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 resumés 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