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

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Economic Reality

The first anniversary of Mayor Cory Booker in office unveils an economic crisis for the City of Newark that has been long in the making. As the city struggles to pay its bills while managing a structural deficit and workers worry about their jobs, the Booker administration grapples with creating badly needed efficiencies with dwindling resources. Things could hardly be worse. But we see an opportunity amidst all the gloom. An opportunity for leaders to finally embrace the fact that government will never be able to provide all the jobs needed by residents. It’s a unique opportunity for the community and their leaders to take their fate into their own hands and mold an economic development strategy that creates entrepreneurs and jobs.

Few if any local governments can provide sufficient jobs for their residents. But as communities of people go, no community could possibly be in worse shape than African American Newark where unemployment, violent crime, drug use and disease are high and educational achievement remains stubbornly low. Not only are large numbers of people jobless, they also lack the tools/skills to get good paying jobs even if they were to become available.

As dire as this all may sound African American Newarkers are not without opportunities. An absence of jobs is not the problem it is made out to be. Jobs are, in fact, everywhere in the Black community; all of us who live here walk past them and through them everyday. A quick glance around reveals a grocery store every few blocks in many Black neighborhoods—practically none of them owned by Black merchants; practically all of them clearing thousands a day. In fact, except for the street vendors that line our downtown corridors, there is no significant merchant class in the African American community. Nearly all the businesses in our community are owned and/or operated by people of other ethnic backgrounds. Gas stations, Dry Cleaners, Laundromats, Liquor Stores, Drug Stores, and all the rest are owned and operated by people who don’t live in or contribute to the economic growth and development of the community that provides their wealth.

The Black community is dominated by outside business interests made up of members of multiple ethnic communities. None of their communities where they are a majority of the population would permit such a thing. Indeed, there is no other community that we are aware of that would allow us to dominate their business sector. So far we have been unwilling to seize the very opportunities that non-African Americans have come to our communities and seized. It is ironic that we are watching them thrive while we barely survive. This serious geographic economic imbalance must be addressed if our overall community economic condition is to improve.

Just take a walk past any thriving business in our community and count the hundreds of jobs that will be ours when we take the initiative to control our economic destiny. Our refusal to seize those business opportunities and establish the ability to provide employment for ourselves is the problem. We continue to spend far too much time focusing on someone giving us a job and not nearly enough on making a job for ourselves. Unfortunately Newark lost its manufacturing base taking a lot of jobs with it. While many are content to regurgitate this fact in defense of our current economic reality, we believe it’s long past the time to throw that crutch away. We must compete to survive.

The African American community has allowed others to set up shop and assume the responsibility to provide our basic goods and services without offering so much as a hint of competitive resistance. Worse still, our leaders have practically been silent while vital life sustaining millions are drained from our community daily. They continue to want and urge government to provide for our every need. The result of relying on such unrealistic expectations is disappointment and frustration that leads to misplaced anger and rage.

Time is quickly running out for the resurgence of a vibrant African American community. There are few credible excuses left to lean upon to explain our apparent inability to see after ourselves. Failure to stand up and do for self will lead to our virtual irrelevance. The more dependent we become, the more abandoned we will be. Politics alone will not be enough to ensure that we have sufficient power to protect the legitimate interests of our community. The level of disregard for our interests rises daily and moment-by-moment we become more powerless to defend against political and economic encroachment. It is not too late to turn things around but the window of opportunity is fast closing.

In our view, all leaders must advocate steps to rapidly bring about economic self-sufficiency. Anything less is futile. We don’t mean to imply a withdrawal from other activity or current employment thrusts but rather an increased focus on business ownership that creates jobs whose dispensation we control. We are talking about the orderly creation of wealth as a matter of basic survival.

As far as those businesses that now make up and control the economy of the Black community, thank G_D they are there. But for them there might be no service whatsoever. Our competition will not eliminate them all. If we compete well enough some of them will close down and a more healthy balance of insiders and outsiders will exist. But no one is going to give us back our community and no other community is going to allow us to take theirs. The best affirmative action is action that we take in our own behalf.

If we make the most of the thousands of opportunities that stare us in the face daily we will find many others along the way. So let’s stop deceiving people and making them comfortable in the belief that we have no responsibility for ourselves. Cory Booker, Jon Corzine, George Bush and no other political leader is our savior. And if we are unwilling to stand up and save ourselves, we deserve to perish.