Friday, February 29, 2008

The More Things Change

Power is poised to shift significantly in 2008 at all levels of government. Partly as the result of the national race for president where local factions were deeply divided and partially because of local races on the 2008 election calendar. We can expect a severe testing of political relationships that might lead to a series of interesting realignments. Certainly for political junkies and even for interested bystanders, wherever Newark ends up on the coming roller coaster of politics the ride is bound to be exciting.

Obama v. Clinton witnessed a split in the community that was so ward specific as to be unmistakable in its implications. Since that Tuesday, February 5th Democratic Primary race speculation as to how it will impact the future has been rampant. And we have seen signs of serious assessment taking place among the major local political camps. Many viewed the outcome as a test of strength for the camps; we viewed the results as predictable for the informed observer.

Reading too much into the results might create a reckless rambunctiousness among the heady setting the stage for a series of needless and counterproductive confrontations. But even cool heads will no doubt seize on the outcome to move toward strategic repositioning. Where everyone will wind up is anybody’s guess. And that is precisely what makes it worth watching. Will the Obamaization of the political landscape that has led to record turnout trickle down to school board and district leader races or will the general public reserve their concern and energy for the November elections?

Young people in Newark have not usually flexed their political muscle in the recent past. They have most often been passive observers offering critiques that serve up their reasons for non-participation in tones that alternate between elitism and nonsense. We can only hope that the Obama/Clinton fever pushes a little heat down to the local level where children and ordinary people need the best representation they can get.

All over the nation young people have sprung into action and made the statement that they are relevant. Now we get to judge their deeper interests and determine whether or not they are consistent. Once again remembering the adage that “all politics is local” we HOPE that when the smoke clears and however the new alignments stack up the sheer energy that falls out of a string of robust political encounters leaves us with a better represented community.

Some volley of activity we see reflects legitimate concern, some is mere posturing and some is insidious and calculating. The uninitiated have to be more careful than usual lest they find themselves entwined with plots and counterplots not of their making that might trigger astounding repercussions for those who get sucked in to this high stakes game. Caution is the watchword. Being too eager to be a player could lead to being played.

In some minds the rest of this political season is just the day-to-day scrimmage work that leads to the next round of municipal elections in 2010. Even so, now is a single moment amidst a never to be repeated history defining circumstance for a dynamic alteration of the political status quo. This is Newark’s period of political rebirth. The struggles are many but we see the generational struggle as most prominent.

On Tuesday February 5, 2008, Newark was portrayed as a dangerously divided city. Everything that happens politically going forward must sense the gravity of where we are. Every step forward must be intentional, thoughtful and aimed at mending the fissures that have long lurked beneath the surface but now rage in the open. It is better we know the truth of where we are than stumble around in a deep pretentious sleep. For sure we are headed for a political shake up. Newark just might realize the culmination of its political fate in 2008. We HOPE it is for the better.

February 27, 2008

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

"TRUST" RESIDENTS

Former Atlanta Georgia Mayor Maynard Jackson is a legend in minority political circles because he so skillfully used the power and permission of municipal government to create wealth among African American businesspeople. You might think that with the emergence of Black mayors all over the nation the Jackson model would have been repeated over and over. Unfortunately that has not been the case. We don’t want to speculate as to the reason or even postulate whether or not the model is still relevant or appropriate. What we do know is that it was short lived and nothing effective has replaced it.

So what is happening in Newark? Initial steps are being taken to help establish minority builders and developers as an economic force. But much more can be done if we allow our creativity to blossom. It generally takes a very long time for a new developer to generate real wealth. And in today’s real estate market the prospects have dimmed considerably. Real estate development as a pathway to wealth is fraught with roadblocks. We must pursue other avenues if we want to give Newarkers a shot at the really big bucks.

In the meantime here is an idea that our community might pursue with municipal support: The creation of a “Resident Taxpayer Real Estate Trust” open to investment by resident taxpayers of Newark. Residents who would accumulate wealth through the development of their city would own such a “Trust.” As tax paying property owners, we are already investors in the development of our city. Particularly since new developers are frequently exempted from taxes as an inducement to develop. Whenever that happens taxpayers pick up some portion of the financial burdens created by these new developments. If the municipality would agree to use available incentives to encourage all developers to joint venture with the “Resident Taxpayer Real Estate Trust,” the development of Newark would necessarily benefit Newarkers. The legalities and details of how such a “Trust” would come about or operate rely upon details better left to experts. We are positors. Our idea would not generate gobs of cash for any individual. But it would provide real opportunity to cash in on the red hot redevelopment of their city, substantially increase overall community wealth and cause an uptick in resident commitment to Newark.

Imagine the energy that could be unleashed among citizens if they knew that they could literally own a piece of their city. With every skyscraper and shopping center that went up, their wealth would increase. Their investment in their city would lead to an increase in pride, concern and public participation. It is not likely that resident investors would harbor a casual attitude toward anti-social behavior or mediocre and failing institutions. The establishment of such a “Trust” could even trigger a burst of enlightened in-migration. More importantly residents might be motivated to invest and learn about how money works to drive development. Terms like capital formation and dividends might become commonplace among common people. Just suppose for a minute that the reality of ownership could tamp down consumer tendencies and give birth to notions of commercial productivity. With such luck, we could actually stumble into the creation of a class of entrepreneurs.

