know little warmth.

Every day, somewhere, there is a suffering check child whose father is abandonment and whose mother is abuse. Each being processed to become a plague on our community; many harboring a death wish. A child whom we are setting up to take down. A chanceless infant who enters the game of life without a coach, trainer or fan. And some will survive, and even succeed—amazing. These are our children. How we treat them defines our collective state of mind. I now know as I have never known before (only suspected), we are insane.

The supermarket was empty and so refreshingly cool. It was a pleasure to stroll up and down the aisles. I knew where to find cranberry juice but the delay was delightful. My moist skin felt chilled against the commercial air conditioning—I felt myself drying out. I even found the terrible music and the institutional hums of the frost breathing freezers and floor waxing machine being operated nearby tolerable.

Recalling my own hot days as a 19 year old father who brought his boys to the supermarket for a few minutes relief from staggering heat painted a smile on my face. Yep. I had actually done that. Those were the days of cornstarch remedies that helped counter the tiny bumps of heat rash that occasioned every infant living in a tenement with few windows and no cross breeze. I had not been able to bear watching my boys toss, turn and gasp for cool air. So I took them to the supermarket for relief. There were no all-nighters then, so I had to go before ten. I chuckled softly at the thought and reached for the cranberry juice. After a deep sigh of submission, I headed for the dreaded cookies. I rationalized that the exercise of walking home would compensate.

Standing at the checkout counter facing the exit sign I’m suddenly overtaken by a surge of anxiety. Anticipating an impending blast of heat on the other side of the door I braced myself for the roast. Once outside and again adjusted to the sticky stuff I realized my anxiety was growing. I was dreading yet another encounter with the “check child” and my conscience was hard at work. Would I see her again? Was her arm OK? Was I somehow responsible? I didn’t want to face the scene. I thought about walking another route. “Take a side-street and avoid the whole thing,” I thought. It was an option I had taken too often. Side-street avoidance; a tactic perfected by a whole community wanting to wish away its ills. Not this time. I walked back through the maze of misery. Everything was still in place. A sea of dysfunction frozen in the thick hot night. I forced myself to meet the eyes of check child’s mama. I was filled with embarrassment and rage. Her expression was blank. None of it had caught her attention for more than the moment. Both she and the child were victims. Yet she was also responsible; and so was I. It was too distressing, I was too helpless. I shut down.

Finally I was safe at home. There would be no sleep tonight. I got some ice cubes, poured the cranberry, munched a cookie. Tomorrow I’ll dial my son Ali to apologize. Thank God for air conditioning.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Unity Equals Survival

Recently we have spoken with some institutional, thought and political leaders in the African American community. We were actually shocked to learn how possible it is for them to exercise decisive power on behalf of ordinary citizens. Citizens have all the means but have not yet arrived at the collective will to strike a blow for independence and self-determination. As a result the real power and the powerful shots concerning who gets what and when in Newark are being called by people and institutions that care little for the people affected by their decisions.

Not one of the individuals that we spoke with was happy about the condition they found themselves in. Again, we were surprised at the level of discomfort they expressed. They clearly understand that their roles are being compromised because there is a lack of cohesion. They know that scripts to direct and govern our community are being developed and dictated. They understand that their span of control over their own areas of responsibility have been limited by more powerful players. Our leaders are in need of rescue.

All over Newark people are deeply concerned about the direction of our city. Whether it’s the social, political, educational or economic sphere, there is deep concern. Our fears about the future are fed by a lack of understanding about who is really in charge. The State of New Jersey is in charge of the schools, criminals are in charge of the streets, business and higher level political leaders have massive influence over governance and economics, and those who hold titles and positions of supposed leadership spend too much time dancing to external tunes. Those who dare try, have to scheme to do right by the people.

The community is reacting. It is a simmer moving toward a boil. We are being left out and soon to be driven out unless we take control of our own future. But it would be a critical mistake to focus on the wrong target out of a sense of frustration. Our first and most critical task is to organize and establish communications across the fake lines of historical, political and personal demarcation that have been deliberately and cleverly drawn between us. We have to grow up and stop fussing and fighting over inconsequentialities. We have to be willing to compromise. These are traits that we readily admire in others but are ourselves too ego driven to practice. Those who won’t make a legitimate and earnest effort to establish a rational basis for collective action must be isolated. They are a problem that just might not be resolvable. Let’s not waste time on them. Let’s move on.

Once we develop a reasonable framework for action we have to encourage leaders to work together to achieve goals clearly beneficial to Newarkers. Our resources and institutions must be preserved and advanced in ways that favor residents. Would be benefactors and patrons will always be with us but should not control our growth and development. Wealth creation should be a real goal, not a shell constructed of unachievable platitudes.

The corporate and foundation communities control Newark. We are on decision-making lockdown. Our range of influence stops at the perimeter of decision making. There is no one sitting in the halls of real power as our surrogate. We are virtually voiceless where major decisions are made. It does not have to be this way. But change will require great courage—something that has been in short supply among our leaders for a long time.

Here’s how it works: Many corporations create foundations to support activities of community-based organizations. They also conduct leadership seminars and workshops and hand pick who they want to attend. In many cases they ordain the leaders of these organizations and grant them fundability authenticity. They also spend considerable time cultivating the leaders of these organizations to ensure that their actions are predictable. This constellation of all-stars represents a formidable front line assault against substantial legitimate community interests. Whenever corporations take actions or express preferences that are counter to the community’s interests, they can predict that the organizations they fund will not support the community position. Controlling the lifeline of up and coming leaders and the organizations they head effectively neutralizes resistance when our interests are at stake. This strategy has and continues to be effective.

Corporate-grown as opposed to community-grown leadership has taken a relatively firm hold on community expression. Freeing ourselves from this exploitation will require sacrifice. We know something is gravely wrong but have found ourselves defenseless. Unfortunately, we have been operating with a savior complex. And that is why we have taken only a few tentative steps to save ourselves. We have been longing for someone(s) to come along and extract us from suffering and abuse. It’s time to wake up. It’s time for us to organize into a formidable force that can demand a change in behavior that favors the community. We are certainly doomed if we fail to know that unity equals survival.

Attacking our institutional leaders is a shortsighted error. They must be encouraged to cooperate with one another. Allowing others to drive wedges between them only diminishes the possibility that the enormous resources that they control can ever be jointly used to benefit the people. If we truly come together, they will run together. Our success is in an effective bottom up strategy. Expecting top led liberation is fruitless. It cannot happen. Our leaders are in need of rescue. And the future really is ours if we dare.

