IN A PUBLIC conversation at NYU Wagner before more than 125 students, Newark, N.J., Mayor Corey Booker offered hard-won insight, progress reports and humor in describing how his administration’s strategies to reduce recidivism are contributing to broad civic improvement.
Mayor Booker fielded questions October 8, 2009, about his pattern-breaking efforts from Ellen Schall, Dean of Wagner, and the audience on a day when, as it happened, he was attracting national attention for countering quips delivered by TV talk-show host Conan O’Brien at Newark’s expense. The mayor told students that New Jersey’s largest city is simply “not the butt of jokes,” but conceded that matching O’Brien laugh-for-laugh is no easy challenge.
But Booker had the audience chuckling at several points, even as he described serious and substantial efforts since his election in July, 2006, to set a national standard for urban transformation. He noted he has created several public/private partnerships and brought together civic group to rehabilitate and green the city’s parks and playgrounds, doubled affordable housing construction, and set up model programs to assist at-risk youth and empower ex-offenders to thrive in meeting their family obligations.
Booker said with evident pride that only 3 percent of the ex-offenders who participated in an innovative fraternity on fatherhood begun by the city two years ago have been re-arrested, showing that carefully tailored programs can end a publicly and personally tragic cycle of recidivism. He said he calls the fatherhood program DADS, or Delta Alpha Delta Sigma, he joked. He hopes that by working to bring proven business analytical measurements and operational management techniques to the city administration, such efforts will be scaled up and replicated elsewhere. “Most cities,” he said, “don’t have a mature prisoner-reentry system.”
The 39-year-old Mayor Booker said he’s working to turn the city’s well-regarded charter schools — currently overseen by Wagner alumnus De’Shawn Wright — “from “islands of excellence to hemispheres of hope.” With the help of philanthropic organizations and researchers, transferring the Newark charters’ formula for high achievement to the rest of the 45,000-student school system is achievable, he said.
“Hopelessness is probably one of the worst toxins in any city, it’s a cancer, and it really undermines what you’re trying to do,” said the mayor. But in referring to his deepening involvement in public service, he then added, “It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been so rewarding.”
The evening event was sponsored by The NYU Wagner Students for Criminal Justice Reform and The Black Allied Law Students Association. And, in the wake of it, it was interesting to read Bob Herbert’s take in The New York Times on Newark and the O’Brien put-downs.