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Settling into the campaign post-season, Rashawn Davis doubles down on issues and builds bridges

Above, Rashawn Davis speaks at the “She Wins” girls program at Hayes West in July as his campaign manager, Chad Montague, looks on. Credit: Jermane Hall 

On a rainy Saturday afternoon in late June, a group of about four dozen smartly dressed young women and men mingled in a high-ceilinged multi-purpose room at the Washington Street offices of the All Stars Project.

Most of those in attendance had matriculated from the organization’s after-school enrichment program in Newark. As they noshed on assorted refreshments, Rashawn Davis, a young man very much their peer, stood near the doorway chatting with his campaign manager and advisor, Chad Montague.

Davis, who ran for the West Ward city council seat in 2014, was gearing up to take part in the afternoon’s six-person “Young Professionals Developing Newark” panel. Among the community organizers, child advocates, and educators on the panel, 23-year-old Davis was the sole political figure.

rashawn_leaders of today_nqTo be sure, even as the lone politico on the dais, Davis still shared a proclivity for a grassroots approach to community improvement with his co-panelists. While he’s chosen politics and government as his primary throughway to change making in Newark, organizing is in his roots. Davis’ mother was a tenant organizer at Georgia King Village, and he watched up close as she engaged in methodical community strategy development to give voice to its tenants.

And Davis himself is an organizer. He currently works at the American Civil Liberties Union where he is, as he put it, “charged with thinking about how the Newark [Police Department] can avoid violating people’s rights.” He was heavily involved in the formation of Newark’s first-of-its-kind civilian complaint review board, which was approved in April of this year and will exercise oversight over Newark’s police conduct complaint process.

But on that afternoon’s young professionals panel, Davis touted the specific role that politics and local government could play in helping to make the goals of Newark’s grassroots and organizing communities manifest. “If you want to accomplish something big in this lifetime, you have to work with people,” he said, referring specifically to the need for people to work across disciplines to achieve their community-minded goals.

An acute frustration of Davis’ is that youth, in particular, don’t see politics and government as tools they can wield to accomplish their objectives, and that some elder leaders seem intent on quashing young voices, often by telling them to wait their turn.

“I don’t accept the narrative that you all are leaders of tomorrow,” he said to the panel attendees. “You all are leaders of today.”

The young professionals panel was the kickoff to a summer where Davis has been purposeful about fashioning himself into an effective “leader of today” for Newark. Davis has stayed true to his core thesis for his 2014 candidacy: that young people must become bona fide actors in government, in large part because they’re inordinately burdened by the most critical problems of the day, including violence, unemployment, access to housing, and other grave issues.

But Davis has also become more tactical of late: he’s sharpened his message, diversified his activities, and grown his relationships among a more varied set of political players in the area.

In particular, Davis, who cultivated an impressive set of mentors during his council run, but was still ally-less from an official standpoint, has been forging political relationships at the county level.

“The Democratic Party is the chief nominator for key positions in [Essex] County,” he explained to me, as I sat with him, Montague, and his college friend from Georgetown University at Skylab rooftop lounge earlier this summer. To that end, Davis is working with Essex County Democratic Committee Chairman Leroy Jones to build a “youth caucus” that will encourage young people – defined as aged 21 to 35 for the purposes of the effort – to participate in politics.

rashawn_forty-or-older“He ran for councilman in East Orange at 24 and for mayor at 29. He gets it, and he wants to see the Democratic Party embrace more young talent,” Davis explained.

“The county party sees that cities like Newark, East Orange, and Irvington are becoming younger. A smart party person is looking at that trajectory,” he continued, explaining why he thinks the county officials he’s worked with have been proactive about helping to cultivate fresh civic talent.

As Davis has grown his relationships vertically within the county Democratic Party, he’s also grown them horizontally, using the opportunity to start building relationships with his youthful counterparts in other municipalities in the area.

“We’re forging unprecedented ground, because for the first time we’re creating tighter relationships with other towns in Essex County. I’ve been sitting down with folks and asking what are the issues in Newark versus Cedar Grove, for example. And as young people, we have more things in common across the county than people might assume,” he said. “One of the key things we have in common is a lack of youth participation. I think everyone [across Essex County] is excited and resolved around that idea.”

But Davis is careful to point out that growing youth influence in local government does not only entail attracting municipal talent. He also considers how increasing the political literacy of potential issues advocates – helping them understand the mechanisms of the local political system – might grow them into powerful allies for advocacy, fundraising, and voting.