We must insist on a better deal. Our leaders must negotiate that deal for us. We must give our leaders the support they need to take an iron fist in a velvet glove to the negotiating table to hammer out agreements that protect the community’s future. We will remain without power as long as we remain without organization. Every entity that seeks to minimize our opportunities is well organized. Opposing them in our current state is foolish behavior on the road to predictable defeat. The supremacy of oppressive forces relies heavily upon fear and fragmentation among the oppressed. This dynamic runs deep in Newark…especially among our leadership.

October 10, 2007

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Fed Up

How can it be that the African American community as a whole is slipping so far behind other communities so quickly? And how can it be that our educated and intellectual classes are offering so few solutions in the face of our decline? These two perplexing questions deserve close examination. We have been observing laborers and craftspeople that work at street level and can only offer cursory observation to spark comment and invite further analysis. It is such a mystery, though, that paying no attention at all is not an option.

As we traveled along Elizabeth Avenue in Newark we noticed nine individuals emerge from an apartment building. From the sound of their voices they were likely Haitians. They were talking about going to work. It wasn’t until they all walked across the street that it became clear that they were together. It really became clear when they all got into the same car, two in the front and seven in the rear – they were going to work. Each was neatly dressed and appearing well groomed.

On Springfield Avenue in Irvington outside of “Newark Paint” we regularly observe young Central American men waiting to be picked up for day jobs. Only recently did we rejoice to see what appeared to be an African American among them. We have watched this scene for several years now and only recently did we see this black skinned young man who himself might have been Haitian…or Caribbean. We desperately hoped he was African American.

And contractors who are available to do home repairs in Newark are increasingly Portuguese and Caribbean with Central American work crews. We have hired them after exhausting searches for African Americans. What is going on? Even Africans are making their presence felt on the neighborhood economic scene and developing a reputation for reliability. All this while too many African Americans stand idly by with seemingly nothing to do. What’s up?

We have concluded that much of this dynamic of the disappearing African American worker has to do with work ethics. It appears that somewhere along the way far too many of us have adopted a code of mediocrity by which to live. We have conformed our work habits to the lowest common denominator and relied on a false sense of race loyalty and entitlement to provide us opportunity. Now we find ourselves betrayed by both.

For too long our communities settled for our shortcomings and made excuses for inadequacies. The result was even worse performance on our part. Folks finally got fed up. This ultra bad behavior opened the door for competition. Even a loving people would take just so much. Exhausted by poor service they reached beyond race and ethnicity in favor of good service. There they found others, often immigrants eager to work hard, show up on time and have the basic means (transportation and tools) to complete a job.

The “fed up” phenomenon is quickly spreading to other areas such as schools and politics where African Americans dominate leadership. It will be interesting to dissect the reasons that we are losing control over these institutions more rapidly than anyone expected. Could it be the mediocrity syndrome rearing its head again? Accepting lower standards has become more common for institutions both led and highly frequented by African Americans. We find similarities with some other so-called minority groups as well. But the African American community has spawned such a wealth of talented offspring. One could reasonably expect a cogent response to the sociocultural epidemic that is playing out among those who have been left behind.

African American schoolchildren in non-performing schools that are plagued by the all too familiar problems of poor urban communities should be able to anticipate relief from the thought and efforts of their own educators and intellectuals. The same is true for the poor and our MBA’s and Economists. It is curious that given the magnitude of the problems and the magnitude of our peoples’ accomplishments there is little connectivity that evidences the likelihood of any near term solutions.

African American Newark and similar communities across the country are left wanting and needing for many reasons. High on the list are class distinctions and resulting separation between those who have resources and those who do not. Add to that a healthy dose of disinterest and carelessness and we find ourselves where we are. Yes, there is plenty to say for people helping themselves and we are staunch advocates of that. But the ones who have walked away scarcely even look back these days. And that attitude fertilizes a calamity. Plain old caring could change a lot.

Among most peoples there is a group concern and consideration. There is a pride and kinship that causes a sharing of pain and joy and a sense of togetherness that breeds group responsibility. It is first exhibited in families and ported out to communities. We had that once and we desperately need it again. If we fail to relearn the lessons of genuine concern for one another our slippage will continue. It’s time for group focus and effort. So how shall we begin? The greater responsibility lies with the ones with the greater wealth and knowledge.

The old boxing adage that “you can run but you can’t hide” was never truer than for African Americans fleeing the seamier side of black culture. When we are absent from the company of our perceived benefactors, surely they take note of our shortcomings. Surely they wonder why we have not done more for our own. And even if this conversation goes on outside our earshot, we should experience a hint of humiliation. In the end, there is no escape but there can be redemption.

October 2, 2007

Clean Up

From time to time, streets and neighborhoods in our community are absolutely filthy. Our tendency, when we see this, is to complain about the sanitation workers. We might even call the sanitation department or City Hall to express our outrage. This is good citizenship. Holding government accountable is the responsibility of every good citizen.

But we are not exactly sure what to do about the SUV that was driving in front of us last week where someone rolled down a window and tossed out the remains of their dinner in a Styrofoam container. The cornbread hit the ground and lay flat while some of the potato salad and greens wound up on our windshield. The chicken bones danced along the asphalt before one landed on the hood of our car. We were not sure what to do and, not wanting to do the wrong thing, we pulled over to the curb to clean off the car. This was not the first or even second time something like this has happened and our level of frustration just continues to rise. But where is the solution?

As bad as it is to trash the city streets, trashing one’s home is inexcusable and just plain filthy. And it’s worse when the property you trash doesn’t even belong to you.

Recently we had the unfortunate opportunity to become aware of a problem that completely stunned us. We have seen a lot of destruction and bad behavior over the years but for us this was a new level of disrespect and self-imposed filth. It was one of those cases that cry out for condemnation so we raise our meager voice to protest.

Imagine yourself in a housing complex on an upper floor. You decide to walk down the two or more flights to the ground floor. When you open the door to the stairwell you see garbage piled nearly halfway up the stairs. The stench is horrific. And you are too traumatized to even move. There you stand frozen before a shaft of filth thrown there by people too lazy and/or filthy to walk a few steps to a fully operational incinerator or carry it to a nearby dumpster or garbage can. So who are these people who want to live like pigs and have everyone around them live like pigs too?

