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