Newark wants YOU to walk kids to school

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on September 04, 2015

Ryan Haygood, left, and several Newark men high five kids on the first day of school at Brick Avon Academy.


The SOS went out nine years ago to Newark men in the city's South Ward.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, then a councilman and vice principal at Weequahic High School, needed their help. There had been a rash of fights after school and he wanted men from the neighborhood to be a presence when classes let out.

Thirty showed up one day. Twenty stepped up on another. It was impressive. I was there as they stood at the corner, steadfast and determined to make sure nothing happened.

Baraka needs the men again – but this time, men in every ward – to help him reach young people and instill a sense of community that has been lost. Brothers, the mayor wants you to walk kids to school once a month this year and tell them that you care about them. 

"I think that engaging these kids helps us to begin to change the culture, where kids are not just focused on violence and crime and illegal activity," Baraka says.  "They begin to see that there's hope, that people care about them, so they can begin to help change the neighborhood."

He was telling this to residents during a community meeting this week at St. John's Community Baptist Church. They gathered there to discuss neighborhood issues and to build on momentum from "Occupy the City," an antiviolence march held this summer in downtown Newark.

 The movement has now shifted to become "Occupy the Schools," and Baraka wants men to man up for something other than Sunday football games. It may mean that you're late for work, but he wants you there when his administration identifies city corridors for men to be at when he calls on you the first week of next month.

 "We say it takes a village," says Baraka, meaning that everyone in a community is needed to raise a child. "But the village is broken."

The mayor is trying to fix it and he needs help – help from men. Women are welcome, but this roll call is strictly for the fellas.

The idea developed last month after Baraka met with Chris Broussard, an ESPN sports analyst, who is also president of a national Christian mens' organization known as KING – Knowledge Inspiration Nurture Through God. Broussard and Al Hardy, vice president of the New Jersey chapter, talked with the mayor about getting men from their organization to escort kids to school.

Baraka embraced the idea and wanted to promote it all over the city, knowing the impact on kids if they see a contingent of men encouraging them with positive messages.

"To have men be a presence in the community shows that there are men who love their community and their family," Hardy says.

Men in Newark must have been thinking the same thing. Two separate groups did their own thing yesterday to welcome kids back to school.

Jeff Gay, president of "JusDoSumthin" in Orange, responded to a Facebook request from Eagle Academy for Young Men of Newark on Chancellor Avenue. He sent some of his guys over for support following the query from Thomas Owens, the school's director of operations, who coordinated the meet-and-greet with 50 men cheering for the students. 

"I tried to get as many as I could to go out there," Gay says.

Two miles away, about 10 men were high-fiving kids walking into Brick Avon Academy. They greeted parents, especially fathers, telling them they were proud of them. Among them were former Mayor Sharpe James and Rev. Phillip Gilmore of St. John's Community Baptist Church.

Ryan Haygood, a Newark resident and president of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, also used Facebook to organize that effort, just a day earlier. On Tuesday, the group will be at Central High School. 

Next month, it's the city's turn and Baraka wants men to turn out in droves. He's already talked with 300 pastors to spread the word and he plans to do an email blast to fraternal and masonic organizations, rite-of-passage groups and anyone connected to mentorship. You don't have to be affiliated. Just come when you hear about it.

Count on Hilton Hall and David Carter to be there. They agree with the mayor when he says social change has to start with the people.

"One block at a time, one community at a time and then it will be the whole city," Carter says.

These gentlemen, who are members of the Homestead Park Block Association, do it in their own way, because they see the fractured respect between young people and adults, a trust that has been gone for some time now.

"I try to do whatever I can, from tutoring some younger guys to being the guy they can talk to," Hilton says.

Ramon Melendez, 18, hopes to see the man brigade near American History High School.

It's sense of security, he says, a feeling that lets them know somebody has your back.

Just like the men who responded when Baraka called on them nine years ago.

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