For their first general body meeting of the New Year, the Urban League of Essex County Young Professionals (ULECYP) set out to cross-examine the current state of black New Jersey. After a day’s work, young professionals from the surrounding Newark area (under the leadership of Jason Grove, the chapter’s president) assembled at Newark’s First Presbyterian Church to appraise both the city and the current state of its black residents with a focus on education, employment, and criminal justice
“It’s just rich history, so much rich history,” said Reverend Glen Misick, the church’s first black pastor since its inception in 1666, about the church, which is often hailed as “the Church that founded Newark” given its role in the growth and development of the 350-year old city. More than 50 years after the Urban League of Essex County first hosted their meetings in the same location, Reverend Misick noted that the rousing activism of the young professionals demographic is one the historic church is keen on embracing.
The conversation of the night, which hinged on education, jobs, and justice, included a panel with Lawrence Hamm, founder and chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress; Vivian Cox Fraser, CEO of the Urban League of Essex County, and Rashawn Davis, president of Essex County Young Democrats. The conversation turned in part to the relevance of history and of civil rights organizations like the Urban League.
“You can’t really understand the present unless you understand the past, and the past is bearing down on us everyday,” said Hamm. “So when we talk about jobs, education, and justice now, it’s against the backdrop of all the things that occurred in the past,” he continued.
Cox Fraser added: “Today, the need for an Urban League is great if not greater that 100 years ago. It goes to show that although many things have changed, many things still remain the same.”
One of those issues is concentrated property, which affects many of the other issues that affect young professionals even if they don’t experience poverty itself firsthand. In response to a question about how young professionals can advocate for a decrease in crime in the city, Hamm explained that the high rate of crime in urban communities is not a singular issue, and should not be treated as such.
“Crime is the handmaiden of poverty, and I would submit to you that until we deal with the poverty, crime is going to remain with us,” Hamm explained.
A recurring theme in the discussion centered the need for action to improve the quality of life in New Jersey’s urban communities. “Today in New Jersey, over 60 percent of our incarcerated population is African-American. Cities like Newark have unemployment rates that are almost double the national employment rate. Children of color born today in urban cities have worse life chances than ever before. And I say all of this as a reminder that we have work to do,” said Davis.
The “work” — which panelists noted could begin with young professionals opting to live and work in the city as opposed to moving out and leaving it — is also vulnerable to gentrification, said Cox Fraser. “If you don’t own anything, you don’t control anything,” she said, before continuing: “Gentrification has occurred in many communities, and I believe that the only way you can stop it is to get in front of it. We need young professionals to come back and own their community.”
The Urban League of Essex County currently spearheads a plan to revitalize the historic neighborhood of Fairmount Avenue in the city’s West Ward. According to a strategic plan for the project, the initiative will focus on creating the type of neighborhood that the people who live and work in the community want to see. The work is of a piece with the ULECYP’s urgent tone and sense of urgency around economic equity, public safety, and quality of life, and a slate of practical initiatives they’ve undertaken of late to chip away at those issues.