America's Tomorrow: Equity Is the Superior Growth Model< Back to All Newsletters
June 26, 2015
Building a Newark Where Everyone Can Thrive: Q&A with Angela Glover Blackwell and Mayor Ras Baraka
Since his election in 2014, Mayor Ras Baraka of Newark, New Jersey, has been a vocal advocate for equity and inclusion, leading several initiatives to increase access to opportunity for those who are too often locked out and left behind. Two such initiatives are Newark’s municipal identification card program and My Brother’s Keeper Newark (MBKN). The Newark ID program, which will launch this summer, will help undocumented immigrants, the recently incarcerated, and other residents who face barriers to obtaining government IDs connect with vital city resources and engage in civic life. MBKN, which was established in 2014, is a comprehensive program to eliminate the gaps in opportunity and achievement for boys and young men of color in the city.
PolicyLink Founder and CEO Angela Glover Blackwell spoke with Mayor Baraka about these two programs.
Angela Glover Blackwell: You are leading on all the issues that are vitally important to PolicyLink, where our mission is to advance a new generation of policies that achieve racial equity in America. So there are many things to lift up. Municipal ID programs have been used in several cities across the country to help remove barriers to civic engagement for residents, particularly undocumented immigrants. What were the primary drivers in establishing a municipal ID program in Newark?
Ras Baraka: Newark has a very huge population of immigrants and a lot of undocumented residents, who are basically in the shadows. We are trying to make them feel welcome in our community. A municipal ID has incredible social and economic benefits for our city: it allows people to be a part of the infrastructure of our community, to participate in the city services, to report crime without being afraid, to enroll their kids in schools, to put money in the bank, and to open up businesses in our community. It allows them to live without the threat of harassment and intimidation and all kinds of other things that prevent them from being full residents of our city.
Blackwell: Did this program result from a push from the community or was it something that came out of your past community work and engagement?
Baraka: I think it [stemmed from] the President's push around immigration and my ability to connect with other mayors. I went to an event in New York City sponsored by Mayor DeBlasio with a few mayors from around the country. [We talked] about how to push the immigration policy locally and one of the ideas was the municipal ID. I thought that was an incredible opportunity for us in the City of Newark to take advantage of. Our partners here in the city were already doing work on the ground around immigration rights and we brainstormed. We used some of the folks from New York City [who had worked on the NYC ID] to help us think about what it would look like in Newark. And we engaged the community every step of the way.
Blackwell: How does the ID program fit into your larger vision for Newark?
Baraka: America is a country of immigrants… and ex-slaves. My father used to say, “If everybody went back to where they came from, the airports would be crowded!” And a lot of these cities that were suffering economically, the immigrants who came to these communities actually helped stabilize economically by opening up stores and engaging in the economy. They just don't get credit for it. We believe in democracy here in Newark and so we support the idea of people participating fully in democracy and [these IDs] are a way we can offer that to them. This is a progressive thing to do, it's a democratic thing to do, it's the humane thing to do, and so we're trying to get it done.
Blackwell: For years now, the focus of our work at PolicyLink has been emphasizing that equity is the superior growth model for the future. That is, given the deep economic crisis that the nation is still in, and the nation’s shifting demographics, if we get it right for people of color who are the majority in many cities and becoming the majority in the entire nation, then we get it right for the nation and our economy. It seems that you envision the ID as having an economic impact not only for cardholders, but having economic benefit for the larger community — is that right?
Baraka: In America now, its future is inextricably tied to these communities of color. The demographics of this country are not changing — they have changed…even more rapidly than people suspected. And the contribution [of communities of color and immigrants] to the economy, to the social fabric of this nation, is undeniable. In order to save this country, we have to back off of these conservative ideas and policies that are preventing us from taking advantage of the wealth of [human capital] resources that are here in our community.
Blackwell: I want to shift to My Brother's Keeper. You recently launched My Brother’s Keeper Newark in response to the President's call for action for addressing the persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color. Newark is still in the process of selecting the specific indicators and the goals that you'll target. In this process, how are you ensuring that the community's voice remains part of the planning and implementation process?
Baraka: We have a [My Brother’s Keeper] board of trustees that is made up of different community partners and community folks that create policy around the initiative here in Newark. We also have regular community meetings with the kids and their parents about some of the things that we're doing. All of those things are important so that the My Brother's Keeper guys are involved in helping us to transform the city.
Blackwell: In Newark, 95 percent of young men of color want to go to college, but sadly only 8 percent actually do. When you're thinking about your interventions in the My Brother’s Keeper work, how do you envision making the crucial link to post-secondary education for these young men?
Baraka: We have something that's called the Newark City of Learning Collaborative where we have set a goal that we're going to make sure 25 percent of our residents have post-secondary degrees [by 2025]. Right now we're at 17 percent overall, and like you said, for African American males, that number is smaller. So we are focusing heavily on galvanizing all of the resources we have in our community to create a pipeline from elementary school to college, especially with these young men. [We use] things like college fairs, after-school programming, mentorship, and tutoring. There’s also an executive order that I signed that allows every individual in every department in the city to spend two hours a week in a K-3 class to help mentor.
Blackwell: That is very exciting! I want to step back and talk about how this initiative fits into the longstanding issues of incarceration and violence. In many Black communities, incarceration and violence have created a legacy of absence because the men — the fathers, brothers, husbands, partners, uncles, earners, leaders, and mentors in the community are either dead or behind bars. As a New York Times article pointed out a few weeks ago, about one in six young Black men are missing from their communities for these reasons. What role do you envision Newark’s My Brother’s Keeper work will play in addressing such a complex and pervasive problem in Newark?