“We want to attract youth who care about issues, not even necessarily about running for office,” Davis explained. They’re an important part of the process, he said, because they can be groomed into energetic and influential organizing talent.

“How do you get candidates who are interested in your issues? How do you create voting power and mobilization power? We’re going to break that idea that you can only be relevant if you’re forty or older,” he said.

On the issues themselves, Davis was characteristically engaged. He is a serious student of government innovation and civics best practices, and rarely offers an analysis without citing evidence in the form of a case study detailing what approaches have succeeded, or failed, in other cities.

When we spoke, Chris Cerf had just succeeded Cami Anderson as superintendent of Newark schools, and critics of Anderson felt betrayed by the move. Davis said he thought anger over the succession highlighted a tendency to focus so much on people that the systems largely responsible for forging circumstances the community is dissatisfied with — in this case, the state of Newark schools — fly under the awareness radar.

“We get lost in the details about figureheads. Meanwhile, our fundamentals haven’t moved, and we haven’t really gotten anywhere on the core issues,” he explained. “In terms of the schools, we haven’t figured out how to create a school district that meets the needs of our students. Once we get local control, what is our plan?” he asked.

rashawn_occupying blocks_nqAnd while he acknowledged that Mayor Ras Baraka had been creative in terms of diversifying his approach to crime, Davis was critical of the effectiveness of those strategies.

“I don’t think creating Centers of Hope is enough. And I think model neighborhoods are a great idea, but we need to figure out whether occupying blocks is actually moving the needle. Baraka hasn’t proven yet that these ideas are working,” Davis continued, citing a proliferation of murders that had just started to ramp up at the beginning of the summer.

“One year certainly isn’t enough to completely fix it, but even from what I’ve seen, there haven’t been any proven effective approaches to figure out what to do,” he said. (Baraka recently defended his approach in a YouTube video, citing his community events as one prong of a plan that includes increasing police patrols and intelligence details to help interdict gang organizations.)

That insistence on effectiveness animates Davis’ approach to choosing, prioritizing and sequencing his activities – balancing his notions of the best end states for the community with both a thoroughly researched plan for the best ways to achieve them, and a tactical approach to positioning himself to take action.

#AfterTheRun is our yearlong series examining the life and work of Rashawn Davis after his 2014 city council run.

Read the first article in this series, End of the beginning: Rashawn Davis finds his footing after Newark’s municipal race.

4 ideas Newark can borrow from the tech startup world recently held its first Ingenuity Talk this June at Alva Tavern. The Brick City Bucks Ingenuity series invites Newarkers to offer innovative ideas to our readers over lunch. Rashawn Davis, the city’s youngest-ever city council candidate, discussed habits Newark can borrow from the tech startups to move the city forward. In his editorial below, Davis fleshes out those ideas.

Simply put, technology has changed our world. It has changed the way we communicate, the way we interact, dream, and hope.

The successes of the tech industry is not accidental; the principles and tactics practiced by the most successful companies in tech help make consistent innovation and success possible. As an organizer and advocate, it’s easy to see the natural intersections of tech with important sectors like public service, and more specifically city government. As cities like Newark strive to match the success of the tech industry in measurements of job growth, crime, and development, there are indeed habits and methods that we should adopt from the tech industry. Four in fact.

1. Use data & transparency to measure and prove our success

We need to start being honest about what works and what doesn’t. In our cash-strapped city, we have to get serious about data and analytics. As a municipal government, our city needs to get to a place where we can quantitatively prove that we are using dollars efficiently and meaningfully.

During our 2014 race for Newark City Council, residents were often concerned about why resources were being put to one effort, and not the other. We have to make sure that we have those answers for residents. Moreover, we need to make sure that data and information is transparent and available to all. This will go along way to make sure our city services are accountable, efficient, and responsive to the concerns of residents.

2. Get serious about developing municipal talent

The tech industry is constantly innovating itself because year after year, it is attracting the best talent by investing in young people who express interest and talent in tech.

The world of public service should be no different. Here in Newark, we need to be more intentional about grooming future civic leaders. Cities like Newark are facing more challenges than ever, and we have to make sure we meet those challenges by attracting, recruiting, and supporting the best of the best. This means setting and maintaining high achievement standards for those working in City Hall, and beginning to cultivate young people to grow and meet those standards.

