By Lauren Wells
In the midst of two uncontrolled pandemics, COVID-19 and racial injustice, Newark, New Jersey, is unique as a place where Black lives matter and everyone belongs. I chose to live in Newark a decade ago because of this. Now, as COVID-19 cases surge around the world for a second time, Newark continues to proudly, purposefully demonstrate this.
Place matters. It matters in the sense that your environment influences your life. Sociologists and epigeneticists demonstrate the impact of the world around us on various types of outcomes, for example, health, opportunity, relationships, and education. Place also matters in the sense of belonging. Belonging is a human need. To have place is to belong.
Strong leadership, cohesive community, and a focus on justice weave all Newark residents together in this age of turmoil. The third oldest city in the nation, it was the first city in the Northeast to elect a Black mayor, Kenneth Gibson. In 2017, the current mayor, Ras J. Baraka declared Newark a sanctuary city to protect undocumented immigrants living in the city. He instituted a plan to test the homeless population for COVID-19 and made housing available for some of them to isolate. When it was discovered that Newark had a major problem with lead in the water pipes, he arranged financing to replace the pipes in houses in Newark, a mammoth project that will be completed in 2021.
Non-profit organizations provide services and resources to help meet individual and community needs. Advocacy groups and coalitions throughout the city apply pressure to elected officials to change policies, address specific issues and problems, and establish more accountability and transparency.
But we are not monolithic in Newark. Not in culture, thought, politics, or aspirations. There is never 100% agreement about the issues we face or how to address them. Throughout the entire time we have spent sheltered-in or in quarantine, an abundance of views about the pandemic itself and thoughts about how it should be managed here have been expressed in every existing public outlet. They are as varied and colorful as they are anywhere else. That is to be expected in a place as culturally, economically, and socially diverse as Newark is. What is consistent, regardless of the particular view or argument being made, is that here everyone matters. No one is expendable. Our lives matter.
The current state of the COVID-19 pandemic in this nation demonstrates a blatant disregard for life in general, and specifically the lives of those most vulnerable to the disease, Black people, the Latinx community, and the elderly. It often feels as if there is an attempt to desensitize us to mass death, the notion of which is horrifying. At a time when the prevailing message is, “Your life doesn’t matter,” I am truly grateful to be a part of community that values our lives enough to inform us, engage us, and protect us by every means necessary. And call upon us to stay disciplined to allow healthful and helpful measures to take effect.
This level of cohesiveness, of unity within difference, is not a spontaneous occurrence. It is the result of both the hard of work of leadership and of decades of community organizing, mobilization, and activism. Unity and collectivism are outcomes that bloom from two core beliefs. First, everyone belongs. Second, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. So, while there seems to be a serious distortion of democracy happening all around us, COVID-19 has shown me in new ways that I am a part of a community that will relentlessly pursue the greatest good for us all. It has shown me the beauty of surrendering to the whole.
Newark is not without its problems, of course. But we do try hard here to live up to the potential of our ideas. So, when I venture out of my home these days, it’s impossible to drive across the arteries of the city and not feel immense gratitude for this place and the people and institutions that make it what it is.
I am grateful for the essential workers. Those men and women who have always powered this society with their labor and who now have been seen vital to the most basic things in our daily lives.
I am grateful for the Newark Interfaith Clergy Alliance praying over this city and its residents every Tuesday since March.
I am grateful for healthcare collaboration making a sustained, coordinated, and systematized approach to COVID-19 possible.
I am grateful for the teachers, principals, and other educators who have learned new skills and stretched their professional edge to make virtual learning as meaningful as possible.
I am grateful for the ingenuity of the Mayor’s Office, philanthropy, and business creating major initiatives in the city to ease the financial impact of the pandemic on artists, small businesses, the homeless population, and non-profit organizations.
I am grateful to the Newark Anti-Violence Coalition, the Community Street Team, and active residents for defending our city from outside agitators seeking to turn peaceful protests for George Floyd’s murder into a playground for other interests.
I am grateful for the Newark Public Library and other community institutions for the vital programming and resources they have shifted on-line to keep our intellectual and cultural heartbeats going during this time.
I am grateful to be informed and to feel somewhat safe from COVID-19.
And, if geography is destiny, I am grateful to call Newark my home.
Lauren Wells, Ph.D. is the Founder and President of Creed Strategies, a consulting team with a diverse community of experts serving school districts, non- profits, government agencies, private entities, and philanthropy. As an educator, community organizer, and researcher, she works to increase inclusiveness in decision-making, to foster integrated strategies that reconnect schools with communities and link education to other systems, and to establish cultural responsiveness as vital to how schools educate children. She is President of the Newark Public Library Board of Trustees and a member of the Advisory Board for the American University School of Education.