November 3, 2013

Leadership Newark is a 15-year-old fellowship program that accepts top talent who live or work in Newark for a two-year long program of courses, networking, and hands-on public policy experience. For the first time, the organization will be hosting a public policy submit, which will take place this coming Saturday, November 2, at Rutgers Newark’s Paul Robeson Center. I spoke with Leadership Newark’s executive director, Celia King, about this year’s conference, and the group’s overall goals.

Why did you decide to do a conference this year, at this point in the tenure of your organization?

Our focus is public policy issues, and a Leadership Newark participant actually suggested that we’re positioned in such a way that we could have discussions on issues impacting the city.

How did you go about shaping the agenda for this first conference?

In the second year of the program, we have [Leadership Newark] participants do a project for a nonprofit that’s public policy related and driven. We actually submitted a proposal to our own organization for our fellows to serve as consultants, and to work on the idea of putting together a summit or conference that would work for the city. That idea was accepted.  They went out and surveyed the community to get a sense of what people wanted to hear more about, and also to shape a format that would work. They also identified a list of suggested national and local speakers that we’d be able to consider.

Do you have a plan to also make the outcomes of the summit actionable?

The mantra for the summit, which we’re enforcing in each of our workshops, is “Learn, act, and change.” We’ll be giving participants examples of what actions they can take following the sessions, and providing them with a community action guide which shows very simple steps toward acting and measuring their own change. Then we’ll stay in touch to make sure they’re on point, including providing collaboration cards so individuals can share needs and skills with each other. Next year at the same time, we’ll have a followup, so they can hear collectively what tangible changes have in fact occurred. The idea is for them to do something that’s bite-sized and doable.

And why did you think Van Jones was a well-aligned keynote speaker for this inaugural conference?

The team that worked on coming up with the whole framework thought “Rebuilding the Dream that is Newark” made sense. (Van Jones’ latest book is entitled “Rebuilding the Dream”). In the 21st century, we’re talking about the environment, we’re talking about going green. We need people who live in urban America to recognize that they can compete with those in rural and suburban areas. Going green is not limited to those outside the urban communities.

Zooming out from the conference a bit, who are the participants in Leadership Newark itself?

It’s a wide swath, and that’s what makes the organization great. We have lawyers, entrepreneurs, educators, healthcare professionals, and people in government, and that variety enriches the discussion.

Do you think of yourselves as a think tank?

We’re almost like a think tank, and I do describe us that way. For example at the conference, we’ll have brilliant people all captivated for one day to concentrate on one topic. They’ll use the core of that topic to learn more and find out what they as leaders will be able to do to make it better for all.

I know Leadership Newark is politically neutral in terms of candidates. In light of that, how do you engage during a local political season like this one?

We absolutely stay neutral. We ask everybody to come into the doors no matter who they support, but whatever is shared in the room remains confidential, and we all respect each other so we can work together. And we embrace all sides so we can hear from everyone.

As for officeholders, we have a relationship with everybody, because they have been identified by the people, and that’s who we should work with.

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is a graduate of Columbia University Journalism School, and the former director of content marketing at Bitly. She is the 2012 recipient of the Erik Lars-Nelson prize for excellence in reporting and writing. Andaiye is a Newark native, Newark resident, and the show runner at Email her at, and follower her on Twitter @andaiye.