It reminds me of what my old friend Butterball once told me. Butter said that there was this thing which he called an “Abandoned Building Mentality” that governed the living conditions of some people. According to Butter, people affected by this abnormality needed the smell of urine and doors hanging from hinges to feel at home. So powerful is their longing that they tear up new developments as quickly as they can to create familiar surroundings that they find comfortable.

As we looked down that stairwell we heard Butterball. And we went to the elevator and left the premises wondering if there was any hope at all. Now of course the City must make the landlord clean the stairwell and any others that might be in the same condition. The City must also cite the landlord for the filthy conditions and maybe the Health Department should weigh-in and issue a few citations of their own. This is, after all, the job of government. Landlords must also be held accountable.

Should tenants be held accountable? Perhaps there is little to be done about those who toss chicken bones, but surely something can be offered to reign in tenants determined to destroy property and exercise all the ravages of their “Abandoned Building Mentality.” Here’s our thought: All tenants, regardless of status, should be required to pay security deposits on their apartments. All destruction of property should be remedied (paid for) out of the pool of security deposit payments. All tenants should be required to contribute additional money to the security deposit pool to make up the shortage caused by the payments for repairs that result from destructive behavior. Legislation, if necessary, should be enacted to permit holding abusive tenants responsible.

Under this arrangement it will be in everyone’s interest to keep things clean and in good repair. Kind of like everyone staying after school until the teacher finds out who threw the chalk out the window. Tenants will be more likely to report vandals if there is a collective price to pay. Only shared responsibility can point us toward a real solution.

It is true that we cannot legislate behavior. But neither can we ignore it if we really want to achieve an improved quality of life. And of course there are those who will intone that we are blaming the victim. But as we smeared potato salad from our windshield we understood clearly that we were the victim. We are victims of bad habits, lack of concern and filth. It’s time to stop making excuses. It’s time to CLEAN UP.

Usually politicians are loath to criticize prospective voters on their shortcomings. But their silence only adds to the problem. Leaders must lead even when it is unpopular. No one should get a pass when our safety and quality of life are at stake. Everybody has to clean up.

September 18, 2007

Whose Schools?

In 1995 when the citizens of Newark lost control of our public school system to the State of New Jersey it was the beginning of a dark era in the city. Now, 12 years later, there is serious discussion about how and when the schools will return to local control.

It is worth remembering a little about the conditions that existed before takeover as we work out how to move to local control. At that time, the leadership at the Board was incompetent and openly arrogant. They treated school resources as though they were the private preserve of Board members and administrators. In fact, we believe the state would never have taken over the schools had the existing leadership simply stepped aside. But the Board and administration were thoroughly united in their recalcitrance. It mattered little to them that students were failing in increasing numbers each year. Their agenda was to control politics, power and money. The school system was their vehicle.

And the state’s motivation was nowhere near pure. While it is difficult to assess their true level of concern, we are confident that the intellectual abuse of poor Newark schoolchildren had far less to do with the state’s action than the money that could be rerouted through control of contracts for goods and services. Failing schools were not the primary concern of the state—it was the spoils of politics. The state’s school takeover action can best be described as a naked power grab. Slow and no progress in many key areas over the past 12 years is clear evidence that the State of New Jersey was ill equipped to operate a school district. The state’s own record in Jersey City and Paterson should have been enough for them to pass on Newark. Trenton should never be in the business of running school districts.

We believe there was and is still a better way for school districts to transition to and from state control. As bad a job as they have done, the state must retain the ability to takeover school districts that reach a certain level of deficiency. But actual state takeover should always be an absolute last resort. There is an interim step that could be effective and efficient.

In 1983 we recommended to the late 29th district Assemblyman Eugene Thompson the creation of a hybrid (Type III) school district. The nine member school board would consist of five elected members, two appointed by the state and two appointed by the city. Under this regime, all parties with a legitimate interest in the functioning of schools and education of students would be involved. The Type III district would operate with an approved remedial plan for a specific period of time. If the remedial plan is successfully implemented, a school district would not have to be taken over or, in the event it has already been taken over, it could return to local control. A remedial plan with specific goals and timetables would be a far better measure of capability than a self-evaluation, which opens the door to subjectivity.

If the process to return seized school districts to local control is careless, they could easily return to the state from which they were supposedly rescued. No one wants that but in the haste to eliminate what has become both a burden and an embarrassment, a bad situation could easily be made worse.

A Type III school district offers the state an opportunity for soft intervention into troubled school districts without taking on responsibility which it clearly cannot handle. It offers the community a measure of comfort knowing that the majority of the interim governing body will be elected democratically. It affords state and municipal officials direct oversight and input through their appointed representatives. Everybody is in. The citizens and taxpayers get three levels of representation. We can’t think of a better scenario for extracting accountability from a most stubborn bureaucracy. It gives us our best chance to represent students.

For schools to work well, a number of teaching and learning issues need to be addressed to say nothing of discipline and security matters. But effective governance can go a long way towards driving positive outcomes in these areas. A fresh look at governance options is more than warranted after the obvious debacle of 12 years of state control.

The idea of a Type III school district is nearly 25 years old but we think it should be revisited. Assemblyman Thompson initiated the legislative process on the concept. It got hobbled along the way. We suggest dusting it off and tweaking it to fit our current circumstances.

In addition to the many complex educational issues that need be addressed, our public school system has a huge budget which will always be a temptation to those who see jobs and contracts as their first priority. The pre-takeover Board and the State of New Jersey operated a patronage mill on the backs of a vulnerable public. Under both systems, public policy and the public purse received short shrift. A repeat performance must be avoided at all cost. We believe a Type III transition to local control could be a prudent step that offers essential safeguards and an ample monitoring period to work out the kinks.

September 5, 2007

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Psychology of Shoes

I like to wear jeans and running shoes (some people still call them sneakers). But one spring day as I walked down Broad Street I didn’t realize how fortunate I was to have on a pair of dress slacks and leather shoes. There was no way to have known that I would run into Drake. If you know Drake you will know that this a true account of two brothers from another time feasting on the delicious realities of yesteryear.