Newark should start a pipeline and apprenticeship program that not only teaches civics to our young people, but in the process also identifies those who are promising public servants, and gives them the resources and support to grow their promise. In turn, those same young people we taught, believed in, and supported will one day work at City Hall, committed to making our city better. We need to train our civic leaders the same way we train our doctors, lawyers, and even ball-players. Yes, it’s that important.

3. Develop smart partnerships

One of the great strengths of the tech industry is that companies often know what they do not know. If they lack the human resources or expertise to execute an initiative successfully, tech companies often use partnerships to leverage skills and assets of other companies.

Municipal governments like Newark must be more serious about embracing public-private partnerships. If we are being honest, we’ll admit that there are some things our city government does really well, and other things that it does terribly. We need to get to a place where we can recognize our deficiencies, figure what organizations and groups in our city do that particular thing well, and then work with them to benefit the entire city.

I would love to see an Office of Strategic Partnerships in Newark – an office designed to research and gather all the great assets in our city, and to see how we can work with those assets and partners to build a better Newark.

4. Create a culture of innovation around city government

Tech is sexy. A huge part of the industry’s success is that people are clamoring to see what will appear next. We are often less concerned with the actual technology, and more concerned with the presentation of that technology and social meaning of it.

In our city, municipal government has become archaic, distant, and inaccessible for many people. We have to make sure that we once again make City Hall a place of excitement and hope, a true civic square. This doesn’t mean changing laws or critical processes of government, but it means changing the presentation of our city government. For everything from the physical design of City Hall to how we make major announcements, 920 Broad Street must again become our civic center. It must become a place where people are excited to come, inspired to be in, and still feeling moved well after leaving.

While that may sound idealistic, it is truly a call on us to get creative about how we present city services and the government of our ever-changing city. My hope is that one day Newark creates an Office of Innovation that assesses the practices of City Halls, and offers ways to innovate them in an effort to once again make our City Hall a civic square.

Of course, the tech-world is not all perfect, and frankly there are several practices and tactics I believe they can learn from us. But if we are to make Newark into the greatest city that it can be, then we must constantly looking for ways to improve. These four practices from the tech-industry are a few that I think can go a long way to help Newark move forward.

Rashawn Davis is Newark’s youngest ever city-council candidate. Learn more at Read our #AfterTheRun series for reporting on Davis and his work.

End of the beginning: Rashawn Davis finds his footing after Newark’s municipal race

It’s an early spring Saturday afternoon in Newark, and I’m bumping along Springfield Avenue in the backseat of a red Buick. Rashawn Davis, 22, is seated in front of me in the passenger seat discussing the details of his next event with his campaign manager, Chad Montague. He’ll be visiting St. Ann’s Soup Kitchen in Newark’s West Ward to read at a literacy program and serve food to the kitchen’s Saturday morning clientele.

For Davis, this Saturday afternoon is the coda to a week spent working at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on community policing issues by day, and talking to the likes of me at night (I interviewed Davis for this story four days prior to our soup kitchen excursion).


Image credit: Andaiye Taylor

At St. Ann’s, Davis is greeted warmly by the soup kitchen’s staff. He heads into a long, thin reading room where children have gathered around a table, and reads Babar Comes to America to a young girl. When he’s finished there, he crosses the facility and heads into the kitchen, where he dons a baseball cap and matching apron, and receives a rundown of the day’s menu from kitchen staff. Asked to make some remarks to the people he’ll soon serve, he assents readily and walks out to the middle of the floor to say a few words.

His basic message to the soup kitchen attendees: that he’ll be working on their behalf in the political off-season, far away from the klieg lights and media hype that contribute to the circus-like feel of campaign season here in Newark. This, in a nutshell, is the blueprint for Davis’ life after his first political run.

Unto the breach

Newark might be one of the oldest cities in the country, but look at its current demographics, and at the people who are most affected by the city’s most pressing problems, and the watchword is undoubtedly “youth.”

Newark indexes slightly higher for pre-adult youth than the state of New Jersey, and the city boasts a senior population of only 8.6 percent, versus the state’s 13.5 percent. Young people are the subject of the city’s raging debate about education, and the hardest hit by unemployment. They’re both the most frequent victims and perpetrators of violent crime.