Surely some will say we can’t create a “Resident Taxpayer Real Estate Trust.” They will support their case with arguments that protect their interests. We believe there is a way to accomplish this idea. The application of serious thought fueled by the will to change creaky paradigms is all that is required.

Others will question: What of tenants who are not property owners? Our view is that they are second tier taxpayers and as such accommodations for their participation should exist.

A friend of ours recently reminded us that the residents of Green Bay own the Green Bay Packers. While mulling that over we wondered had there been a moment, during the negotiations that sent 220 million of Newark taxpayer dollars to the New Jersey Devils, when it occurred to someone that the arena might have provided an investment opportunity for residents?

A community trust could certainly emerge without the support of government but its potential potency would be far less likely to be realized. On the other hand if the government had the foresight to view supporting the development of a resident (community) based financial business as they might a local developer or construction company, we could turn an important page in the concept of wealth creation among indigenous Newarkers. We think it’s worth consideration.

February 13, 2008

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Vote For Kids

Tuesday, February 5th was an incredible day for politics and the democratic process in Newark’s South Ward. Voters turned out in large numbers to vote in the primary election for President of the United States. It was impressive. Even early in the morning it was clear that the turnout would be good. We all have a right to be proud and encouraged by the solid participation. From what we heard, there was high voter enthusiasm all over the ward. Citizens were pumped up by the prospects of making history. Barack Obama was on the ballot and voters were determined to make their voices heard in this precedent setting contest among democrats to select their candidate for president.

But there was another and perhaps equally important process taking place for part of the day at one of the South Ward election polling sites. At Maple Avenue School from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm there was a public hearing to give all residents—voters and non-voters alike— an opportunity to make their voices heard on the question of who will be the next Superintendent of Newark Public Schools. The people who showed up to speak deserve the highest commendation and the gratitude of the entire South Ward community for demonstrating an increasingly rare level of civic responsibility. The problem is that for such an important matter, far too many residents opted out and passed on the opportunity to help shape the future of thousands of our children.

Because the hours of 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm happen to also be the height of the rush hour for residents who vote after work we could see them pouring into Maple Avenue School to cast their ballots. Unfortunately most left without ever even poking their heads into the auditorium where the Superintendent Search Committee was conducting the public hearings. It was painful to watch. We winced in frustration. Particularly knowing that many of those who breezed by the sign-in table are dissatisfied parents whose children attend Newark Public Schools. And it was not so much that there was only a modest turnout for something to benefit our children—that has come to be expected—it was painful because they were right there, just a few feet away and chose to walk on by.

What does this mean in the context of that old political adage that all politics is local? Here we are faced with perhaps our most important local decision in more than a decade, and a national issue, taking place at the same time in the same place, roundly thumped it. And of course we realize that people are caught up in the legitimate excitement of the Obama campaign but that is precisely the reason that the auditorium should have been jam-packed.

There is virtually nothing in our community that is not affected by the quality of our schools and their product. Crime, taxes, culture, public services, economic development and overall quality of life all tie back, in part, to what schools do or don’t do. And what schools do or don’t do ties back to parent and public participation. School success or failure cannot be viewed in isolation. We all have a hand in it. Walking away is not a viable option. Neither is any other avoidance mechanism. We have to get involved.

So it was Election Day and people were in line, most waiting to vote for Barack Obama. You could not help but recall the ringing oratory and inspiring vision of Barack Obama. It is compelling and tantalizing. But perhaps even more compelling is the presentation of Michelle Obama who herself is a tough act to follow. Her stump speech is every bit as good as her husband’s. Michelle talks about her childhood and how she attended the public school right around the corner. She calls it a good school without which she would not be where she is today. She goes on to say that these good neighborhood schools is what ordinary people want. Is she right? Michelle Obama tells us that making these good schools available to all parents is one of the reasons that Barack is running for president. Do we believe that? It is confusing trying to understand how people (voters at Maple Avenue School) who claim to buy into this vision turn a blind eye to the process set up to give us “ordinary people” a say in creating these “good schools” right here in Newark.

We have commented before that our children have reasons to doubt our sincerity when we say we love them and want the best for them. There are too many signs to the contrary. Caring is not a video game, clothes or pocket money. True concern is keeping children safe from harm, sending them to school with instructions to behave and learn, going to see the teacher, and “attending public hearings.” Well, it’s something like that. So we should not be surprised in the least when children for whom we have shown no concern show no concern for us. Much of their antisocial behavior should be anticipated.

There is no issue before us that is more important than the education of our society beginning with our kids. Getting our systems of public education under productive control and seeding them with the very best leadership is essential. Anti-intellectual pedestrianism and the corruption of standards have taken a heavy toll on public education. Any real hope of reversing the fortunes of public schooling is necessarily tethered to the best efforts of active citizens. No saviors will be arriving anytime soon. Not even Barack Obama. We are either our own best friends or worst enemies. It doesn’t get any more basic than that. It’s time to do for self. Our kids are depending on us to show up for them. They want our vote of confidence and interest. One certainty is that so long as we fail them they are much more likely to fail themselves and us.

A brilliant woman educator warned us of a scary possibility a few years back. She said that we were entering upon a generation of people wherein many parents don’t believe in the ability of their own kids to succeed. This sounds inconceivable. But is it? In any event, civilized society has a duty to rise above the lowest expectations and create schools that foster the highest. There are two more public hearings to allow citizens to make their voices heard about the kind of leadership we want for our public schools. Please.

February 6, 2008