As Drake and I stood in front of what used to be McCrory's five and dime store, a young man swayed past us with his pants falling below his hips with the crotch settling somewhere between his knees. Every two or three steps he had to grab his beltless waistband to pull them up. With his “Fruit of the Looms” in full view he rocked from side to side uttering obscenities at every third word that crossed his lips which gripped a cigarette. Drake looked at me and I returned his bewildered gaze, we shook our heads in unison and we began: “What’s wrong with them?” “What happened to their self respect?”

I had the usual responses about loss of community pride, children raising children, fallen standards and failed leadership. Drake, however, was having none of that. He reduced the problem and its solution to four words, “Shoes man, it’s shoes.” “Shoes,” I said, “What do shoes have to do with it?” Then he took me on an intellectual excursion that could only be led by a brother from yesteryear.

“If we take these young boys out of those sneakers, stuff would straighten up,” said Drake. “We need to get them to put on some shoes.”

I was stunned with humor. I thought I had left reality. But Drake persisted and his reasoning was fascinating. Here goes: When we were young men we wore shoes. Sneakers were for athletic activities. We would not have been caught wearing sneakers unless we were on the way to the playground or a gym. On all other occasions, we wore shoes. We wore split toes. Winged tips, double winged tips and even biscuit toes…we wore shoes. But it wasn’t just the shoes. It was the Italian Knit shirt and the Banlon shirts. We were hooked-up when we rolled out. And when we were hooked up we had to behave accordingly. Even our walk had to be cool enough to match our shoes.

I thought hard as Drake spoke and looked directly into his eyes to be sure that he was not pulling my leg. He was dead serious. He talked about the creases in our pants, cuff links and alligator belts with passion. He even extolled the virtue of the velour hats and flat caps that we wore. But he kept coming back to the shoes. He reminded me that the brothers were serious about our kicks (shoes). Keeping your kicks ragged was essential. In fact one of the first things that you checked out when you met a brother was his shoes.

Now there was more than one dress set in the neighborhood. We started to notice it when we hit our teens. On one set tailor made four button waffle-weave suits from Wolmuth’s gave way to three button suits with vests from Jack Briedbart and other New York Ivy League outlets. And cardigan sweaters took the place of Italian knits and Banlons. And though biscuit toes made room for loafers and dessert boots, shoes were still important. The loafers were always shined and dessert boots were clean. “Even buckle in the back pants and chinos required creases,” Drake reminded me.

After all this reminiscing Drake had become quietly livid as we stood there, his own shoes glowing in the sunlight. We looked again deeply into each others eyes before we parted. I walked north, he walked south. I looked down at my shoes which were neither stylish nor shined. I wondered for a second if Drake had not been chastising me for abandoning the creed. I dismissed the thought as I considered the seriousness of his theory. I was worried though. Could we be missing something so simple yet so critical? Could limiting the wearing of sneakers play a major role in restoring civic pride?

Then I remembered my father and how well he dressed every Sunday as he prepared to assume his role as Chairman of the Deacon Board of our church. Blue striped suit, crisp white shirt that my mother had starched and ironed. His selection of ties was creative but his shoes, boy were they shined—sometimes I shined them. Those shoes and the shoes of every other man in the church were dazzling with glow. Drake was haunting me now.

I pressed on with memories of my pops who near the end of his life had become the smartest man in the world that I knew. I remembered how his jackets no longer matched his trousers and his plaid shirts matched neither and his straw hat was completely out of place in the fall. I asked him about his clothing discord. He said, “Son, the older you get the more you realize what is really important. It’s not what’s on your back, it’s what’s in your heart and head.”

With that I could put Drake in perspective. I could also enjoy my walk in the sun with my dusty shoes.

I do find myself looking at shoes more than before my encounter with Drake. But each time I see an old gent in the hood with a checked shirt, polka dot tie and a suit made of that fabric I personally choose to forget, I say thank God for freedom and long live polyester.

September 13, 2007

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Within Arms Reach

Community leaders have not used their enormous capacity effectively to benefit Newark residents. We suspect this is so at least partly because there is no practical or efficient mechanism for collectivizing the will of the community. Unlike the business sector of the city that is made up of focused corporations that often share an agenda, residents are spottily and not cohesively represented. Community based organizations and non-profits are rarely coordinated in their efforts and are often likely to be competing for scarce resources that pit them against one another.

The corporate community is structured for growth and development. It is always in their plan to leverage their resources—political and economic— and take advantage of existing opportunity. PTA’s, Block Associations and the like are usually found scrambling to cope. We are generally unable to sufficiently compete for hard resources or attention. We are generally preoccupied with survival, and growth is rarely an option.

It is no wonder that Newark’s business community so thoroughly dominates Newark’s direction and development. The people have little to say about where our town is headed because we have no ability to leverage our way to the rooms and tables where those discussions are being held. It is wrong for an entire community to be voiceless in how our future will be configured. It is worse for those who have control to disregard us. And it is foolhardy for elected officials to underwrite their own demise. Yet all this is happening at a blinding pace right before our eyes.

As business leaders surge forward with their agendas, we believe they prefer not to be hampered by requirements to deal with less learned neighborhood folk. They don’t want their plans complicated or impeded by mundane considerations of the poor and unsophisticated. They want what they want when they want it. They have capital—which is power.

But public officials can trump—or at least balance—corporate power because the Mayor and Council grant the very permission without which many things simply cannot get done. So one has to wonder why the power that comes with granting permission does not work in favor of residents? Who negotiates for the immediate and long-term interests of Newark residents? We suspect a better job can be done, but it might require a body of citizens organizing themselves to inform politicians of points of view from sources other than the corporate community in pursuit of their own agendas.

Crime and violence in Newark will not likely be significantly reduced or eliminated unless their close relationship to economics is understood and addressed. Ignoring that tie will continue to send us looking in the wrong direction for answers. Frustrated leaders will pursue strategies of gentrification in place of solving tough nagging problems.

We feel comfortable and superior reminding socially destructive youth and other dysfunctional citizens that our ancestors fought and died for them to have the opportunities that they reject while immigrants grab and take advantage of them. But we ignore the fact that we are preaching to an abandoned, uneducated demographic often filled with hopelessness. Sometimes, the only thing they have in common with the rest of us is their need to make money to survive. And they, like most people, will do whatever they can within their power and understanding not to suffer or perish. Their standards are situation specific and highly flexible. Political and business leaders must adjust to this reality and sort out how to share information and wealth.

