Last Thursday as he stood behind a lectern, looking every bit the politician, and announced his run for the Ward F council seat currently held by Jermaine Robinson, Frank “Educational” Gilmore took another step in an improbable journey of redemption. A former drug dealer and state prison inmate, Gilmore’s ascension to the halls of municipal power would mark a Jersey City first: the election of an ex-con whose life story could well be a parable for the challenges faced by Black men in urban America.

Gilmore, who is married and has five kids, has run the Educational Gilmore Community Learning Center in Bergen Lafayette since 2018. He has held positions in several Jersey City government departments. In 2019, he was featured in an episode of The Ellen Degeneres Show where he received a $50,000 gift, two years paid rent for his center, and a new Mercedes van from actor Michael B. Jordan in recognition of his work serving at-risk youth.

From all appearances, Gilmore’s fame hasn’t cooled his ambitions. He speaks with the enthusiasm, urgency, and conviction of a religious convert.

Three days after his announcement I had the opportunity to interview Gilmore. We covered everything from policing to Liberty State Park. What follows are the highlights.

JCT: What relevant experience do you bring to the job of city councilman?

Gilmore: Being a city employee, understanding the dynamics of the operation of the different departments, I’ve worked in DPW (Department of Public Works), HHS (Health and Human Services) and Recreation. So I know and understand the type of funding that’s needed for those entities. So, I bring expertise in those areas. Also, I run a business myself, so I understand the nuances of budgets.

JCT: And you got a degree from Rutgers?

Gilmore: I studied entrepreneurship and communications.

JCT: Would you be a full-time or part-time councilman?

Gilmore: Full time. I’m pretty much full time in anything I do. I’m passionate.

JCT: You obviously feel that you can do a better job representing Ward F than the current councilman, Jermaine Robinson. What is he getting wrong?

Gilmore: I think he’s going wrong by neglecting the needs of the community. If he understood the needs of the ward, he would have never voted to cut recreation. He would have understood that recreation keeps kids off the street.  Another reason that I think he’s not advocating for the community is because of his alignment with the current administration. Many people share the same sentiment that Councilman Robinson is a fine gentleman; it’s just that we’re not pleased with his representation.

JCT: He would say that he just arranged to have a big rec center built on the Steel Tech site on Communipaw Avenue. What do you say to that?

Gilmore:  On the surface it’s a great deal. When you do some unpacking and you see the deal that was made, it’s almost a slap in the face of the community. We have a councilperson who’s negotiating different types of business incubators for small business, which is a good thing, trying to get a rec center, which is another good thing, but he’s operating from a disadvantage because he doesn’t know the actual value of the land. If I’m advocating for the community, I’m first going to meet with the community. Councilman Robinson is on record as saying he’s been meeting with the developers for 18 months. How many times have you met with the community prior to meeting with the developer to get our input?

JCT: How would your relationship with your constituents differ from his?

Gilmore: First of all, I would have a level of transparency never before seen in city government. I would take something from my brother Chris Gadsden that he did when he was councilman. I would have a [city council] caucus before the caucus with my constituents to discuss what was on the agenda and see how they feel about it.

JCT: Apart from athletics, what else do you think the kids need?

Gilmore: These kids need apprenticeship programs, job-readiness programs, mentorship programs. It can’t be only after school. It has to be a holistic approach…building their resumes, community service, it’s a plethora of things we can be doing. I was one of the first persons to bring a mentorship program via recreation. I just got a call from a police department in North or South Carolina where one of the kids that went through the program is applying to become a police officer.

JCT: What is the reason that so many young kids, especially young men, get involved in crime?

Gilmore: The data suggests that these kids don’t have enough wrap-around services, i.e. resources. This is a multi-level problem. The community got to do more, the government’s got to do more, parents got to do more…everyone’s got to do more.

JCT: Are there any problems that are unique to your ward that require the city to make an extra effort?

Gilmore: We’re not asking the city to make an extra effort. We’re saying do your due diligence by the kids. Recreation is already underfunded. It’s just mind-boggling. It’s not that we’re asking for extra help or a handout. We’re just saying allocate the appropriate resources so that Jersey City kids on the south side have the same opportunities for success as their counterparts in other areas of the city.

