Newark’s inequalities drive aide’s ‘sense of obligation’

Newark’s inequalities drive aide’s ‘sense of obligation’

City’s sustainability chief finds inspiration in Jewish experience

As a resident of the Ironbound section, Stephanie Greenwood is one of the few Newark residents among the members of Ahavas Sholom, the city’s last functioning historic synagogue.

Yet at times she feels the pull of her background in Montclair, where she was an active member of the Reconstructionist Bnai Keshet congregation. She describes Montclair as a town “with a lot of politically active people and a racial diversity that’s unusual for New Jersey.” At the same time, it has “stark inequalities of race and class clearly visible and affecting people’s lives.”

As sustainability officer for Newark, Greenwood, 34, aims to close such gaps in that city. Formally established in 2010 as part of the Department of Economic and Housing Development, the Sustainability Office is responsible for quality of life and public health issues.

She describes the job as “doing a lot of environmental justice work, overseeing city programs ranging from air quality and toxic waste to tree planting and recycling.”

It’s a natural extension, she suggested, of her experience, before her current appointment in June 2010, as a community development manager at the Newark/Essex Foreclosure Taskforce, formed in 2007 to help Newark residents hold on to their homes in the midst of the financial meltdown.

Nearly 3,000 Newark homeowners face foreclosure each year. The taskforce — of which Greenwood is still a member — works with banks to negotiate with mortgage holders, buy up abandoned properties, and organize grassroots neighborhood groups.

To Greenwood, suburban volunteers can make a real difference in helping Newark residents cope with the possibility of losing their homes.

The fact that many Jews trace their historical roots to Newark “can provide a basis for a sense of obligation to deal with the inequalities in quality of life and opportunity for Newark kids,” she told NJ Jewish Jews in a Jan. 6 phone interview.

One effort she is hoping to organize is a coalition of urban and suburban homeowners to negotiate with large banking chains that hold mortgages in both areas.

She is also asking attorneys to provide pro bono legal help for Newark homeowners and tenants who may be facing homelessness. Greenwood is also encouraging suburbanites to visit Newark for what she called “neighborhood walk-arounds — strolls through target neighborhoods to record information about abandoned property and/or pass out flyers about foreclosure prevention.”

“It also would be interesting to get youth groups on field trips from suburban synagogues to take tours and learn about the history of the Jews of Newark and how they left and went to the suburbs,” she said.

Even as she confronts massive problems with environmental issues and her previous tasks in housing problems, Greenwood said she remains optimistic.

“We have a lot of potential for community development in some of our hard-hit areas, partly because there is a strong history of activism and long-term residents who are leaders in their neighborhoods and committed to staying put and making things better. There are a lot of community organizations with strong roots.”

Her own roots are in the public school system of Montclair, followed by her earning an undergraduate degree from Harvard University and a master’s in public affairs and urban and regional planning from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University.

Before beginning work as an intern with the Cory Booker administration, she worked as a researcher for Good Jobs New York, which provides economic development information and resources to community groups, journalists, and elected officials. She also worked as a researcher for the Committee of Interns and Residents, a trade union representing fledgling physicians.

Before moving to Newark she lived in Brooklyn and became involved with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. In a recent interview with Jewish Currents magazine, Greenwood described how her Judaism and JFREJ helped shape her social justice perspective and activism.

The organization “made the social justice tenets of Judaism the basis for organizing Jews around local issues like affordable housing, the rights of domestic workers, and immigrant detention,” she told the magazine.

Greenwood looks beyond Newark’s borders to generate similar enthusiasm for the city’s revival. Ahavas Sholom, for example, with a largely suburban membership, has helped build playgrounds for Newark public schools, among other projects.

“I want people to feel excited about building relationships with the city of Newark,” Greenwood said. “It doesn’t have to be only a good feeling about the past. There’s a lot that can be done today to make real social and cultural connections and, maybe most important, to help reconnect the city to the suburbs economically.”

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