Cory Booker and Rah Digga
Cory Booker and Rah Digga. (Getty Images)

Decades after urban riots destroyed whole neighborhoods in the city of Newark, it’s hard to imagine that this place I’ve always called home was once a hotbed of business, trade and the performing arts.

Crime is high. Unemployment is in the double digits. For most residents poverty is nothing less than a lifelong struggle. Few places in America represent the urban trauma of the 1960s more than Newark. Suburban flight, corruption and economic change brought on by loss of industry have gutted its core and helped fuel crime and riots in the streets. Today, Newark is sadly one of the most impoverished cities in the United States.

More troubling changes ahead?

While Newark has come to represent urban decay, it is perhaps now most synonymous with Cory Booker. His promise when he was elected mayor in 2006 was to rescue a city and restore hope to all residents looking for the first chance to flee it troubled confines. It can be argued that this was not done. With our governor concentrating most of his efforts on the Jersey shores, and our mayor focused on procuring an elected Senate seat, Newark will more than likely have to endure more changes yet again.

I am among the large numbers of Newarkers who have argued that throughout his tenure Booker proved to be a better at building his brand than leading real, on-the-ground change as mayor. His riveting speeches and PR exploits — rescuing a neighbor from an apartment fire, living on food stamps for a week, etc. — have enhanced his heroic reputation. But he has not demonstrated a strong interest in carrying out the kind of work it takes to transform an entire city, beyond the rebuilding of its downtown infrastructure.

Booker should definitely be applauded for the unprecedented attention and investment he has brought to Newark. There is little doubt, however, that the attention being paid to our downtown commerce district overshadows the attention that needs to be paid to the rest of the city. Parents and community leaders blame politicians; politicians blame our society. Who is really to blame will remain a debate for the ages. But it is clear to me that the citizens of Newark need to start taking responsibility for their own futures.

The future rests with Newarkers

Our outgoing mayor has cleaned up the city enough to give outsiders glimpses of a possible new age and renaissance. Now residents must start picking themselves up from the inside and thinking outside of the box.

As Booker himself said, “We are brick city. We are like bricks themselves. We are strong. We are resilient. We are enduring.”

As an advocate of youth empowerment, a proud recipient of a key to the city of Newark, and a mother, I have embarked on an endeavor to build a performing arts and community center in the heart of downtown: the New Jersey Dance Network. With our city’s staggering number youth violence cases, I felt behooved to rise to the occasion. Once completed, this community center will function as a meeting ground for talented under-served children in the city of Newark.

It is my belief that establishments such as this  will appeal to the common thread most of our youth have here, and that is their love for dancing. The focus will be on dance in all of its variations, representing an opportunity for more inner city kids to avoid urban pitfalls and receive formal training at no cost to our residents.

A post-Booker vision

My goal is to develop full-scale dance recitals and theatrical productions that can showcase youth talent and make the downtown area of Newark a space of renewal that benefits all.

You can help my mission by contributing as much as you can at my Indiegogo campaign to help revitalize Newark for our young people, who are in need of our leadership. Now that Cory Booker is heading to the U.S. Senate, the question for all residents of Newark has become: What more can each of us do?

For more information on my youth performing arts and community center, please visit: www.NJDanceNetwork.org

Newark, NJ native Rah Digga has had a thriving musical career since the 1990s, after emerging as one of the Lyricist Lounge‘s most prominent emcees. She has since engaged in continual work in various disciplines, including directing, editing, business, acting, motherhood, motivational speaking and activism. Follow Rah Digga on Twitter at @therealrahdigga.

This article has been updated. It previously stated that Rah Digga had a Kickstarter campaign. It has been switched to Indiegogo.