Philanthropy Grows in Newark as Economic Investment Expands

October 9, 2013

If you want a feel good experience, try walking the streets of New Jersey’s largest city, Newark.

You won’t have to go very far before you see evidence that good things are happening.

I have the fortunate option of driving, bicycling, busing, light-railing, or walking to daily meetings about town.  In the last few months, I’ve been blown away by the physical transformation.

Construction cranes and new developments are everywhere.

Teachers Village, Halsey Street, Newark

Glassy corporate towers are emerging from the ground as Prudential expands its footprint along Newark’s busiest thoroughfare, Broad Street. City leaders are re-imagining historic downtown Military Park, now under construction for new landscaping, bistros, outdoor-programming, and WiFi.  Newark Housing Authority has built the first phase of a new mixed-market community, rising near the Broad Street Station.  Teachers Village is open and expanding on Newark’s Greenwich Village-style Halsey Street.  Panasonic just opened its LEED-certified North American headquarters opposite Newark Penn Station.

Ribbons of green bike paths now guide my way as I commute along the city’s streets.  Farmers markets and urban gardens are popping up all over.  Newark has reclaimed its waterfront with a swanky park and boardwalk on the Passaic River in the Ironbound district.  At the risk of sounding like a paid marketing executive, I’m lovin’ it.

Urban farms and gardens are proliferating in Newark. These young Newark cyclists—“Pedal Farmers”— are growing vegetables on the roof of New Jersey Institute of Technology and in vacant lots. Ecologically-minded, they bike around the city to get to their crops and their farmstand while sharing good news about greening. The nonprofit Project U.S.E. (Urban Suburban Environment) runs the program, with support from philanthropies and partnerships with the city.

Newark’s Riverfront Park opened in August 2013 along the Passaic River as the city’s first ever riverside public park.

Going beyond the physical building projects, Newark has also built an equally exciting philanthropic infrastructure.

Six years ago, the foundation community created an entity to be connected to, and informed about, Newark’s developments and most pressing needs.  This entity—the office of the Newark Philanthropic Liaison—was launched by a partnership between the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers and the office of the mayor.  It has helped generate and leverage more than $48 million to strengthen neighborhood development, child and family well-being, prisoner reentry, greening and sustainability, workforce and economic development, and education.

Foundations have been invested in Newark for decades.  But only recently have they been formally connected to each other, to help guide investments collectively and to attract additional resources beyond New Jersey.  It has been my privilege to serve as the Newark Philanthropic Liaison and to staff the Newark Funders Affinity Group.   This group has spawned a number of committees and subcommittees that are the backdrop for the otherbuilding” boom in Newark.  This boom is the creation of partnerships by grantmakers, government officials, community-based organizations and other, working across silos to create positive, collective impact.    The results are telling.

Newark successfully applied to Living Cities, a national consortium of the country’s leading foundation and financial institutions, to create the Strong Healthy Communities Initiative (SHCI).  This investment represents some $30 million now being deployed to spur capital markets for the improvement of low-income populations, school-based health activities, elimination of unhealthy housing conditions, and increased access to quality food.

Newark State Superintendent Cami Anderson Addresses the Education Subcommittee, which is a subgroup of the Newark Funders Affinity Group

The Newark Funders Affinity Group’s education subcommittee joined with the Newark Trust for Education to create the Newark Public Schools Innovative Schools Investment Fund, which allowed local funders to pool millions in resources for a common vision of support for Newark children.   This subcommittee includes active subgroups that are moving the needle on the most urgent needs from babies to high school graduates.

For example, the early childhood education group is working in partnership with Advocates for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ) and city officials to prioritize Early Head Start and quality education for infants and toddlers.  The group has committed to invest significantly to boost early learning in Newark.  Another subgroup, the college access and success group is working toward increasing higher education attainment.  It financed research of a universal city-wide college scholarship and has helped convene higher education institutions and community partners to apply for funding from national sources.

To go even further, the philanthropic liaison office is helping the city attract federal resources that will make for stronger neighborhoods.  Joint proposals last year helped Newark secure a $300,000 Choice Neighborhood Planning Grant for the Newark Housing Authority to focus on the isolated Dayton Street Neighborhood in the South Ward, home to the Seth Boyden Terrace housing projects.   The office also helped facilitate an award of $498,772 from the United States Department of Education. This Promise Neighborhood Planning Grant award was granted to Rutgers-Newark to focus on the West Ward’s Fairmount Neighborhood in partnership with the Urban League of Essex County, the United Way of Essex and West Hudson and other partners.  These landmark federal planning grants will set the stage for future implementation grants.

Through another partnership, the Liaison office has strengthened the connection between Michigan-based Kresge Foundation and Newark’s Department of Child and Family Well-Being.  Kresge has already invested $1.5 million in Newark’s “Get the Lead Out” campaign.  The foundation will return to Newark this winter with a new award to encourage a “Healthy Homes” program that will help lower rates of illness and other problems caused by unsafe or unhealthy home environments.

So Newark’s building trend continues, not just in parks, communities, and office towers.  It continues in the coordinated cohesion of New Jersey philanthropies, working in partnership with government, business, education, and community-based institution.   The bricks and mortar are being matched by a commitment to shared investments, from cradle to college and career, from neighborhoods to downtown.  We can’t overestimate the importance of an organized philanthropic community to provide stable supports to the growing, changing and improving Newark landscape.

Newark is looking better every day.

Jeremy Johnson is the Philanthropic Liaison for the City of Newark, a position established in 2007 as an initiative of the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers and the Office of the Mayor.