There is also a critical role for the well-educated minority community that has largely abandoned under-advantaged inner city sufferers and escaped to nearby rim towns and suburbs. This group can use its broad intellectual capacity to plan and conceptualize alongside conscious Newarkers to ensure that there is a focused approach on the table to balance lopsided business community agendas. We believe that our ancestors also struggled and died for the most talented of us to come by our opportunities with a hope and belief that we would lift the less fortunate among us.

Bureaucrats working night and day on fattening their resum├ęs in preparation for their next career move are not the best advocates for advancing the economic interests of Newark residents. We are calling for a new compact not defined by race or geography but by true concern, humanism and equity. The capability to turn Newark around without once again abandoning the legitimate aspirations of her residents is within arms reach. Whether or not leaders can escape the ego personal imperatives to reach for a higher purpose remains to be seen.

Letting go of the worst of the past and reaching for the future with whomever will reach with us is the answer. But there must be consequences for those who betray us or our efforts over the long-term will lack credibility. Dishonorable behavior must never be rewarded.

Political leaders could benefit greatly by committing to building fair, substantive partnerships with business leaders, community leaders and talented professionals within the greater Newark region. It would send a strong signal to the people of Newark. It’s our best chance to realize a future that respects our city, its people and its history.

August 29, 2007

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Freedom Tax

Many in the African American community feel that one main reason that we cannot set up and successfully operate neighborhood business establishments is that we have to pay more for everything. In the hood, it is widely believed that Black businesses don’t receive the same low wholesale prices as non-Black businesses. This is thought to account for Black business establishments having to charge customers higher prices than non-Black competitors do. We have no personal knowledge that any of this is true but we intend to test the theory. We must investigate and document whether or not this is real or whether higher prices result from poor business and management practices. If it turns out that unfair or biased pricing practices are routinely levied against Black business establishments, everyone involved should face legal sanctions and the community should consider boycotts as a response. Where, on the other hand, we discover pricing practices to be fair and poor management is the problem, help and training can be provided.

If, after careful review, we uncover an unfair system that forces Black business establishments to pay more and therefore charge more, we must develop more effective strategies for creating and growing our merchant class. In any event, we must be aggressively absolute about their success and patronize them as exclusively as possible. We also have to encourage everyone we know to do the same. What about the higher prices? We say pay them. Consider it a cultural tax or a freedom tax. The few pennies difference should be viewed as the cost of independence and self-sufficiency. We should pay it gladly—but not without demanding quality service. We can never accept less than prompt, polite, quality service. We must never tolerate any degree of rudeness or abuse, especially if we are agreeing to pay more. Establishing and promoting a climate that supports paying the freedom tax begins to redefine and solidify our commitment to “Us For Once.” If we adopt this approach, we will ensure the success of our merchant class by establishing a loyal consumer base and acceptable customer service standards. Those who mistreat and take customers for granted will wind up where they belong…out of business.

We do know that many businesses don’t have sufficient capital to place orders large enough to deal directly with manufacturers or producers. They have to go through brokers, jobbers and middlemen to buy the supplies and products they need to operate their businesses. It stands to reason that they might need to charge their customers a few cents more to make a fair profit. This is the perfect example of how and why the freedom tax might be levied. Our response should be supportive. PAY THE TAX!

What the community must understand and accept is the importance of owning and operating businesses in their own neighborhoods. The importance of being able to offer neighborhood children part-time jobs that provide them a little honest spending money and help to develop good work habits. It is in our interest to give our children a respect for work and business at an early age. Without these things they are less well equipped for the world of work that they must inevitably face. Our children must learn and believe early in their lives that they can own and control businesses and companies. If it is what they see and experience every day, they will know it’s true. EXPOSURE is half the battle. Exposure breeds awareness and belief. It is easier for any person to see himself or herself in the role of boss if they have routinely seen others like themselves in that role.

Recognizing and paying the freedom tax is essential as a support mechanism to assist the viability of Black business establishments in the short term. It is as important as a small business loan or affirmative action. Indeed, it is an affirmative action that we, as a community, can take to support our own. If we incorporate and support the freedom tax concept in our approach to Black merchant class economics, surely there will be those who exploit us. We believe such exploitation will be relatively minor and short lived. In the Black community there is a widely accepted practice of hustling and getting over on one another. This is the larceny tax that we must all work hard to repeal. As the community sees businesses that we own open and thrive, we will develop the unity to stamp out even the law-abiding criminals. It all starts with the freedom tax.

August 21, 2007

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Us For Once

The African American communities in Newark are slowly being pushed aside and moved out. It is only a matter of time before we are as politically irrelevant as we are economically irrelevant. And this is largely due to our own failures.

Over the past 37 years we have clearly demonstrated our inability to see after our neighborhoods, schools and economic interests. Many of our intellectuals and accomplished professionals have abandoned the city and we have become wards of those who spend kindly of their largesse on our behalf. This pitiful self-imposed reality is the face that we present to the world and is the main reason that we are treated with disdain and disrespect by others and increasingly by our own.

The recent deaths of three young Newarkers has led to many expressions of grief and support. There are even expanded calls for unity to guard against recurring violence. None can doubt that these expressions are genuine and heartfelt. But what are they likely to mean in the long run? And what expressions have we reserved for all of our other young people who have been killed, maimed and forgotten? What unactionable rhetoric shall we spout in their honor? As has become common, even in the face of horrific circumstances we demonstrate ourselves to be fundamentally impotent. We are slow to take definitive action on our own behalf while others step forward and do for us. Doing for self quietly slips off the option table. Just one more reason for disdain and disrespect.

Prudential Insurance Company and others have stepped forward to offer support in the wake of the recent Newark slaughters. They are to be commended. They are exhibiting the finest elements of human behavior. But we must ask ourselves what will be the sustainable contribution of the Black community that speaks to this and all instances where Black youth are killed or maimed either physically or psychologically? How we answer this question could well define our future as a community and a people. The whole world is waiting for us to behave responsibly as a community. Our community needs self-support sustainability in addition to the welcomed “emotional reactionary giving” now taking place. It would provide a much-needed signal of care and concern as an important building block for self-sufficiency.

Much violent and dysfunctional behavior by Black youth is directly attributable to the irresponsible behavior of Black adults. When you consider that we have provided virtually no institutions or mechanisms for the advancement or protection of our children, it is not difficult to understand their hostility towards us. Our children are at war with themselves, our very survival and us. They are more inclined to destroy us than protect us. And even a regard for something as simple as keeping our own community clean for reasons of good health is not evident in their attitudes and behavior. How did this happen?

