Ras Baraka On Leadership

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That’s a statement to young people saying that we haven’t done anything, we don’t deserve this because you have to be a certain age—it’s absurd. I’ve been running for office since I was 24 and been involved with what’s happening in Newark since then—even younger. I’ve been deputy mayor for four years, I have the experience. Earn it? We’ve been out in these streets doing God-knows-what trying to make the streets better, safer, creating programs, been involved in education--I feel we have earned it.

Like the Delany Sisters eventually did, it looks like the hip hop generation—spirits born at the heels of the Civil Rights era—are finally “having our sayâ€? when it comes to being passed the baton of political leadership and community activism. The journey has been and continues to be a never-ending race, centimeters from touching the baton and savoring the joy of  responsibility, to instead hear, “Sike!â€? from our political predecessors, leaving behind the smell of Ben Gay looming in the air and a trail of hypertension pills.

No disrespect to my elders, for I know on their shoulders I stand. There is a void between “seasonedâ€? and young adult Newarkans—especially when it comes to electing budding politicians. Take for instance Ras Baraka and his adventures in Newark City Hall. Baraka, 36, a Newark Public School educator, activist, and son of legendary Newark poet and activist Amiri Baraka has a long-standing history of community activism, yet when he ran for mayor and subsequently city council at-large, both races were lost by a small margin. In 2002, Baraka was appointed deputy mayor by Mayor Sharpe James. 

On October 17, Donald Tucker, Newark’s longest-serving councilman at-large of 31 years died at age 67 leaving a vacancy in the city council. Tucker’s wife of 33 years, Cleopatra, pushed for his seat to carry out his remaining eight-month term, a tribute to his legacy. Baraka was the next-highest-vote-getter in the 2002 municipal election.  According to The Star Ledger, Baraka said he would step aside if Cleopatra Tucker was interested in the seat, but reconsidered after hearing community opinion that he should get the post. This sparked a two week debate that showed the two political faces of Newark: traditional politics and legacy versus the push for new leadership. Amiri Baraka asked, “Are we ever going to give the youth of the next generation a chance?â€?  

On November 2, after over a three-hour debate, the Newark City Council appointed Baraka to serve out Tucker’s term. Cleopatra Tucker said she was disappointed that the council did not follow tradition, but was not surprised. “My husband always told me that you can’t depend on them,â€? she said.  She also announced her candidacy for a four-year council at-large seat in the municipal election in May. I spoke with Ras Baraka about his journey to the Newark council at-large seat for The Black Star News (BSN).

BSN: You are the first Newark city councilman at-large of the hip hop generation, what
 does this mean to you?

RB: It means that a lot of the things we [hip hop generation] were trying to do as just regular citizens, we now have the capability to do it on a larger level and involve a whole host of people from the business community, private sectors to schools—we want to bring everybody together to try to do something for our city.

BSN: In 1994, you ran for mayor at age 24.  A few years later you ran for city council at-large, but you lost both races—

RB: By a small margin.

BSN:  In 2002, Mayor Sharpe James appointed you deputy mayor.  What was the response from older Newarkans when you ran for mayor at such a young age?

RB: Total shock.  People thought that it was even silly, “You shouldn’t be doing this.  You don’t know anything about city government.  You don’t have any experience,â€? they were right about a lot of those things but we got in there because there were some things that needed to be said—especially young people, we didn’t have a voice.  I just graduated from Howard University and we were deep into the hip hop and politics movement and I thought that we would put our money where our mouth is.  We said the city needed to be changed not just locally, but nationally so let’s get in there and see what we can do--and we did. Our voices were heard.

BSN:   In 1999, you and some supporters were escorted out of a city council meeting by police because you all spoke out against the city council for not allowing Newarkans the right to speak at meetings.  Can citizens now speak at these meetings?

RB: Since we couldn’t speak, we started singing since there was no law against singing.  They put us in jail for at least four or five hours.  Then we had to go to court.  You can speak at the city council meetings but they don’t televise it.  It’s placed at the beginning portion of the meetings.

BSN:  Is this something you plan on changing now that you’re councilman at-large?

RB: I got to get the support votes for that.  We have to lobby and make it happen.

BSN:  In light of your journey to this seat considering all that you’ve done for the city of Newark such as being vice principal at Weequahic High School, fighting for the right for Newarkans to speak at city council meetings, and being instrumental in forming a peace pact between sects of Bloods and Crips—when you decided to pursue Donald Tucker’s seat, former Plainfield Mayor Rick Taylor, a supporter of Tucker’s widow, Cleopatra, said that you should, “Get it the old-fashioned way:  earn it, work for it.â€?  What are your thoughts on this?

RB: That’s an affront to young people. That’s a statement to young people saying that we haven’t done anything, we don’t deserve this because you have to be a certain age—it’s absurd.  I’ve been running for office since I was 24 and been involved with what’s happening in Newark since then—even younger.  I’ve been deputy mayor for four years, I have the experience.  Earn it?  We’ve been out in these streets doing God-knows-what trying to make the streets better, safer, creating programs, been involved in education--I feel we have earned it.  I don’t look at that statement as a statement about me. It’s a statement about all the young people in this city that have been struggling, trying to do something.

BSN:  Why do you think the older generation, particularly the civil rights generation, is so reluctant to step aside and allow the hip hop generation to assume leadership?

RB: They feel like they haven’t had it long enough.  In a lot of these cities around the country, elected officials still represent the civil rights generation, the activist community as well. They don’t trust our ability to think for ourselves. One of the problems is that they haven’t trained anybody to do anything.  They all have been trying to seek power individually.  What’s crazy—even about the statement that we should earn [leadership] it’s sick because our ancestors have been fighting for generations to get power for our community, not for only themselves. Nobody fought for only senior citizens right to vote, it was for our community.  Other communities prepare their young people to lead because they understand continuity of their ideas and that they’re not going to be here forever so their legacy lives on.  

BSN:  Since you are seeking this seat in next year’s election, how do you plan on increasing the voter turnout among the hip hop generation?

RB: We’re going to do massive voter registrations.  We’re going to bring voter registration to the clubs and at any event where there are young people.

BSN:  What I found refreshing is when I was contacting you to schedule this interview, students answered your office phone at Weequahic High School and your city council staff exudes such welcoming energy. Why do you choose to run your professional life in this manner?

RB: We do public service. People don’t give us power so we can be important; they give us power so we can serve. How I am in person translates into every thing else I do. I don’t feel like this stuff is mine.

To find out more about Ras Baraka, visit www.rasbarakafornewark.com.
________________________________________________________________________
Brenda S. Godbolt is a Brick City (Newark, NJ) native.  She can be tapped on the
shoulder in Cyberspace at
brendablackstar@journalist.com.

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