The Newark Youth Council visits BET’s “106 and Park”. Pictured left to right: Kristin Towkaniuk, Aliyyah Torres, Jessiah Hall, Mahogany Laveu, Shakira McKnight. Photograph courtesy Linda Jumah
While mayor Ras Baraka and guests finished kicking off Newark Poetry Month at City Hall in early October, I was at the other end of Broad Street interviewing five dynamic and passionate Newark youngsters, who together constitute the Newark Youth Council.
They are Jessiah Hall, 17, who attends Seton Hall University; Mahogany Laveau, 17, a student at Newark Collegiate Academy; Shakira McKnight, 20, currently at Essex County College; and Kristin Towkaniuk and Aliyyah Torres, both 17, and both of Science Park High School.
We spoke about why they chose to apply for Newark Youth Mayor (the Youth Council was drawn from that applicant pool), and what they think the highest youth priorities are in Newark and how we should address them them.
The two college students in the group both attended Central High School. We discussed their reactions to the school’s portrayal during the mayoral election.
We discussed “disaster capitalism” and their thoughts on the current situation with Newark Public Schools and the One Newark plan.
They shared their feelings about the perception of Newark, from Conde Nast Traveler readers’ opinions to the notoriously ugly remarks about Newark that often appear in the comments section of NJ.com.
We also talked about their plans, including the citywide youth town hall they’ll be hosting on Tuesday, October 21, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Central High School.
In an essay named “What about the shootings?” that I published just after Brick City Live launched, a little over a year ago, I wrote that “we must elevate hopeful things” in our coverage of Newark, even while we acknowledge the toughest of problems our city has. These five intelligent and engaged young Newarkers are a perfect example of the hope I was referring to. Here are the highlights from our conversation.
Andaiye Taylor: Why did you all decide to apply for youth mayor? What did you hope to achieve?
Jessiah: As soon as they said “youth mayor” I said, “Man, that sounds like me right there.”
I went to Central High School, so I knew Ras. I was on his campaign team, so I was helping him out and everything. And one day I happened to be going back [and forth] with people that were with [Shavar] Jeffries – I actually got into a small debate – and I was defending Ras’ points of view, and things he did. And somebody said to me that, “Aw man, to be honest, if you were running for mayor, I’d actually vote for you.”
And that really stuck in my head. And now that I know I have potential and other people see me as that, I feel like I should now attack it and try for something like this.
Andaiye: Mahogany, from a youth perspective, if you had to name two or three top priorities the city needs to address for your age group specifically, what would they be?
Mahogany: The top two I would say would be violence and education.
Andaiye: Do you have any prescriptions for how the city can approach both of those?
Mahogany: I feel like for education, I think that they should have more resources, and teachers with experience, but a diversity of experience. For example, they can go to different schools for arts that are doing well with their curriculum, and try to get some advice from them so they can see what they can put in their [own] schools’ [art programs] to help the students out.
And also for the violence situation, mostly putting more police enforcement within the streets, and making sure they’re being consistent with it, not like when they do it sometimes and then slack off. I think there should be more enforcement so people know that we’re focusing on violence and we’re trying to stop it.
Andaiye: Shakira did you also attend high school in Newark?
Shakira: I did. I went to Central High.
Andaiye: During the election, Central High School’s track record was called into question. Can you tell me what your experience was like going to Central and being educated in Newark?
Shakira: Going to Central was beautiful. I felt like there was a [special] culture within the school. I don’t know why they would attack such a school, you know? It went through such a beautiful transformation from what it was to the way it is now when you look at it. I believe it was a beautiful school.
Going to school in Newark is not a problem. At all. I believe that, like [Mahogany] said, the teachers should have expertise in diverse subjects, and it should be a true relationship between the teacher and the student.
Andaiye: What was then-principal Baraka like?
Shakira: Principal Baraka. I didn’t go to Central my ninth grade year, but when I came tenth grade year, we were entering the new building. This was the new year of the new building. It was very rowdy in the beginning, and then towards my twelfth grade year – we were the first class to be there four years – there was a big celebration because the school did go through a transformation.
It was a calmer environment, there was a lot more going on within the school, and the principal was actually worried about the safety of the children in the school. He would walk us all the way down the street – two corners down – just to make sure all of the students were good in the school. So I don’t know why Central was attacked because it was a beautiful school and it went through a beautiful transformation with the principal.
