During one visit to the South Ward, Maria Ortiz found out that Newark’s Mayor, Cory Booker, would be attending a local school “holding meeting” that the mayor schedules monthly and consists of many 10-minute face-to-face conversations with individual members of his constituency. The purpose of these meetings is to show the community that the mayor is indeed one of them, that he cares and he’s listening, though he comes from the kind of privilege completely that is completely unimaginable to most of the city’s population.
Cory Booker is the son of African-American trailblazers Cary and Carolyn Booker who were among the first African-American executives at IBM. He was born in Washington, D.C. and grew up in the predominantly white, affluent town of Harrington Park in Bergen County, New Jersey; he went to Stanford University, earning a B.A. in political science and a M.A. in sociology. He played varsity football — made the All–Pacific Ten Academic team — and was elected to the council of (four) presidents. After Stanford, Booker won a Rhodes Scholarship and studied at The Queen’s College, Oxford, where he was awarded an honors degree in modern history and became friends with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. At Boteach’s direction, Booker, a practicing Baptist, became president of Oxford’s L’Chaim Society, an Orthodox Jewish student group, to the chagrin of the Chabad-Lubavitch leaders. L’Chaim was controversial. Initially the society was part of the Chabad movement; then it evolved to become an inter-faith group. Rabbi Boteach, however, was not a member of the Oxford faculty; he was simply a person free to set up an inter-faith group outside Oxford’s domain. Rabbi Boteach and the Chabad-Lubavitch organization in England did not agree on all the issues regarding how to teach Jewish students at Oxford and the role of non-Jewish students. This tension grew when Booker was appointed president of L’Chaim, and Rabbi Boteach left the organization. Rabbi Boteach was further criticized by the British government after an investigation showed that he was funding a lavish lifestyle from charitable donations. Booker went on to graduate from Yale Law School where he operated free legal clinics for low-income residents. He lived in Newark during his final year at Yale, making his way into the political scene, and served as staff attorney for the Urban Justice Center in New York. He became program coordinator of the Newark Youth Project after graduation.
In 2006, Cory Booker was one of the last remaining tenants in Brick Towers (after living there for eight years), a troubled housing complex in Newark’s Central Ward, where he organized tenants to fight for improved conditions. He has since moved to the top unit in a three-story rental on Hawthorne Avenue in the South Ward. In late 2009, Booker was criticized for not owning property in Newark, choosing to rent. The Brick Towers were razed in July, 2008.
Barack Obama, Corey Booker, Michael Steele, Alan Keyes, Deval Patrick – none of these political figures of color emerged from any social movement; they joined their party of choice during college; but they moved quickly up the ranks, and are not race rebels. None of them represent a threat to the power structure of America. Is Corey Booker too good to be true? Is he an honest advocate for the poor and marginalized or just another politician?
Maria Ortiz and I drove to the Luiz Muñoz Marin Middle School in the North Ward, a facility distinctly better than the Miller Street School – grass and open fields, large auditorium and gym, trophy cases. We placed our names on the “meeting roster” to speak with Mayor Booker, then waited in a large auditorium facing a wide stage where cheerleaders practiced their routines. Eventually, we were called and walked down a wide corridor lined with student lockers and were ushered into a classroom with long tables stretched end to end. Mayor Booker was working the room, sitting next to one person, then another, patting people on the back, shaking hands while an aide wrote things down.
Cory Booker is a big, athletic man sporting a bald head, a signature look; he resembles a forward on a basketball team or a tight end in football. He’s charismatic, easy with people, soft spoken but direct and has a wonderful smile. He’s a media darling.
He recognized Maria immediately and asked how she was, and we shook hands. Between Mayor Booker and me sat Jennifer Stone, a stern looking black woman, who didn’t show a hint of a smile when we introduced ourselves. She is the South Ward liaison for the mayor’s office.
I leaned forward and asked the mayor, “What are your plans for the South Ward?”
He leaned forward, too, resting on his elbows on the table, and clasped his large hands. Looking puzzled, he said incredulously, “That’s what you want from me?”
I couldn’t tell whether his reaction was because of the question or whether he was expecting to hear about the usual things – corruption in Newark, the plan to combat homelessness, violent crime that his office says is down but still unacceptable. My question was oddly out of the context.
“Yes. What are your plans for the South Ward? That’s all I want to know.”
Mayor Booker didn’t respond. He looked over at Jennifer Stone as if signaling her to intervene, which she did.
“We have meetings. We put out flyers. We ask people to come. No one shows,” she said. “I’ve lived in the South Ward for 38 years—I just moved out—and I can tell you, it’s the people (her emphasis). They don’t come out. They don’t trust us. They don’t participate. We try everything, and they just don’t participate.”
