Opinion—Newark’s Brain Drain

By mantunes

In one of my silly post-college fits of fancy, I created a Facebook group called the “North Newark Brain Trust.” It is still there—though private—but has laid dormant for the better part of the last decade. I launched the group in 2012, after having just moved back to Newark after eight years “abroad,” with the purpose of connecting all these wonderfully sharp and talented people I knew from growing up. I had been looking for a way to connect with these people again, hoping that we could form the nucleus of some sort of intelligentsia or circle of like-minded friends who had experienced some of the same things I had.

Over the years, I had noticed something strange about the immediate area where I grew up in North Newark, a space spanning not more than four blocks. My next door neighbor was a Yale graduate—a somewhat noted one at that. A brother and sister who grew up behind me went to Princeton and the University of Chicago, respectively. Another brother and sister a block over went to NYU and Georgetown, again respectively. A boy, one year younger and one block away, went to Cornell. (Since that year, someone who grew up three doors down from my house has graduated from Yale, and a friend on the next block just graduated last year from Harvard.) Countless others in the neighborhood attended top-tier institutions both across the country and locally. One of my favorite party tricks is just to go through this list and see how wide-eyed people become, especially those who grew up in suburban communities that could only wish for similar numbers. 

There exists a persistent narrative about Newark. If not labeled a “failed city,” it is often described as a place of great desolation and disinvestment, unsafe physically and environmentally for children and without the proper schools to send them to for them to get a sound education. To some extent, this is true. Newark faces so many issues, and its public institutions are so underfunded and understaffed that it feels like an uphill battle to provide just a basic education to this city’s youth. However, this narrative then bleeds over into a perception that Newark is not represented at all (or barely) at prestigious institutions across the country. This is flatly not true. I interview high school applicants for Harvard College about six to seven times a year, nearly all of them Newark-based students, and I can safely say that one or two students are admitted and attend each year. While that may not seem like a lot, it far outpaces places like Montana or Wyoming which regularly see one or no admits a year. 

Where are all these alums then? I’ve spent the better part of my time in Newark thinking about this question. While some do return from the years “abroad,” the vast majority do not. I have not been able to pinpoint a specific set of reasons, but I have some hypotheses based on conversations I’ve had with some of these friends. First—and the one you will hear the most often—is that Newark lacks the jobs that these recent graduates are looking for, especially the kind they need to have to put them on the career trajectory they want and deserve. Second—and also a common refrain—is that Newark simply does not have the amenities young, recent graduates want in a city. Third—and under-talked about—is that many of these graduates have faced trauma living in this city and continue to associate this city with that trauma. Fourth—and one that lingers in the background unsaid—is that it is viewed as a marker of success to get out of Newark and, conversely, that coming back here is to admit some kind of failure in both life choices and career. 

The thing is that Newark has seen an influx of highly-degreed and highly-credentialed residents. It is just that they are largely transplants to this city, full of the optimism and openness that they often bring with them. Just take a quick look at this city’s core public institutions, and most of its leadership are made up of people who only moved to this city within the last two decades. This also cuts to a personal level for me, as about 80–90% of my circle of friends is made up of these transplants. 

I have tremendous respect for these newcomers to the city, but I think something is lost by not having more of these native young professionals here. Newark, like any other city, is an ecosystem. Any ecosystem needs a balance of people to help it function and thrive. What native Newarkers bring is both a familiarity with this city to know what works and what doesn’t and a degree of political power that comes with being a young professional. It’s not that we shouldn’t have any transplants; we just need a healthier mix of transplants and native people.

The city and its core public institutions should take more concrete steps in identifying why the youth who grow up in this city and leave for top-tier institutions don’t settle back in this town. They should then make concerted efforts to address this problem, whether it involves actively recruiting these folks back or providing monetary or in-kind incentives to have them seriously reconsider moving back. Rutgers’ Honors Living and Learning Community is a great model for providing an education locally, but we also need those people who spend four to ten years in other places in this country (and outside of it) to come back and bring what they’ve seen to the table. Perhaps we could replicate that through a more formalized network that provides social and professional outlets that can make “alums” of this city feel that the city is making an active investment in them. In other words, we should make them feel more “wanted.”

It is important that we bring back native Newarkers because they will be crucial to any successful reform of Newark. Native Newarkers are much more likely to stay here when they have kids—as they are primed to know that you can, in fact, succeed by going to school in this town. They will also become interested parents who will not only advocate for better schools and public institutions but will also have the political, economic, and social wherewithal to affect change, a change we have been searching for the better part of fifty years. 

mantunes is a resident of Newark who writes about the city (and other things).

Featured watercolor by Myles Zhang