by Halashon Sianipar
Dear Ras Baraka,
Congratulations on getting elected. I voted for you and I don't regret it — yet. I have high hopes for Newark with you as mayor.
Your administration has made a point of encouraging residents’ input and participation, and that has motivated me to respond with this open letter. I’ve had the opportunity to meet you several times, but have never introduced myself. (I’ve heard you're an introvert. I am too.) After those encounters where I've said nothing, I thought writing this letter would be a more fruitful approach.
I was pretty engrossed with this election; this was the most I’ve ever followed a political race. For years, I was apathetic when it came to politics, but as I've gotten older I've grown to understand how it affects so many aspects of my life: job, health, bills, housing, education – everything. I’ve been trying to pay attention, especially on the local level. For this race, I read all the policy papers and attended a few of the mayoral debates. I also followed it closely in the press. But the more I paid attention, the less I felt like I knew the candidates.
Voting is hard. Honestly, I wasn’t 100% sure who I was voting for until I stepped into the booth and pressed that button. Ultimately, my choice came down to presentation, and I was particularly drawn to your message of collectivism. On one occasion I heard you say, “Leadership is born of time, not ambition.” That really stuck with me.
Based on your post-election moves, I believe you're trying to back up your words of inclusion and collaboration with action. I was impressed with your comprehensive all-volunteer transition team. I even got to interact with a few of them at the community forum in my ward. At mine, we were grouped at tables, answered a set of questions individually, and then discussed our answers as a group. Each table then nominated a speaker to share our conclusions with the room. I can tell you're an educator.
During the campaign, I saw education as your strong suit. I’m convinced the community consensus on Cami Anderson is that she is an ineffective leader. No matter how good her intentions are (and I realize that is debatable as well), she’s failed to be open, transparent, or understanding. Your sustained opposition to One Newark drew me into your camp.
But in spite of my feelings about Anderson, I thought it was fair of Shavar Jeffries to meet with her. There is a sizeable population of Newarkers – several of my friends are among them – that support charter schools, and I didn’t think you sufficiently addressed them. What is your stance? Are you against charter schools? Are you for closing them? What are your thoughts on co-location?
You said we could strengthen our opposition to One Newark by presenting an alternative that included community input. On the 60th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, you endorsed the Newark Promise education plan. Once I read it, I found myself agreeing with everything in it. I love the idea of neighborhood schools being “community hubs” where one can walk in with an issue, at any stage of life, at anytime of day, and explore solutions. That’s beautiful. The plan includes nutritional services, job training, childcare, health care, recreation, social services — the list goes on. Instead of a goal of “100 excellent schools”, Newark Promise aims for “excellent neighborhood schools for all.”
But in spite of my satisfaction with what was in the plan, I thought a proper discussion of charter schools was missing once again – the plan only said that they would be “assessed”. And there weren’t any specifics about how the plan would be funded. Perhaps that level of detail is for another paper, but it would have made the plan feel more tangible.
I also wasn’t as impressed with your crime prevention strategies. I applaud you for working to address violence as a public health issue, and for embracing the federal monitor of the police department, citing the need for reform. I read in the paper that you’re working to put more cops on the street, and have them engage with residents through community policing. Hopefully these kinds of changes can help improve community relations. I’m not very convinced, though.
In your crime plan, I was disappointed to see that you cited anti-loitering laws as among your successes. I think this is particularly baffling since you also want Newark to be an international destination. What would Times Square be without all the people milling around and taking pictures? What would Newark’s reinvented Military Park be without all the people playing and relaxing?
That is what makes a space feel vibrant. Walking down a dark, empty street makes a city feel less safe. The key is to create more active spaces, not less. Society’s perception of loitering is largely, if not entirely, based on the race and/or class of the accused. I was confused that you celebrated policies that, to my mind, encourage profiling.
I also remember when you introduced an ordinance to require small businesses (that catered to fewer than 20 people) to either hire armed guards or close early. Again, this policy can result in one less active space on a street, one less reason to walk or bike home, one less reason to even leave the house. I understand that some of the businesses in our community may look run down or sell unhealthy goods, and that may not be the kind of active space we want to encourage. How about some alternatives? Instead of restrictions, create incentives for them to change their menus or upgrade their appearance. Offer training. Encourage the creation of cooperatives that add value to the community. That sounds more like the vision you have for Newark.
I read in the press about Newark partnering with neighboring cities, and I think it’s a great idea. One article said crime would be the initial focus of those partnerships, but also mentioned plans for other shared services and inter-city engagement between organizations, agencies, and residents. It made me think of the international alliance BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), and the way they’re working collaboratively to counter Western dominance.
I think this initiative has the potential to similarly strengthen urban New Jersey’s political and economic position, and I look forward to seeing it develop. Much like the developing world, urban communities are often forced to look for quick fixes or take whatever aid or development they can get. They often end up fighting over the same investments, which weakens their ability to secure favorable deals. By pooling resources together in a model like BRICS, cities could support each other’s projects and work on more sustainable solutions.
Perhaps a regional master plan could be created to highlight and build upon the strengths of each city. I’ve heard you talk about land banks before. Maybe a multi-city land bank could be beneficial. You also mentioned inter-city basketball games. Maybe that engagement can be developed into multi-city campaigns and standards for affordable housing, living wages, public education, Ban the Box, and more.
I’m no political scientist. I’m no economist. I wasn’t born or raised in Newark. I’m just a resident that loves this city and felt like I should put this out in the atmosphere. I’m Jersey to the core, so I've always considered Newark “The City” — and my city. And I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given, including writing this open letter to you in this forum, to deepen my engagement and investment here.
Maybe next time I'll introduce myself.
P.S. Are you really changing the name of Brick City Development Corporation? I think it's kind of corny that you don't like the name "Brick City." I'm all for cities having multiple nicknames, though.
P.P.S. I first read about you years ago on DaveyD.com and he called you “Hip Hop’s First Mayor.” I was just starting to pay attention to politics and that convinced me to attend the National Hip Hop Political Convention here in 2004. Now you’re the “mayor” mayor, but I don't hear you talk about hip-hop anymore. In the article “5 Things You Might Not Know About Ras Baraka”, you spoke about jazz and soul music. What hip-hop do you still bump?
Do you want to pen a letter to the mayor, or sound off on other issues about Newark? Send your perspectives – short or long – to firstname.lastname@example.org.