Mayor Booker stepped in again. “Please schedule a longer interview with Mr. Vila. Have Desiree schedule it.” He then got up from the table, shook my hand, and Maria’s, and said, “Thank you for your interest.” And walked to the next table.
I called Desiree S. Peterkin-Bell, director of communications for the mayor’s office, three times. The first time she asked what publication I was writing for and the nature of my work and told me to call back. I did, thinking that I would receive an audience with the mayor. I was wrong. Ms. Peterkin-Bell wanted to see a rough draft – “an outline,” she said – for the mayor’s office to approve, something she said they had done with Gwen Ifill of the News Hour on PBS and several other writers she did not name. I declined, of course. When I called the third time, they said that if I couldn’t meet these conditions, I wouldn’t be able to speak to the mayor. I wondered whether Mayor Booker’s early move to show his credibility – living at the Brick Towers, establishing legal services for the poor – were meaningful acts or gestures to pad his resume?
What I wanted to say to him was simple. Many of the South Ward residents are Latino immigrants that come from Central and South America where government is seen as life threatening; people are jailed without reason, or worse, they disappear. I wanted to tell him that Miller Street School held a literacy night this past spring and over 200 parents showed up at the school to celebrate their children’s education. I wanted to know if there were plans to create a community to support these parents and sustain these children. Isn’t this where government and the community should come together in a spirit of collaboration? I also wanted to share with him the obstacles that Shakirah Miller confronts while trying to keep hope from becoming ether. And I wanted to tell him about Khalid Tellis, a Miller Street success story.
Khalid Tellis, now a freshman at Middlebury College, was the 2004 salutatorian of Miller Street School. After his graduation from eighth grade in 2004, the Wight Foundation gave him a scholarship, based on merit and need, to The Eaglebrook School, a private boarding school for boys in grades 6-9 in Deerfield, Massachusetts. His mother had her heart set on Science Park High, one of the better public schools in Newark’s troubled system, but Khalid wanted more, something better. He had to leave Newark to get it – he knew this. He also knew that he needed to repeat the 8th grade to be academically stronger, so he convinced his mother to let him go to Eaglebrook. Khalid continued on to the Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor, Connecticut, thanks to a need-based scholarship; after that, another need-based scholarship allowed him to attend Middlebury. Khalid found a small keyhole in the chaos and pulled himself through it; he learned to find equal footing with strangers from the “other America”. This is the tragedy of the South Ward, and what the Miller Street School works to reverse – one or two students, with plenty of help and lots of luck, make it to a place like Middlebury, the rest remain on the dark side of the American paradox: life and liberty for some, the vicious cycle of inescapable economic degradation leading to environmental degradation that begets social degradation for others. Hope requires escape routes – there are none here, not even one leading through the dim beacon, the Miller Street School.
I wanted to find a way to tell this story and, just maybe, begin to make a difference – but I had no idea how to do it, where to begin. So I gave myself to the school, opening myself up to learn from their experience. I now ask myself how we might work together to ensure other students can attend our colleges and universities.
“Anything can happen in Newark,” Khalid said with a grin across his round face, cradling his books against his chest. In his final essay for our writing class at Middlebury, he wrote,
“As I prepared to write this paper, I thought of two things, freedom and responsibility. Freedom, as I see it, is the opportunity to think about your rights. That is Freedom. You have a voice. There are no repercussions for speaking out and intellectualism is encouraged. Then, I read Obama’s Nobel Prize speech and thought to myself, Obama is right, but his hope is impossible. According to President Obama, “true peace is not just freedom from fear, but freedom from want.” There can never be freedom from want. If so, how could we as a society gauge what is “good enough”…I see peace as possible only after inequalities between those who want can be reversed by those individuals who have lived in both worlds. People like me. I now see where my life is leading me, back to Newark, to help save a new generation from hopelessness.”
I now see that Maria Ortiz was right all along. We can’t reform education from a distance, through contests and slogans delivered by politicians focused on the next election. It doesn’t take much to lend a hand, Maria said to me several times. Miller Street has taught me that I have to be more involved, more engaged outside the ivied halls of academe; it has taught me that Shakirah Miller and Maria Ortiz and Juan Ramos and little Ana have answers – and plenty of questions. No one in the South Ward is asking for a handout; they are asking for cooperation and collaboration. Residents of the South Ward are telling us that they’re relevant and have ways out of the chaos and the depravity. The American paradox is a manufactured reality – we can reverse it, though. But first we have to admit that we’re supporting a “separate but equal” society – and blame those who are deprived access to good schools, health care and work for not achieving what we want. In urban centers, particularly in places like the South Ward, the school of the future will be a community hub. College professors, public school teachers, students and their families have to engage in collective knowledge building to re-imagine themselves and construct this nucleus where hope can be nurtured and secured.