Baraka: Well, My Brother’s Keeper does what some communities in other areas already do: they wrap their services and their arms around their young people, protect them, and raise them collectively. They support them so they become successful, and if they make mistakes — like normal teenagers do — they're able to get back up. I think My Brother's Keeper does that and it sheds light on the dismal data surrounding men of color in this country in terms of graduation rates, employment rates, and college attainment rates. This has not been addressed at a federal level… but this initiative gives us the opportunity to address it, to galvanize resources around this issue and begin to help young men of color navigate the problems that exist in their neighborhood[s] and their lives, and [ultimately], helps them be successful.
Municipal IDs Open Up Pathways to Opportunity
For the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, the inability to obtain a state-issued ID poses a staunch barrier for participating in local economies and community life. Though undocumented immigrants contributed an estimated $10.6 billion in state and local taxes in 2010, lack of identification prevents these residents from accessing services at essential institutions like banks, libraries, hospitals, and schools, forcing many to live on the fringes of our social, political, and economic life. Though pathways to citizenship remain stalled at the federal level, 13 cities across the country are taking the lead on immigration reform with innovative municipal ID programs that can foster inclusion and participation for their immigrant residents and other marginalized groups.
New Haven, Connecticut, led the nation by being the first to issue a city identification card in spite of xenophobic sentiments in the region. Now cities are not only issuing their own ID cards, they are building on this model in ways that help connect those who’ve been living in the shadows to services, resources, and opportunity.
“We are trying to get them out of the shadows so they can feel welcomed in our community and to participate,” says Newark Mayor Ras Baraka who will launch his own city-issued ID program July 1 (read the rest of his interview with Angela Glover Blackwell). “The immigrants who came to these communities actually helped stabilize [the local economy] by opening up stores and engaging in the economy, but they don’t get credit for it,” says Mayor Baraka. Although similar to other ID programs, Newark had to modify local laws to ensure undocumented entrepreneurs could benefit from the program. The city council removed the proof of citizenship requirement needed for street vendor licenses, expanding opportunities in the business sector.
Public safety, lack of access to social and government services, and marginalization are the concerns cities are trying to address with municipal IDs to not only improve residents’ sense of belonging to a community, but to spur local economic growth. When New Haven launched its Elm City Resident ID it did so to address these interwoven challenges. Undocumented immigrants in New Haven were perpetual targets of theft because it was generally known that they did not have access to bank accounts to deposit their checks. Targeted as “walking ATMs” for carrying large amounts of cash with them, most victims did not report attacks to police fearing that, not having a “valid” form of identification would reveal their undocumented status, and, possibly, place them on a path to deportation. Since the municipal IDs establish residency, questions about an immigrant’s status are no longer relevant. The city, however, must have an understanding with the police department about this crucial agreement. To ensure that immigrant residents could open bank accounts, New Haven also worked with several local banks who agreed to accept the cards as secondary proof of identification.
Measuring the economic gains of municipal IDs
The economic gains of municipal identification cards have yet to be quantified. Since the launch of the first city ID in 2007 in New Haven, cities across the country have added new benefits and features to the card that can potentially have a greater economic impact on the local economy. The municipal ID in Oakland, California, for example, can also be used as a debit card. Although advocates are divided on this benefit due to the various fees associated with the debit card feature, it gets undocumented immigrants closer to accessing much-needed financial services.
Studies have shown positive impacts on the local social, political, cultural, and economic life for the communities that implement ID programs. About 10,000 New Haven residents were using the ID card by 2012. Crime decreased 20 percent in the first two years the card came out. And, most importantly, the card helped foster a sense of belonging among the immigrant population. The direct economic impact was more difficult to quantify. Only 60 people used the card to open bank accounts, but the card has been used by residents to get a bus pass and access other services that may improve economic mobility.
New York City is now the largest U.S. city to launch a municipal ID program. IDNYC, which launched January 2015, is hoping to quantify the economic impact of their program on the local economy. The program has had the largest turnout of any municipal ID program yet. On the first day, all 17 enrollment centers in the city processed more than 1,000 applications. Due to extraordinary demand, the enrollment system is now set up to process up to one million applications annually. As of June, over 250,000 New Yorkers have received an ID, and thousands continue to apply daily. “The main goal of this card was to become an access point to the different amenities and services that the city had,” said Nisha Agarwal, commissioner of NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.
The card is proving to be a successful access point. It offers various discounts to city events (Broadway shows, sporting events), and free one-year memberships to the city’s top 33 cultural institutions. “Over 15,000 cultural institution memberships have been opened in New York City through May,” according to Agarwal. “There is a sense of an opening of doors and equalizing of access, even in respect to culture in New York City… We are hearing that these [new memberships] are working families for whom it would typically be too expensive to go to some of these institutions.”
In spite of these successes, New York City struggles with one of the original goals that launched the Elm City Resident Card in New Haven — connecting the unbanked immigrant population to the financial sector and resources. New York has not seen the same response to bank accounts as it has had to cultural institutions, according to Agarwal.
“This question about financial empowerment and inclusion is a tricky one for immigrants. Across the board, small loan programs, citizenship, and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) assistance are not widely taken up,” says Agarwal. “This is an opportunity to start experimenting and explore ways in which we can link families to banking services.”