Our hometown will build back better: more equitable, more agile, more connected and more innovative.

By Lata N. Reddy, Ras J. Baraka and Michael B. Jordan

May 27, 2020

New Jersey First Lady Tammy Murphy hands out bags containing meals, face masks and other personal protective supplies to residents in need outside the NAN Newark Tech World during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Newark, New Jersey, May 6, 2020. Mike Segar | Reuters

New Jersey First Lady Tammy Murphy hands out bags containing meals, face masks and other personal protective supplies to residents in need outside the NAN Newark Tech World during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Newark, New Jersey, May 6, 2020. Mike Segar | Reuters

COVID-19 is testing Newark’s resilience and rise. We are one of America’s oldest cities and home to those disproportionately affected by this pandemic—our working class, our black, Hispanic and immigrant residents, and those struggling against poverty—in percentages that far exceed those of most other cities.

Nonetheless, our hometown will build back better: more equitable, more agile, more connected and more innovative.

Our city has wrestled with the issues of inequity for generations, which this pandemic has brought to bear. But in recent years, once seemingly unmovable problems have begun to shift.

Crime rates are down, high school graduation rates are up, neighborhoods are vibrant, artistry abounds, and fast-growing companies are moving in.

Fueling this progress are lessons of partnership strengthened in the crucible moments of our city’s unrest in 1967, the financial crises of 1987 and 2008, and after 9/11.

Before the pandemic, there was much work to be done to make Newark a place of true opportunity. COVID-19 has set our progress back, but we are ready.

Our way forward will be through cross-sector and cross-community partnerships that leave no one behind. We offer Newark’s approach as a blueprint for other cities to build back better, too.

It’s about the basics done right through collaboration. Leaders of our universities, hospitals, arts centers, nonprofit organizations, companies and local government work in partnership with entrepreneurs, religious leaders, artists, visionaries and activists toward a Newark-forward vision of shared prosperity, galvanized around seven key principles: 

  • Keep dollars local. Even in the first weeks of the crisis, partners came together to match local needs with local businesses. Newark Working Kitchens is keeping our most-loved local restaurants afloat by providing tens of thousands of meals to feed our front-line health care workers and residents in need. As shops and businesses reopen, we encourage everyone to spend dollars locally, putting your neighbors back to work.

    On a larger scale, can your city’s institutions shift even a fraction of procurement budgets to local vendors? In Newark, we found 19 large institutions who together spend over $1 billion in procurement annually, spurring shifts to hometown sourcing even before the pandemic.
  • Build pathways for local talent. As small businesses succeed and grow, there’s a powerful opportunity to fill jobs locally. Newark2020 was created in 2017 to put 2,020 Newark job seekers into full-time employment by 2020, with services continuing virtually during this crisis. 

    Encourage hiring managers at your workplace to seek out laid-off workers, young people outside the education and employment systems, and the under/unemployed to put them on a path to a living wage. Community colleges, local universities and community centers are invaluable partners in creating these pipelines and skills-building programs.
  • Invest in quality, affordable housing. Homeownership builds stability and dignity—and a robust real estate sector with housing at a range of price points is a tried-and-true economic engine. Newark has accelerated homeownership through a partnership with the first land bank in the state, and developed closing-cost loan programs for our most vulnerable populations. Additionally, we created a multisector Equitable Growth Commission to prevent gentrification and ensure that development projects benefit residents in every neighborhood.

    Encourage your city to implement wraparound programs that close the affordability gap as a priority rather than as a check-the-box exercise.
  • Support public education. Quality public schools are critical to moving up the economic ladder. The cross-sector Newark Trust for Education was created to bridge bureaucratic and sectoral divides, uniting parents, schools, companies and local government to create positive, lasting change to support student success for every child.

    Parents and caregivers, take what you’ve learned from at-home schooling during the quarantine and advocate for the needs you’ve witnessed up close. Even straightforward initiatives like our communitywide Mayor’s Book Club, which boosts literacy throughout our city, can play an important role in civic engagement.
  • Put tech forward. Our national digital divide is a pressing social justice issue, which is why we launched Newark Fiber, one of the most powerful and inclusive networks in the country. While tech spending often prioritizes large employers, a comprehensive tech ecosystem will unlock myriad drivers of equity and economic growth.

    Build cross-sector plans to bring affordable internet access to low-income school districts and residents, as we did in Georgia King Village. Individuals with tech fluency can join nonprofit boards to guide them on leveraging tech in their operations and for the people they serve. Public libraries and YMCAs/YWCAs always appreciate tech-savvy volunteers.
  • Remove barriers to financial security. When financial services organizations aren’t meeting the community’s needs, it creates obstacles for households and entrepreneurs to build financial security. Seeing this chronic problem in Newark, our local nonprofits, corporations, government officials and other cross-sector partners established the Newark Asset Building Coalition which offers free tax preparation, financial literacy courses and small business services.

    Can your city’s anchor institutions come together to fund the development and delivery of similar financial products? Everyday citizens can help build neighbor-to-neighbor awareness to connect those in need to these services.
  • Prioritize the arts. Artists will help reconnect us and restore our sense of possibility. In July 2018, Newark embarked on a 10-year investment to take us from a “city with art” to a “City of the Arts” through the creation of the Newark Creates cultural plan.

    Can your city fund a listening effort to develop a similar plan? Explore a government position or form an intermediary organization to provide a collective voice for your culture sector. Create financial incentives to lease buildings to arts organizations. At the grassroots level, act with others on your ideas for new, unexpected ways people might experience the creative voices of your city. 

This pandemic has demonstrated that the moral and the economic imperative for inclusive growth are one and the same. We cannot let another crisis cycle go by where we disregard our interconnectedness.

Cities everywhere touched by COVID-19, like ours, have an opportunity to build back better through true collaborative efforts in order to emerge from this crisis more just, more prosperous and more resilient. 

This article first appeared on CNBC.com.

Lata N. Reddy leads inclusive growth strategies for Prudential Financial and serves on the Newark Reopening and Recovery Strikeforce. Mayor Ras J. Baraka is the 40th mayor of the City of Newark and his progressive approach to governing has continued to move Newark forward since taking office in 2014. A Newark native, his family has lived in the city for more than 80 years. Michael B. Jordan is an actor, producer, entrepreneur, Newark native and early supporter of Newark Working Kitchens.

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