A close examination reveals that someone other than us provides nearly all goods, services or support that our children require for their advancement or survival. In a sense we are neither their parents nor protectors—the system is. We have let their schools fail, provided no jobs for them, taught them nothing of business, left them unprotected against violence and exploitation and are unable to respond in their favor when they face dire emergencies. Far too many of them are on their own. Why should they care anything about our safety or us? It seems to us that their lashing out and even a degree of their violence, though unacceptable, is certainly understandable. Black adults must change our behavior if we expect Black youth the change theirs. We must become the life models and protectors that our children deserve and have a right to expect. Where do we start?

Make every child safe going to and from school. If we want to convey the idea that school is important and we want children to treat school with respect and show up ready to learn and quit disruptive behavior, we must first guarantee them safe passage. Doing so would demonstrate that schools have priority status in the community. Community members, men in particular, must assist in this effort. This cannot be done by police and is rightfully the job of parents and surrogates willing to take responsibility for children who are without reliable parenting. We must sacrifice time to show up at and in the vicinity of schools to watch over our kids so they understand how much we love them and demand their safety. They will reward the entire community with better behavior if they have this kind of support. Giving them safe passage to and from school will also deny gang members recruitment opportunities. By putting ourselves on the line for our kids we will take many of them out of play for those working overtime to exploit them.

Matching contributions of corporations and philanthropists does not always require money. And we will never have their respect so long as we allow ourselves to be their wards.

Let’s accept responsibility for our youth. They are our children. This is our community. We should assume our duty with pride, joy and enthusiasm. All civilized people understand that their survival is directly related to how well they treat and guard their assets. And what asset can have more value than our children? Every day we are reaping and witnessing the results of their ill treatment at our hands. Instead of taking control of the situation, some of us condemn “the system” for whatever is wrong in our community. We submit that it is precisely the lack of “a system of our own” that leaves us wanting, lacking and begging. So let’s start with our children. Not only is it right, it is the issue over which we are likely to have the least amount of disagreement.

In nearly every area someone else is doing more for us than we are doing for ourselves. We should feel ashamed and embarrassed. The most talented among us should be eager with rage to acquit us all in better stead. No intelligent or respected people have ever left their development and future entirely in the hands of others. Our future is not now in our hands but it could and should be—bright or bleak, the choice is ours. If we want to survive and thrive in a city soaked with our blood, sweat and suffering we must now offer each other our unselfish cooperative work. If we want to matter and preserve a substantial future in Newark for our children and ourselves, we must aggressively turn to “Us For Once” and get up off our knees. It’s just that simple.

August 15, 2007

Get Involved

Keeping residents safe must be a top priority for any civilized community of people. But it is important to understand that getting violent crime under control requires activity on many different fronts at the same time. Social and economic issues have contributed to a deeply ingrained drug and gun driven street culture that has begun to take residents hostage. No community that seeks to be great can accept such a reality. It will take a robust, comprehensive, multifaceted approach to change the drug and gun bred culture that fuels senseless street violence.

Out of control children roam and control many of our neighborhoods while adults stand by helplessly wringing our hands. If there ever was a time for the sober members of our community to put aside petty quarrels and lock arms in a fight for survival now is that time. We may choose to deny it, but the lessons of discord that we are now reaping were, in large part, sown by our own incompetence, bad behavior and neglect of our children.

Gathering a community consensus on how the people must/should approach violent crime will require a coalescence of thought and action. In order to achieve this, Newark’s community leadership will be required to demonstrate a new level of maturity and willingness to work together. If we fail, we can chalk it all up and consign our future to subservience.

Law enforcement agencies are set to use more force. Indeed, Essex County Sheriff Fontura is openly discussing suspending civil liberties. And soon, we fear, a majority of citizens will support that view. Left unattended, we can envision a day when residents are urging cops to take whatever measures necessary, no matter how violent or abusive, to shut down violent criminals. Even now, many are willing to sacrifice a measure of liberty to receive a measure of security. We believe this would be a step backward from which we might never recover. What’s needed right now is a citizen rebellion against violent crime and criminals. We must have a community plan supported by a consensus. Otherwise, individuals will resort to any and all methods to secure their safety and protect their interests.

As quickly as we identify aspects of community life that nourish an environment of crime, strategies to counter their impact must be designed and implemented. A community mechanism with this purpose has to be established. Citizens usually rely upon law enforcement to keep us safe. But even the round-the-clock hard work and unsung successes of nameless police officers have not yet provided a permanent solution. The violence that rocked Newark over the past week makes it clear that real relief from urban terror is likely to remain beyond our reach until more elements of our community become completely outraged and thoroughly engaged.

Reducing and eradicating violent crime requires a process and network of partnerships among government agencies, citizen groups and individuals dedicated to an uncompromising view of personal safety. While police must form the backbone of any crime fighting collaboration, they cannot succeed alone. Residents must step up and shed the fear that criminals have imposed on an entire community. We must become active in the defense of our communities and ourselves.

It is pointless to quibble over how much progress is being made when the fear and violence index is as high as it now is. Let’s concede that progress is being made. But it is hardly enough. Considerable work still remains to unravel years of neglect and broken systems and will not be easy. Even so, it must be tackled with unbridled energy, passion and discipline. Improving statistics notwithstanding our humanity instructs us that even a single death prompted by a malicious act must never be acceptable or tolerated. While the Booker administration seeks to stabilize the periodic surges in violent crime, the results to date are confounding. Compared to last year, shootings are down but murders are constant. It is reasonable to argue that consistency of action and purpose must be maintained long enough to allow the current law enforcement strategies to firmly take hold. It is entirely reasonable that more time is needed.

There is no way for residents to be patient with violent crime, yet those charged with day-to-day crime fighting responsibility must demonstrate patience in the implementation of complex strategies to combat it. To do otherwise would likely spawn an erratic reaction to every act of violence. An effective blow against crime, though, must include an attack on unemployment, poor schools, inadequate housing and hopelessness.

We expect government to provide effective leadership in reducing lawless violence. We also urge the community to immediately quit the sidelines and join the struggle to renew the spirit of our city by declaring through bold action that safety and an improved quality of life are the rightful demand of all Newarkers.

Our city is truly at a crossroads, there is little room for compromise and the road to improvement will be rocky—and in this moment, no truly concerned citizen can afford to stand aside. Get involved.

