“When I Become Mayor, We All Become Mayor”
When Ras J. Baraka won the mayoral election for New Jersey’s largest city last year, expectations were high. The former South Ward councilman, one-time principal of Central High School and son of the famed poet-activist Amiri Baraka championed a populist vision. During the campaign, he famously told residents, “When I become Mayor, we all become Mayor!”
In the days leading up to, and following the election, the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers recognized an opportunity to work intensively with the incoming mayor. CNJG had previously established a nonpartisan, City Hall-based Newark Philanthropic Liaison office, in collaboration with then Mayor Cory Booker in 2007.
Following the transition, Mayor Baraka and CNJG built exciting new bridges.
For example, the Mayor included the grantmakers’ recommendations for collaboration as an appendix to his strategic plan, The Blueprint for a New Newark.
“We felt this transition was a time for funders to ‘lean in,’” said Nina Stack, President of the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers. “The grantmaking community spent seven years organizing ourselves to work collectively with the City of Newark. Under Mayor Baraka, we saw an opportunity to build on old investments and create new ones.”
Prioritizing Five Pillars
It’s impossible for philanthropy to be a panacea for all of Newark’s challenges. But the Mayor’s team appreciated the value that philanthropic partners brought to the table. Fueled with support from CNJG members, including the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Newark Philanthropic Liaison office, in concert with the Mayor’s Chief Policy Advisor, set about to convene, connect, and leverage partnerships and resources for Mayor-identified pillars.
Among dozens of issues, the Mayor has cited five initiatives as worthy of philanthropic engagement and top of mind attention. So far in 2015, $3 million in private support is helping seed strategies that show promise for Newark residents.
1. Public Safety
Mayor Baraka has long understood violence to be a public health issue. He has won praise for a constant rhythm of neighborhood events, summits, and youth presentations to address violence. Local funders have rallied around several prongs of the Mayor’s initiatives. For example, CNJG members funded a cross-sector retreat to coalesce multiple public safety partners working in the city. That retreat has led to the creation of the Safer Newark Council, committed to inter-connected solutions to reduce violent crime and improve perceptions of safety.
An accompanying funder-supported initiative is the Newark Community Street Team. The team comprises 15 outreach workers in the South Ward Model Neighborhood Initiative. They are assisting approximately 100 individuals to stabilize their lives and turn away from a life of crime, through mentoring, life skills, and case management.
2. Education – Communities Schools/Read and Believe
As a former principal, Mayor Baraka has been outspoken on the critical role of education in Newarkers’ lives. His appointment of Dr. Lauren Wells as Chief Education Officer in the Office of Comprehensive Community Education has helped inaugurate long-term and short-term public-private efforts.
Dr. Wells has written how “community schools” help mitigate the impacts of poverty on students and provide an environment that can greatly improve schools. Launching community schools will necessitate early support from the funding community. Encouraging discussions are underway among neighborhood residents, funders, and education leaders.
Read and Believe, a literacy-focused initiative, imagines a city that takes on literacy as a communal cause. The umbrella campaign includes, among several programs,My Very Own Library. CNJG members, including the Foundation for Newark’s Future, as well as Rutgers, individual donors and Scholastic’s Summer Reading Challenge, enabled MVOL to serve 27,000 Newark Public School students in grades K-8 students. Each child selected four free books to take home for summer break.
3. Centers of Hope
The Centers of Hope are nine community-based centers in all five of Newark’s wards that allow access to City services, wellness and enrichment opportunities where people live and work. Four centers have opened thus far, some focusing on young women, special needs, entrepreneurship, and municipal ID access. All offer a variety of after school, athletic, arts and culture, educational, environmental, healthy living, free WiFi and recreation programming to engage children and families.
4. My Brother’s Keeper Newark
The Mayor’s My Brother’s Keeper Newark initiative is part of a nationwide, White House-led campaign to empower boys and men of color and strengthen the systems that ensure their success. MBKN’s goals are dependent on cross-sector partnerships, data-mining, and a combination of policy and direct-service projects. CNJG members have provided seed funding for the MBKN’s initial roundtables, forums, and on-ramping initiatives. Most notable was a “Young Men of Color and Law Enforcement” forum at Central High School, designed to address issues that damage the relationship between African-American and Latino youth and law enforcement. The White House has recognized MBKN as a leader among the national communities that are building greater supports for young men of color.
5. Summer Youth Employment Program and Postsecondary Access
One of the biggest success stories of the year was the dramatic increase in the number of teenagers employed in the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program. Newark went from 1,500 last summer to over 2,600 youth who got jobs. The growth was prompted by a partnership between the Mayor’s office, funders, New Jersey Institute of Technology, and the Newark City of Learning Collaborative (NCLC). One thousand of the teens were enrolled in jobs that provided not only a paycheck but also learning opportunities for coding, urban landscaping, and an NCLC Summer Learning Institute on the campus of Essex County College. Financial empowerment and banking support for these first time workers, made possible from the Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund, was an added bonus.
The New York Times recently praised Mayor Baraka for defying expectations. Working collaboratively with residents, institutions, and funders, the Mayor is driving the change that makes Newark a city we all can believe in.
Tai Cooper is Chief Policy Advisor to Mayor Ras J. Baraka. Jeremy Johnson is the Newark Philanthropic Liaison, a position funded by the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers as a joint venture with the Mayor.