NEWARK, NJ - City officials hope to lead by example, showing what can happen when local government is intentional about empowering young people to be change agents in their communities.

The Office of Youth and College Affairs will convene 600 youth from Newark and surrounding cities for the Raise Your Voice Urban Youth Conference at New Jersey Institute of Technology in May. High school students, college students, professionals, and organizations are invited to build partnerships and engage with community leaders.

“We need them involved now,” Mayor Ras Baraka said during the WBGO’s Newark Today broadcast on Thursday. “They’re not our future. They are our now.”

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Workshops addressing topics such as education, employment, arts and culture, health, public safety and leadership skills will engage youth in discussing pressing issues facing their communities and show them how to address those challenges.

Students will be bused in from surrounding cities including Orange and Irvington. The conference will also feature a mayor’s panel for students to ask questions and discuss local issues.  Mayor Ted R.Green from East Orange and Mayor Tony Vauss from Irvington are planning to attend, organizers say.

“We are the first Office of Youth and College Affairs established in a city government building in the State of New Jersey. We look to let this be a vision for other cities so they can see that a mayor like Mayor Baraka uplifts the young people,” said Shakira McKnight, Office of Youth and College Affairs Coordinator. “The vision that comes out of this office is going to be so tremendous that other people are going to have no choice but to want to have this in their city.”

Baraka said he always wanted a youth-focused initiative similar to what other mayors have done when he was growing up. Unsure of what to create, he left it up to some young leaders to decide what eventually grew into a youth empowerment hub in the basement of City Hall.

“It's awesome to walk past the office and see those kids in there looking like their plotting. They’re developing a youth bill of rights. I think it's awesome and can’t wait to see what it’ll look like,” Baraka said. “It makes them feel like they’re apart of the city government.”

The office offers additional opportunities to get involved, such as the Leadership Academy hosted by the mayor at King’s Restaurant in the South Ward every third Saturday of each month. Young people can also receive assistance with figuring out their next steps post-high school.

The office plans to expand and eventually serve students directly in schools.  

“Working at West Side High School and working with different schools in the district, there’s a lack of concern towards post-high school academia both collegiately and professionally geared,” said Al-Shaquan Lucas, a Rutgers-Newark student who called into the WBGO broadcast. “There isn’t enough information being spread. There aren't enough resources being given out to seniors about exactly what to do once they leave high school. Where do they go to get different resources?”

The Post Secondary Outcomes of Newark High School Graduates report published by the Newark City of Learning Collaborative report revealed that more Newark high school graduates are going to college than ever before and graduating from college within six years at higher rates than in the past. However, many Newark students are not involved in college pathway programs that currently exist and function in silos, adding to the challenge.

“We have to address those things as a collective. I talk to the superintendent about this all the time. We’re trying to figure out how to bring all these programs together under the opportunity to begin to focus on these young people in the city,” said Baraka. “The Youth and College Affairs Office does a good job of trying to address this...but you’re not talking about the thousands of kids that need that kind of attention opposed to the dozens of kids or hundreds they may be able to hit.”

McKnight believes that Newark students do have the skills to do well in college and beyond, but may need someone like herself or the other staff in the youth office to remind them of what is possible. Many need a safe space with computers, free from distraction.

The office offers a six-week Historically Black Colleges and University (HBCU) travel camp for students to visit and learn about the application process to attend those universities and other schools of interest. Last year, 30 students participated in the program and received help with personal statements and other steps in the college process. Some have been accepted with full-ride scholarships to schools like William Paterson University in Wayne and Bloomfield College, according to McKnight. Resources may be limited, by they are here, she said.

“I think that the children of Newark are brilliant. It’s a matter of helping them feel that confidence,” said McKnight. “It’s not that they are not ready. We have to push them."