Revitalizing Inner City Newark through Collaboration

 

Forbes OZ Summit Series: Mayor Ras J. Baraka, Newark, New Jersey

On May 21, we interviewed key opportunity zone players at the inaugural Forbes OZ Summit in Newark, New Jersey.  

Before Ras J. Baraka became the 40th mayor of Newark, he was an educator in the City’s public school system. It was this experience that shaped his passion for urban revitalization and investment. “The hardest part about being a teacher is that kids come to school with a variety of issues that become obstacles for their ability to access education,” he explains. Many students in the school system suffer or have suffered from trauma as a result of poverty, violence, crime, and inadequate healthcare, and this presents a significant barrier to engaging them in the school curriculum. Baraka quickly recognized that these issues are too large to be addressed by elected officials and institutions working in isolation, and in his role as Mayor, he has focused on using collaboration to increase economic growth, improve the public school system, and address criminal justice reform. 

Baraka, a Newark native, has shifted the city’s focus to collaborative action with his Newark Forward initiative, which is reimaging the path to growth for Newark’s distressed inner city communities. The initiative's goal is to pursue only those developments which will allow residents to benefit from the economic gains, with greater access to homeownership, equity, and opportunities in their own neighborhoods, rather than falling victim to gentrification. Baraka says the city is “working hard to find a collective and unifying vision around what ‘forward’ looks like,” but it ultimately supports economic development and the future of families that have lived in Newark for generations. 

This strategy encourages the development of innovative public policy. Baraka’s Hire. Buy. Live. Newark partnership helped to support the Newark Teachers Village, which enables civil servants such as teachers, firefighters, and police to actually live in the communities in which they serve. Already, Teachers Village has become a model for other cities to emulate. Baraka explains that civil servants are more likely to empathize and sympathize with residents of the community, and as a result, acquire a whole new perspective. Additionally, a portion of public sector salaries are reinvested back into the same communities. “They get to help us grow this community and make it economically viable.”

Baraka believes that further success will come from Opportunity Zones. He points out that “there are whole communities that have been disinvested in since WWII,” when a steady migration out of America’s inner cities and into the suburbs began. This lack of capital continually poses a formidable challenge for distressed communities seeking to implement innovative economic development policies. By incentivizing investment in distressed communities, Opportunity Zones have the potential to redistribute capital flows towards downtown entertainment, housing, employment, infrastructure, and procurement. “We have a population of people who are really passionate about the city, that love this community, no matter what’s going on, and to its end,” says Baraka. “By empowering those folks and giving them the resources that they need, I think they singlehandedly could transform this city on their own.”