Yet Newark’s political leadership is characterized by legacy, incumbency and, well, age. It’s a particular concern for Davis, who worries that the experiences, worldview, and talents of the millennial generation are essential for moving the city forward, but missing from the city’s local government leadership. The needs of that generation, and of the city on the whole, can’t be sufficiently addressed because of youth underrepresentation, Davis says.

So in 2013, while the Newark native was still a college undergraduate at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and buoyed in part by his core group of friends – all enterprising young black men from cities around the country – Davis decided to “be the change” and run for office in his hometown.

Failing forward

Davis entered the campaign with the intent to do as well as he could, but on the merits, it was highly unlikely that he’d pull out a win. In the beginning in particular, attention to his campaign was slow-going, and money was scarce. He was also up against Newark voters’  tendency to vote for incumbents and other known entities in local elections (a tendency they share with the average American voter). Davis was decidedly neither.

Davis made it clear to me that losing wasn’t fun (“for a week or so after the election I didn’t talk to many people, and I was a little disenchanted with the system,” he said, mostly due to vandalism and other assorted ugliness his campaign weathered as voting day drew closer). But Davis also knew that losing the race was merely the end of the beginning of his plan to be a change agent in Newark. “We still had a ton of opportunity ahead of us, even if we didn’t win,” he observed.

In the technology startup world, this is called “failing forward.” The concept: statistically, an entrepreneur’s first venture is unlikely to succeed. But launching a new venture, and all the activities that go along with it – defining a vision, creating an execution plan, hiring the right (or the wrong) team members, getting investors to contribute funds – these make for such dynamic learning experiences that founders often find themselves in high demand for new opportunities, even if the business they founded didn’t succeed. They fail forward.

Davis’ first run conferred similar benefits. Hearing from Newarkers helped him understand what he would need to accomplish to make his pitch to Newarkers resonate better. Trying to get an audience for his message with a lean team and even leaner funds made the importance of serious fundraising and smart staffing apparent. And the attacks Davis said his campaign experienced after his first big press mentions – on PolicyMic and MTV – awakened him to the ugly realities of Newark politicking during campaign season.

Back to the day-to-day


Image credit: Brian Rock

In this way, Davis’ first run helped bring shape and clarity to the work he does now. Working backwards from the types of arguments he would like to have made to Newarkers about his record during his first council race, Davis has been able to marry issues he sincerely cares about with a plan to accomplish milestones that the community can easily understand and appreciate.

In the most concrete way, that work has involved the creation of a Civilian Police Review Board under the aegis of the ACLU. While systemic – and often deadly – abuse of communities of color by police has recently become a marquee issue in national conversations, Davis’ work precedes this attention, instead coming on the heels of the Justice Department’s announcement last July of a federal monitor to keep watch over the Newark Police Department.

Davis is being intentional about how he spends his post-campaign time in other ways. One of his initiatives is to bring young professionals and creatives together to collaborate on projects in Newark, and to simply be aware that they’re a resource for one another here in town. To that end, he recently hosted an “Innovator’s Happy Hour” at Newark’s new Skylab rooftop bar. “I knew what it was like to wonder if you had a community here,” he said of his motivation for organizing the event.

Davis is also continuing to hone his ideas for how to elevate civic life in the West Ward, and in the city at large. One of his favorite ideas? “‘City Hall to Go’,” he said. “You take a van of City Hall employees to a different corner in a neighborhood each week, park it there, and let people come and get their questions answered there. It’s like a City Hall substation,” Davis explained of the idea he first learned of at the “innovation lab” at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

And in general, Davis is in favor of a muscular approach to the city council office. “The demand on council people is so much more” than what they are required to do by statute, Davis said. “Council members need to have visionary insight,” in order to do their part to improve the city, he added. From figuring out how to reform the blighted Pabst Blue Ribbon brewery site on South Orange Avenue, to maximizing commercial opportunities along the Orange Street corridor, Davis says an “expansive mindset” is required for council members to help unlock Newark’s potential.

In the next few months, Davis says he expects to continue dedicating considerable time to the Civilian Police Review Board, an initiative given new dimension by the current national climate. More tactically, Davis plans to start interviewing for communications, funding, and intern staff.

And perhaps he’ll accomplish a thing or two he can’t anticipate at the moment. “This in-between time is new,” he said.

Featured image credit: Brian Rock

#AfterTheRun is our yearlong series examining the life and work of Rashawn Davis after his city council run.

Read the next article in this series, Settling into the campaign post-season, Rashawn Davis doubles down on issues and builds bridges.