August 8, 2007

Friday, July 27, 2007

Wastelands

Cheese and wine are considered to have attained an extra degree of excellence once they are older. Added age means added value for a number of things, but not necessarily so for people. Antique furniture and automobiles, for example, are regarded as precious after a number of years. They are sought after and fought over at auctions. Yet human beings are often considered irrelevant once they achieve the status of “senior citizen.” Because senior citizens are routinely devalued we think nothing of stacking them up in tall buildings and warehousing them.

At a point in time when their vast knowledge and experience might be put to work helping to lift us all from dire circumstances, they have been consigned to what could be described as a wasteland; a place where politicians typically go to make sure that seniors remain happy campers ready to provide support in the next election. Leaders rarely visit seniors to seek their counsel on complex maters of policy but almost always seek them out for their votes. Those votes are lured with goodies of all sorts including food, trinkets and trips to Atlantic City. Seniors like to be courted in this manner but many also want to be respected for what they have contributed.

Some of our seniors have had incredible careers spanning a wide range of interests and expertise. All of them have had experiences from which valuable lessons can be learned. The priceless information hovering just beneath their gray and balding domes is nothing short of “gemstone” quality. Many of the answers that we seek and guidance we need is but an elevator trip away. It is all deposited in our urban wastelands for which we do not have sufficient regard or respect.

Taking a skills/knowledge inventory of senior citizen buildings might offer a clue to the real value of the intellectual, social and cultural resources possessed by the occupants. Even a meager effort to engage that resource would likely reveal a surprising bevy of eager volunteers and recruits to assist with many of the current challenges that are too frequently left unmet. We are convinced that the solutions to many of our problems lie within the minds of the old folks that we routinely disregard—our senior population. A commitment to engage their thinking at more than a cursory social level could yield an abundant resource and offer fresh insight on nagging issues.

Constructively engaging our senior citizens can provide the young of our community an important historical connection that is often missing from their lives. They can answer questions and provide context for where we are now and how we got here. They can fill in the gaps that divide people and breed hostility and bring badly needed wisdom to the search for solutions. Unfortunately, much of our leadership ignores the potential of senior input and for too many seniors have they “thoroughly” retired. More than ever leadership needs the balance and maturity that our senior population can provide. In our environment where the social index is spiraling down ever more rapidly, continuing to ignore a huge available resource is not prudent—indeed, it is foolish.

In times of scarce resources, leaders must be creative in how they define, harness and utilize resources. And there are times when human resources are of equal or superior value to fiscal resources. Our senior population is deep and rich. In our view, keeping them off line in a struggle for our community’s survival makes no sense at all. Each of us can think of instances and circumstances where senior citizen input and involvement would provide added value.

Let’s take inventory and learn who’s who. Let’s identify and tap everyone who is willing to offer assistance and apply talents to the problems at hand. What could we possibly lose?

A respectful appeal to our senior population to lend their vast experience and expertise to help grapple with stubborn difficulties that threaten to hasten the unraveling of vital social and cultural institutions must be made at once. Less bingo and more deep thought would improve our collective condition.

Yes, we should take care of our seniors and provide them with a degree of pampering. But there is incalculable value in who they are and what they know—we all need that value now.

We propose a comprehensive senior citizen conference designed to elicit their best thinking based on their knowledge and experience. We believe that such an event, if well thought out and executed, would unleash vital resources not now readily available. We believe that what we now treat as “wastelands” is the fertile ground that requires only minor tilling to bear abundant fruit for our entire community. We humbly recommend a robust new approach, new respect and immediate engagement of one of our most valuable resources—experienced citizens.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Misplaced anger

Some Newark political circles are awash in talk of recalling local elected officials. It’s a curious conversation that springs from a deep well of misplaced anger. Mayor Cory Booker is one supposed target of a recall effort and so we tried to sort out some rational thinking behind the campaign. In the end we have come away convinced that the true reason, though illogical, is the mere fact that Booker was elected in the first place.

In the minds of some Newarkers “Mayor Booker” was simply not supposed to be. And now that he “is,” they cannot get over it. The thin layer of justification that is used to mask the highly personal recall thrust does not hold up to rational scrutiny. Booker has been in office for a single year. He is battling serious problems not of his making and he has not yet had an opportunity to put his entire house in order. So you have to wonder why folks are so angry and eager to get him out. Truth is they are angry at all the intellectual, cultural, social, economic and political abuse that they have been taking for years. Fear, intimidation and complicity husbanded their silence in days gone by. In an almost surreal sense the election of Cory Booker has cut them loose from their tormentors and given them their voice. And even so they cannot speak of the anguish they experience over past leaders not having prepared the way for the ascendancy of “one of their own.” Hence, the anti-Booker fury has been concocted.

The voices are angry and rightly so. Newark leaders allowed the public school system to be taken over—everyone should be angry. Our leaders were co-conspirators in the Port Authority swindle of the citizens—another good reason to be mad. And the Devils got $210 million of taxpayer money while taxpayers had no say in the matter—more justifiable anger. And as we’ve been reminded during this 40th anniversary of the Newark uprising, policies carried out by federal, state and city governments over 40 years ago have emptied urban cities and those people at the bottom were left with no future, dignity or economic means to pull themselves up. And the list goes on. But that anger is sorely misplaced. It is aimed at Cory Booker who was neither architect nor engineer of any of the plots that led to these betrayals. It makes us wonder why these angry people are not angry with themselves for doing little or nothing to prevent or curtail all this abuse from their leadership. Not a single recall that we can recall.

For the last thirty plus years, Newark has elected leaders who refused to cultivate their own. Cory Booker stepped into a vacuum constructed by those whose resistance was so harsh that, but for those elected as a part of Booker’s slate, an entire “next” generation that might normally have been expected to assume the leadership mantle might well be closed out for good. Their time might well have come and gone because those in leadership would not teach, prepare or share. But this leadership has been notorious for its fratricide. It was they who would not elect Donald Payne Essex County Executive and neither would they elect Ken Gibson or Cardell Cooper to that post. They killed off each other’s and our opportunities to expand a powerbase, which should have naturally made room for up and coming leaders. And they stayed in office for decades. As a result of this backward no growth strategy more people wound up competing for the same several spots as time and opportunity was wasted. Folks ought to be angry over this but not at Booker.