Jessiah: She was there during the beginning, so her culture was somewhat different from mine, because when I was there like right before Ras was about to run in the election for mayor, our school was getting attacked because they wanted Central.
Central has a nice building. I got used to it, but when other people see it, it’s like, “Oh my god this is an amazing building.” That’s why it made it hard on my class, because the previous seniors had a certain HSPA (High School Proficiency Assessment) average, and we had to raise the test scores basically. So it made it extremely hard for us because they said, “If you don’t raise these scores, we’re going to take your school.”
Andaiye: Who’s “we”?
Jessiah: Cami Anderson. So like, that’s why it made the principal preach to us, “You gotta do this.” They made us do workshops. Saturdays we’d go back to school to work on HSPA practice and reviews.
Andaiye: Did you feel like that was a good use of your time as a student?
Jessiah: Well me personally, I would’ve passed the score with or without the help. But for certain people it was very useful.
Andaiye: Kristin, I’ve actually seen your name a lot just from writing about the Newark Students Union. Can you talk about why you got involved and what your experience has been?
Kristin: I got involved my sophomore year. Originally the thing that got me in it was the fact that it was really cool to do. The environment that the founders made around the Newark Students Union was a great thing. They made it something where, literally, the first meeting was packed with over 100 students.
Then once I got to know the issues, I was really concerned, and I realized that if we don’t stand up for ourselves, no one will. And we really have to just continue pushing for change, because without change, where would we be now?
Andaiye: What was it that made it seem cool, that got all those students to check it out in the first place?
Kristin: As a sophomore there’s a lot of different things going on. There’s pressure to get involved in organizations. Also, a big social media aspect was involved in it. There were flyers literally everywhere in the school.
Andaiye: You mentioned the issues. What were the biggest issues that attracted you to the organization?
Kristin: There were two big issues for me. First was definitely the $56 million budget cut. Right when the NSU began was right when we got the budget for the year. The schools were left with bad options, like [either] cutting extracurricular activities or cutting teachers, and either way, that leaves students in a really bad position.
Another big issue for me was always the privatization push. Now that I’ve been involved with the Newark Students Union for so long, it’s really clear that this is about money. There’s no doubt in my mind that nothing in the world isn’t about money.
So the fact that New Orleans has zero public schools open at the moment — that’s disaster capitalism. Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, once said the best thing to ever happen to New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. The fact that people died, and people’s houses were lost, and now there’s for-profit charter schools in the region — it’s sad. It makes me angry, and it should make me angry. And I think the biggest part of getting people involved is making them angry, because if you’re mad, you’re not gonna just sit back and let something happen, especially when it’s gonna happen to us some day.
Andaiye: Aliyyah let’s talk about tactics. How do approach the problems and get solutions? What actions do you take?
Aliyyah: We hand out flyers, try to get more students involved. A bunch of students in the city don’t know about what’s going on. They’re just oblivious, and they’re accepting the fact that Cami Anderson is trying to close their schools, but they don’t know why it’s happening, and they don’t know what they need to do to stop it.
So we just hype it up; we try to get them involved. Last year we had two walkouts.
Andaiye: What is the council working on at the moment?
Aliyyah: We’re working on a youth summit and a youth town hall meeting. For the youth town hall, we’re trying to get students to come so they can voice out what they need to voice out, because the adults are the main ones talking. The adults are the main ones creating the rules that they expect the kids to follow. The kids don’t really have a voice within the community, so I became a part of the youth council so I can voice those opinions, because I am a youth myself working for a better city.
Kristin: The youth town hall is about surveying the youth and finding out what we have to do. There’s a difference between organizing for someone and organizing with someone. We can’t assume that we know all the issues in Newark. We have to really get out there and get the most diverse crowd possible and find out all of the issues that are going on. And the youth town hall is really just a starting point.
And then for our term, the ending point would be – the goal – is to have a youth summit. I guess the main goal for us is to get as many people involved in the youth summit as possible. We also plan on having a film festival. We’re really trying to engage students on multiple levels.
Newark youth council members out in the community. Photograph courtesy Linda Jumah.
Andaiye: How do you also engage adults and policymakers? How do take your recommendations and make something of them?
