Growing up on Avon Avenue in Newark’s South Ward, Shennell McCloud said the focus in her home was to get a good education, give back when possible, and do the best that she could.
She had siblings, clothing, food, and love thanks to her two doting parents.
Yet, somewhere between the values of hard work and altruism, she missed a critical lesson about civic responsibility.
Like many other residents, she had not learned how to be an engaged, active voter.
“We didn’t have time to focus on voter education, government, policy. It is people like me who become the suppressed voter because I am undereducated, unaware of my rights, unaware of my power,” said McCloud, executive director of Project Ready NJ.
Prior to her advocacy work, McCloud said she couldn’t describe the distinct responsibilities of the mayor or councilmen and her voting record was not stellar.
“A key goal of Project Ready is to engage more Newark families in decision making, and a big part of engaging families in decision making is making it easier for them to vote,” she said.
Project Ready celebrated their “1,000 Newarkers Vote By Mail” campaign with a luncheon at Robert Treat Hotel on Saturday. In three months, the education advocacy organization registered 1,045 Newarkers, who can now cast their ballots for local and statewide elections from the convenience of their homes.
The team campaigned to educate and stress the importance of voting, remaining optimistic that voting by mail will enable more residents to vote. When challenges like disability, demanding work schedules, transportation, long poll lines and unforeseen circumstances can prevent voters from getting to poll sites, voting by mail is an easier alternative.
“Some are single mothers, they are working two jobs or overnight. Maybe they’re a student who goes to school in another state or maybe someone’s district is always being rezoned so they don’t know where to vote,” Donyea Bradley, campaign manager for Project Ready, told TAPintoNewark.
“Those are some issues that hinders people from getting to the polls,” Bradley said. “We’re giving these people the opportunity to have that power at their doorstep.”
The group canvassed throughout the city but focused efforts in the South Ward. About 70 percent of children in Newark are low-income with higher percentages concentrated in the South Ward, a major reason why the contentious South Ward Community Schools Initiative was created to combat consequent academic underachievement.
Project Ready is located in the South Ward where the group hosted workshops, yoga, and kid fitness classes in the past.
“Many residents aren’t aware of resources that exist throughout the city. For some reason, programs that would be beneficial do not reach up the hill,” Bradley said. “We ask about those barriers and try to remove them. We are neutral and inform residents that change in education happens through voting.”
Last year’s school board election was the first since Newark regained control after more than two decades under state control. Despite the momentous election – and candidates’ door-to-door outreach – only five percent of registered voters cast their ballots in the board election. The mayor’s endorsed slate – Moving Newark Schools Forward – won the election.
Project Ready canvassers said they frequently heard complaints from Newarkers that their individual vote does not matter. Jaded residents, disappointed by politicians and their promises, lose confidence in the power of their vote, believing that nothing ever changes.
“When people say they don’t have time or that voting is unnecessary, I try to make to the connection to their daily lives. You’re voting for people who are creating policies that are going to affect you,” said Newark School Board member Asia Norton, who ran on the Moving Newark Schools Forward slate in 2018.
“The hardship you are experiencing is directly tied to someone (a person running for position) or something (a ballot question) that you didn't go out and vote for,” Norton said.
Project Ready plans to continue engaging Newark families beyond the vote-by-mail initiative. The “Ready to Lead” leadership development program will train 15 fellows to become stronger political leaders and supporters to protect high-quality education. Webinars on topics of interest like professional development, starting a nonprofit, and fatherhood will be offered as well.
In the meantime, McCloud urged residents should center conversation and civic duty around the children.
“As we move forward and think about the different roles in what we do, we must keep our children at the forefront. If you don't have children, keep the future of our city at the forefront,” she said. “If we do that, we will in our different ways continue to do great things for the city of Newark.”