When the State of New Jersey took over the Newark public schools they took over and redistributed the largest operating budget in the State of New Jersey second only to the state itself (at the time). Jobs, contracts and all the things over which Booker is now being savaged were firmly in the hands of our leaders. They callously squandered it all. Everyone should be outraged—but with those who are responsible. Being outraged with Booker simply provides a convenient nesting place for our denial. It allows us to temporarily camouflage our own responsibility and missteps by erecting and targeting a conveniently designated enemy. It permits us to rant without reason and deem it rational. Tragically, we have steadily found comfort in escapism. Factual illumination, however, reveals the same old nemesis—the truth. At the end of the day we have a group of mad people focused on the wrong target.

All have watched people get rich on the backs of Newark residents for years with few if any Newarkers among the wealthy. We should be pissed—but not at Booker. Residents have witnessed Newark’s land get gobbled up by greedy developers from everywhere but here. It should make us furious—but with whom? Why not recall those who left us in this muddy rut and ask them to explain their behavior? Would we if we could?

Violent crime, failing schools, land give-away, increasing poverty, over-priced housing, poor planning, diminishing economic opportunity and general despair are Newark realities that steadily grew worse over the years before any of us ever heard of Cory Booker. Now, though, it is all his to handle. Either he can or he can’t but he deserves a fair opportunity. Particularly in the wake of his last two predecessors having four and five terms respectively. The anger is right but the target is wrong.

Now that all the pre-2006 culprits have departed, Booker, though largely blameless, must weather the attack. Cory Booker is one of us. He is the Mayor and the responsibility is his. There is no doubt about that. But imagine the culprits were still here. It is likely that the complaints would be few and faint if at all, excuses and rationalizations would abound and the beat would go on. It is unlikely that a recall would be in the offing. Why? Fear…or maybe even complicity. In any event we are where we are and to us, looking back seems illustrative only for charting a responsible path forward. Blame is useless and debilitating, denial is futile. Taking responsibility is essential for progress.

The road ahead is steep and requires all hands in the push. Those who withhold their best effort yet claim to love Newark should be judged harshly.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Economic control—a missing ingredient

As residents and others think back 40 years to the collapse of civil order in Newark there will be many accounts of what happened to sort through and consider. We will be watching carefully for signals of solution oriented thinking and planning. More than anything that is what we need. In the meantime it seems useful to pick up on an important point that has not yet been emphasized in what we have read about the 1967 event.

At least one account of events in July 1967 traces the root causes back to decades before 1967. Brad Parks in his first installment (one of four) talks about social and policy patterns that shaped Newark long before the riots as predictors of the ultimate calamity. It is an interesting thought, though somewhat incomplete. We would offer that the ghetto that was Black Newark had once been inhabited by White people for many years and, so far as we know, was riot free. And it is important to examine and understand some of the circumstances that might account for the difference.

No matter what changes took place in Newark—policy, indigenous population shifts or otherwise—there was one essential change that did not take place upon which the maintenance of order might well have rested. The control of property and wealth never transferred to Black people when we became the major tenants and consumers in our communities. Unlike the residents before us we owned neither the businesses nor the property in our neighborhoods. It is reasonable to assume that were it otherwise we might have built a sustainable community life on a sound economic base.

Through decades of exploitation we did a pretty good job of maintaining our balance as we worked to educate our children and look for a way out of stifling conditions. Poor pockets and rich hearts were everywhere. There was a sense of community. Inspirational role models surrounded us, and hard work was honored. We were, after all, in the same stew—a neighborhood where haves and have-nots paid little attention to their differences. But the natural desire to do better for one and one’s children was a powerful motivation for those who could afford to move on. And never being heavily indoctrinated with an entrepreneurial outlook, professional life was the overwhelming choice for educated Blacks. By and large we did not seek to control the dispensation of goods and services in our own community. We chose to move away and establish ourselves among those with similar economic where-with-all and closer class resemblances.

Crippling social decay was not immediate, but irreversible erosion began close on the heels of the Black elite quitting the ghetto. Every system that served the Black community suffered as a result of the massive intellectual resource drain. And the there-to-fore strong moral gatekeepers of churches and mosques were equally helpless against the tide of drugs, unemployment and general incapacity that swept our community. We had become low productivity consumers of goods, services and largesse. And we have not yet nor do we seem likely to reverse course.

Failure to recognize our social demise as largely an economic issue inoculates us against the very ideas that are essential for our recovery. Instead of responding to the changing land/peoplescape of Newark with an effort to control the economic reality of our community, we opted to control the political reality in hopes of salvaging our sinking condition with public policy and public dollars. This has failed. Schools are worse, services are worse, institutions are weaker and citizens are falling deeper into suffering each day. Drugs and entitlements are the monsters of habit that we cannot seem to outrun. We are slaves again.

We believe that every moment must be turned to reversing our economic fortunes starting with those areas in our own community that we can bring under our control. Go out next Sunday morning and look at the eager operators of the icy carts selling lemon ice outside of churches in the Black community. It’s a great business model. It’s an honest job being performed by someone who honors work enough to seek out a market and stand in the hot sun to make an honest living. And as you watch the pails of lemon ice that disappear into the bellies of giddy Black children and their parents, try to figure out why it is not us providing this service in our own community. Here’s another example: when you pull up to some traffic lights you will see gentlemen selling flowers to motorists, most often they are not Black. But next to them there is sometimes a Black man with a paper cup begging for coins. Take a close look at the two of them and try to figure out what makes them different and why our brother cannot sell flowers to motorists in his own community. Drugs and entitlement are usually at play.

Things have disintegrated so badly that the police have received reports about workers on construction sites in the Black community being robbed of money and tools. So not only are many of us unwilling to do any work, we are also impeding and intimidating those who want to work. Creating a value for honest work and a thirst for business development must become the key goals of our community.

Among the characteristics of plantation life three were key—the prohibition of reading, no control over plantation resources and extremely limited mobility. It is amazing that much of life in Newark’s Black community can be defined by those very same characteristics. Failing schools and negative social and peer pressures defame most learning, outsiders control most resources and too many residents are trapped by the boundaries of their own neighborhoods or similar communities (ghettos).

Until and unless we mount a competitive assault against continued and further economic control of Black communities by non-indigenous forces, Black Newark cannot recover. In which case a strategy of displacement will necessarily be pursued. It is truly painful to acknowledge that after 40 years in many ways the rut is only deeper