Shakira: We’re making them become resources. We want them to become major resources for youth. We want them to become more engaged with youth. We don’t want to say that they’re not engaged [now], but we want them more engaged as far as putting opportunities out there for youth.
I say this many times: we need mentoring programs for students who want to be firefighters, or youth that want to be policemen, hairdressers. Any type of profession that you can think of, we’re putting resources toward engaging those professionals.
Mahogany: And also for the youth town hall meetings, we’ll take suggestions from the youth in the crowd about what they want in the community. And like Shakira said, those adults are a part of our panel of resources. It’s not like we’re just discussing what we want the change, it’s [also] the actions for how we’re gonna get it to change.
When these panelists come, they will hear what the youth are saying, but they’re also jotting down, “What can I do? What can my job title – me as a person – do to help these kids?” I think that most of the time adults feel that for the youth, they’re not — I don’t think they take us that seriously if I’m gonna be honest. I feel that most of the adults feel like “[It’s nice] they’re doing the youth council thing,” but I feel like they think that it’s just a short term kind of thing. We want them to see it as a long-term project.
Jessiah: This is our first year establishing the youth council. We’re the people that are gonna set the rules and the outline for everybody else. With the youth town hall, it’s about getting ideas, because each event piggybacks off [of] the rest.
Andaiye: I’m curious about whether you pay attention to how Newark is portrayed and written about. What is your perspective on that?
Jessiah: Oh my god, you asked the perfect person.
I go to Seton Hall University. The first thing we are taught is not to go to Newark. I am so serious. I’m like – as soon as I went there we had a floor meeting, and they were saying, “There’s a lot of robberies going on.” And the funny thing is a robbery did happen, but that was in Orange. Yet the people that did it I guess were from Newark, and now it’s like, “Don’t make that right, go left. If you value your life, don’t go right.” I was like, “What?!”
Especially on the weekends, there’ll be parties on Thursdays and Fridays. I was with this bunch that wanted to go to this party, and this girl said to me, she was like, “The party’s going to be in Newark.” She honestly said. “I’m putting my life in your hands.”
I looked at her like, “Chill out.”
Mahogany: Also when we even went to 106 and Park to show the public what we’re about, there was a man that was outside who saw us coming out the van, and he saw that we were from Newark. When I first heard him talk about us I thought he was joking. But then afterwards, I thought he was kinda serious. He was like, “Oh ya’ll come from Newark. I gotta make sure we have security”.
Jessiah: Really. That’s what he said.
Mahogany: He was also talking about stereotypes that he heard and stuff like that. And women that he had dated from Newark and how they weren’t successful.
Most of the stuff that I hear from Newark is basically about the violence. And yeah, some parts of it is true – I’m going to be honest – but at the same time, we have a lot of other stuff that is really making the progress for Newark.
When he was talking, I was getting kinda angry because he kept on talking about Newark in a bad light. I’m like ok, you’re from New York, you’re right next to New Jersey, so you also have some crime that goes on in your community. It’s not like you’re perfect, because you’re not. In that moment I kind of felt like we as a youth council need to take the initiative. That we need to change Newark and change what everybody thinks Newark is.
Jessiah: Yeah. They said we’re the unfriendliest city.
Kristen: In the world apparently. I’ve definitely seen it firsthand. For the first walkout there was an article posted up on NJ.com. And people…it was the most disheartening thing I’ve ever read in my life I think.
Andaiye: The comments?
Kristen: The comments. Newark is a cesspool full of minorities who are scum. And that it’s just full of prostitutes, and all these negative things. And it really hurts because we try our best, and we’re really working to make Newark a better place, but we’re always gonna have to work against everything.
We have the potential to be great, as everyone in the city does. Collectively, we can do it, and it’s really about making it better not only for ourselves, but for future generations. Making Newark the international city that we know it can be.
We have so many resources in this city. We have the college campuses. There are high schools that are thriving. We have the port. We have to start using the resources that are around us.
Mahogany: Also to add to the resources, I feel like a lot of outsiders use our resources, so in a way they’re all saying stuff that they want to stay about Newark, but then you still come into the community.
Mahogany: I feel like people left during the time when people were going through a hardship, but now that Newark is coming up, they think it’s easy to come back again. But the people who stayed the entire time — they don’t get that recognition. They don’t get that acknowledgement. I feel that it should be spoken about, and I think that it’s not fair.