NEWARK – Grassroots community activist Lyndon Brown wants the West Ward Council seat, figuring he already does the work, he might as well put to honorable and aggressive public use a position desecrated by sitting Councilman Joe McCallum. Born and raised here, the son of local community activists who grew up learning a commitment to others, Brown sees himself as the person most authentically organically connected to the ward, with his sense of his home city going back to the troubles of 1967.
Thirty years a district leader, 40 years a block association president, and a former PTA prez, Brown also learned community engagement from the likes of state Senator (and former Councilman) Ronald L. Rice and the late Councilman George Branch.
Beaten unconscious in a 2011 carjacking, he said he has firsthand knowledge of the streets and the troubles that continue to plague his city; and connections to the social workers, homeless shelters and churches to help improve the ward’s institutional response to its worst problems.
Wearing a “God is good all the time” baseball cap, Brown sat down in a local coffee shop with InsiderNJ to discuss his candidacy in the May nonpartisan election, where he hopes to muscle through a crowded field of candidates that includes rapper and community activist Doitall Kelly and attorney Chigozie Onyema.
Brown said he wants to restore trust to the position of West Ward Councilperson.
“Integrity and trust are critical,” said the candidate, “and I already have rapport with the people in the West Ward, not just the professionals but renters and immigrants and others, who I want to give an opportunity to share their concerns, including the West Ward merchants, who are obviously a vital part of our community and our economy.
“I have the pulse of the community,” said Brown, pointing to his advocacy on behalf of the ward’s school children as a past PTA president, his voter registration drives, his weekly homeless feeds, recreation volunteering, and employment placement efforts. “I have a sense of what works and what does not, and experience that the other candidates don’t have,” Brown said. “Honestly, I hear the names of some of the people in this contest and I am unfamiliar with them. I have not seen them over the years at the west ward collective meetings, the council meetings, or in the community.”
When he looks at this ward, Brown sees considerable ongoing challenges, starting with unemployment, home foreclosures and crime. He said he senses somewhat of a disconnect between the upper west ward and lower west ward and sees an opportunity to bridge the divide. “I don’t live in the upper west ward, but I am aware of a brokenness there and services that have not been available,” he said. “I am that person from the lower west ward who can unite the entire ward.”
In addition to serving the people of the neighborhoods in his fifth of the city, Brown said he would take pains to be an activist local lawmaker who holds other elected officials – and the system – accountable. “We need to get behind our legislators, yes, but we also need to hold them accountable,” Brown told InsiderNJ. “I do encounter people when I am doing voter registration drive who have become cynical about politics and government. People have stopped feeling because they are disenfranchised.”
Asked to consider the leadership and vision of Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, Brown wasn’t overly critical. But “I feel the mayor’s leadership needs to be more inclusive of more voices,” especially on the subject of law enforcement.” Insiders give Kelly an advantage in his quest for the seat occupied by McCallum because he has the backing of Baraka, an especially powerful Newark mayor. “He does have the affiliation with the mayor,” Brown said, but added, “He is an entertainer. I know what I’m looking for in a candidate and what I look for is someone who is involved in the community. The person, at a minimum, should should have been involved in a substantial way, and in this case, I feel I am the community’s choice.”
He reiterated his work, which includes feeding the homeless during the pandemic, tutoring school children, finding safe spaces for student fitness and recreation, helping with college applications. “I’m the resident people go to when they need support,” he said. “I have been with families struggling to stay in their apartments; three decades of community involvement.”
Over the course of his lifetime, where has his city, and in particular his ward, where has it arrived, and where must it go?
“We still have a lot of stalwarts in this town,” said Brown. “When I drive around, and I look at the street signs, I see the names of leaders who gave of themselves. Ministers. Political leaders. I see their children still active in the West Ward. I remind them that they are the children and grandchildren of people who vitally contributed. We must examine and consider not just what went wrong, but what went right; the creation, for example, of something called the West Ward Collective, by Councilman (Ronald C.) Rice, where the residents’ voices are heard. Councilman Rice created the collective for that purpose.”
But these times have taken an additional impact on Newark, the pandemic in particular impacting the youth and their opportunities for recreation. “As a former teen adviser, I remember what it was like, at its best, and I want to bring those times and services to the West Ward. I want to make that happen.”
Asked to describe his youth in the West, he has one word.
“Excellent,” Brown said. “My parents raised me with a deep sense of community service. It all started here. I look around me now and I want to take the ward to another level. I look at the federal Build Back Better legislation, for example, and I see how Newark can definitely benefit from that, in the way of enhanced opportunities for people to obtain low income housing, supermarkets and other amenities. I would like to be a part of greater, more urgent advocacy for that legislation to pass and for that money to come here, to the West Ward.”
He doesn’t see – or hear – sufficient passion for Build Back Better, he said, or enough aggressive and precise explication by officials of the benefits therein. If he gets the West Ward seat, he said he can be that person, that energized and galvanizing advocate. “I’m already a voice at the city council meetings,” Brown said. “I’m already doing the work. I just need the actual seat.”