Baraka expands 'Occupy' initiative into Newark schools

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for
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on October 05, 2015

Earl Best, better known as the Street Doctor, helps introduce influential men in the Newark community to male Central High students.


NEWARK – A collection of men gathered in the auditorium at Central High School Monday morning, looking out at more than 100 male students – one generation of Newarkers facing another.

Among them were lawyers, educators, artists, politicians, business owners, real estate agents and even ex-convicts, but their mission was the same: to support city teens in dire need of a helping hand.

"We're here because we love you," said Mayor Ras Baraka, a former principal at Central. "We want you to be successful, we want you to grow, we want you to graduate and be incredible and do outrageous, outstanding things in the city and in this country."

The event marked the official launch of Baraka's "Occupy the Schools" initiative – a continuation of his "Occupy the Block" and "Occupy the City" events that aim to spread a spirit of positivity through troubled areas of Newark's community.

The group of men greeted students filtering into the school before 8 a.m., offering handshakes and friendly words of encouragement. After passing through the school's metal detectors, the teens made their way to the auditorium to hear the speakers extol the virtues of hope, persistence and personal responsibility.

"Your situation does not have to dictate your destination," said Al-Tariq Best, a Newark native who runs the FP Youth Outcry foundation, which looks to provide underprivileged children with positive activities and creative outlets.

Rodney Gilbert, the owner of a local arts production company, told students he was able to taste success despite becoming a father at 16 and spending most of his life on nearby Spruce Street.

"There is nobody that can save us, but us," he said.

The "Occupy the Schools" program will partner with local organizations including the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and Big Brothers Big Sisters to sponsor activities aimed at inspiring both youth and adults to become more involved in each others lives. The programs will be centered at six of the city's public high schools: Central, Malcolm X Shabazz, East Side, Barringer, Weequahic and West Side.

While Central's female population were also engaged in a separate assembly Monday morning, speakers noted the importance of mentors for the city's young men, who too often grow up to be both the perpetrators and victims of violence.

The call for male role models has gone out before here, though responses have often proven fleeting. Small groups organized to escort children on their returns to school last month, and the city has started various programs to help young men as part of the federal My Brother's Keeper program.

Baraka acknowledged that many of the students looking on Monday likely lacked positive male guidance in their lives, though he remained hopeful they might one day look at Monday as a day that began to turn around.

"We apologize for our inability to be there when we're supposed to be," he said. "Hopefully today marks the day when we change all of that, and we begin to be present in your lives. Not just your physical life, but your emotional and spiritual life as well."

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