Essex County’s Richardson: the Pathway to Apprenticeship – and Leadership

NEWARK – The Essex County Commissioners will reconvene in person in April, their first non virtual meeting since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a seminal moment for President Wayne Richardson, for whom accessibility and community visibility represent vital, foundational facets of public service.

“It’s time, Richardson told InsiderNJ. “In some ways, the virtual world made it easier to get things done. It did show everyone you could do things from afar.”

But “afar” is not Richardson, and the return to in-person meetings in Essex County runs parallel to the commission president’s ongoing work as a labor leader, and his hands-on efforts to ensure that union workers benefit from President Joe Biden’s federal infrastructure act.

The president of Laborers Local 55 said that under Ray Pocino’s leadership, the local in May is undertaking the creation of a program called Pathways to Apprenticeship, which has had success in Delaware and New York.

According to the New York Pathways to Apprenticeship website: “Since its founding by a small group of volunteers in 2013, P2A has assisted hundreds of people from low-income communities (more than half of whom have a history of justice involvement) to be admitted into a Building Trades apprenticeship program. Many have gone on beyond their apprenticeship to become journeywork’s and shop stewards, while others are also P2A Peer Mentors – facilitating classes and conducting information sessions. …P2A has assisted over 300 people from low-income communities (66% of whom were formerly incarcerated) to be admitted into a building trades apprenticeship program. More than 85% of these graduates are still working in the building trades and many of them have become P2A Peer Mentors.”

Richardson said he’s excited.

“We’re bringing it to New Jersey, because we want to help people have careers as opposed to jobs, and  infrastructure bill is an opportunity to critical build work force,” he said. “The ready work force is already there, but the need is there to grow it, and that’s why we’re getting out ahead of it.” Simultaneously, Essex County is in the midst of a disparity study to determine where needs and opportunities.”

A Newark South Ward resident, Richardson this month formally endorsed Pat Council for South Ward council in one of the city’s developing May 10th contests.

Council is an ally of Mayor Ras Baraka, and running on the Baraka ticket.

Richardson goes way back with Baraka, and even farther back with the Baraka family.

“My little local was with the mayor since day one,” Richardson said. “I introduced him to Ray Pocino. That was the beginning.”

This year proved more difficult than most, because Team Baraka 2022 assembled without the return of At-Large Councilman Eddie Osborne.

Osborne is a member of the Laborers.

“It was difficult initially for us because we are part of a larger organization, however, we’ve not going to stop supporting the mayor,” Richardson said. “Once the Eddie Osborne piece was decided and he decided not to run for health reasons and to take care of his family, I was able to come out to support Pat Council.

“The mayor is a friend of mine; he is a friend and brother,” said the labor leader and Essex County Commission President.

Richardson moved to Newark’s South Ward in 2002, and grew up in the North Ward.

He still remembers walking out of the North Ward boys Club as a ten-year-old.

“On the street, I encountered what I thought was a parade, with banners and people cheering; I was just a little kid, and I was waved in to be in what I thought was the parade,” he recalled. “I was in the parade, don’t ask me what I was saying, but I was in it. Two or three weeks later, I was coming out of the club again and there they were, the banners, the crowd, the cheering, and I got in the parade again, not knowing why; just waved in.

“Then I found out it wasn’t a parade,” Richardson said. “It was Amiri Baraka [the late poet and father of Mayor Baraka] marching in support of Kawaida Towers. That was my first march, at ten. That’s when I came in contact with the Barakas. I’ve known the Barakas for quite some time.”

For Richardson, his involvement in the labor movement came through his involvement with his community.

The work was and still is, one in the same, he said.

“Labor is not something apart,” he said. “It is where you are. Labor and community are the same. It’s not ‘the union’, it’s us. People make up the union. It’s not an abstract thing that’s over there.”

The virtual world, to a degree, fed abstraction, or at least the possibility of public service without the requirement of actual in-person interaction.

Given his background, the way he grew up, the way he cherishes being on the ground, and his unabashed celebration of being “a people person,” Richardson said he looks forward to his first in-person commissioners’ meeting as a matter of community necessity and dignity.

“My wife and I live in Newark,” he said. “I choose to live in Newark because I need to be accessible. I need black kids to see successful black people in their community. That’s important. Somebody challenged me, maybe ten or 11 years ago. I was complaining about the kids with their sagging pants, and this person said to me, ‘Do you ever talk to them? Do you ever say ‘hi?’ And I said ‘No’. I live right by Weequahic High School, so I started speaking to the young men and women going to school. They couldn’t believe an adult was recognizing them. I would see them, and say, ‘Where are your books? You’re going to need those to get out of there, to go to the next level.’ This started as a general conversation. I would see them later and they would show me they had their books. They’d turn, and let me see them, and I would say, ‘Ok, pull your pants up.’ Some time would pass, they’d see me, and they’d pull their pants up.

“They just wanted to be recognized,” Richardson said.


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