JCT: When you were a young man, you got into some trouble, it’s been well publicized, and you turned your life around. What got you into trouble as a kid?

Gilmore: I’m looking at things in retrospect. I’m looking at the environment in which I came up in, no mother, no father. Family and community is pretty much drug infested. It’s an environment which would encourage one to indulge in druggish behaviors. So, although I went to the Boys and Girls club, I found myself getting into trouble when I stopped going. I didn’t have that reinforcement. When my mother passed, I just didn’t care about living. I contemplated suicide several times. That’s why when you see me advocating for the kids it’s because I know first hand the disadvantage that kids are placed in from an environmental perspective, from a lack of resources and also from a lack of parental involvement. So this is why I’m so passionate about youth advocacy.

JCT: How do you think your life experience informs how you parent your kids?

Gilmore: I know the consequences of being under-educated. I know the consequence of environmental factors, i.e. hanging around people you’re not supposed to be around, not spending your time productively. So with my kids everything is pretty much hands on. Everything is a schedule. Even the remote learning. My kids still wake up and get dressed for school because I want to keep them in the habit of still going to school. Even after school, from four to six p.m. they’re doing academics even outside of the curriculum of the school. Because I’m of the opinion that education is the one thing that they can’t take from you. These are the facts: If you’re a Black person growing up in America, you’re at a disadvantage. If you’re a Black person growing up in America and your parents are not of a certain socio-economic status, you’re at a disadvantage. Growing up Black in America in certain jurisdictions, you’re at a disadvantage. So these are all the things I tell my kids.

JCT: There’s a lot of distrust in Ward F and the south side towards the police. What’s the cause of that?

Gilmore: I think the distrust comes because of a lot of the experience and encounters individuals have had with police. The distrust comes in because a lot of times the police get this negative disposition placed on them—one because of the media, two because of the bad apples and, three, because the individuals who do wrong in the police department, a lot of times they’re not prosecuted for what they do. And when they are prosecuted, it’s slaps on the wrist.

The community is not innocent in all this as well. There are some issues that people in the community may have a disposition against the entire police department because of one encounter.

The objective is let’s make sure we are all living in a safe environment. Where the disconnect is is that we don’t have leadership that’s saying, “Let’s all come to the table and figure this out. Let’s figure out why the police and the community are not united.”

I did an event at NJCU for high school kids. I purposely included a police and community team because I want police to interact with the community members outside of the uniform. I don’t want your first encounter with the police to be in a uniform. I want you to know and understand that these people, too, are human. These people, too, have kids. Subsequently, I want the police to see that we are human, too. Leadership has to facilitate that dialogue.

JCT: Do you feel that the police patrol the neighborhood properly? Do they do the right kind of outreach?

Frank Gilmore addresses BLM protest at City Hall

Gilmore: They’re simply carrying out orders. It’s an inaccurate assessment to say that the policeman standing on the corner is policing too much when it’s the higher ups that gave him the order to do so. If someone can show me any data which would suggest that the increase of police presence diminishes crime, I’m willing to pay for that. Because I’m looking at several instances, predominantly on MLK, where several individuals have lost their lives, and the police were right there.

The police need help. The police should not be going to a call for a mentally disturbed person with a knife in his hand. It’s a recipe for disaster.

JCT: I’ve heard the director of public safety say that the community doesn’t cooperate enough, doesn’t give the police enough information on bad actors. Do you think that’s true and, if so, why would that be?

Gilmore: It’s true to a degree. It’s because there’s no relationship there. Why should I tell you anything if you’re the same person who clocked me on the head and nothing happened to you?  You have to do things in the community. We all want to live in a safe environment.

You have to ask the public safety director how many meetings have they held with the community to understand the dynamics of this ruptured relationship.

JCT: What do you think the city is doing right, and what is it doing wrong on affordable housing?

Gilmore: I think the city is doing so much wrong. We have no oversight. We’re allowing developers to do off-sight affordable housing. We’re allowing it to be concentrated in one area.  We need to move the conversation from affordable housing to affordable home ownership. Let these people have a vested interest in the community.

JCT: How do you think the city can make that happen?

Gilmore: I’m hoping to create a program where we utilize these vacant lots. We get them to individuals in the community at discounted rates to fix them up. There is a plethora of vacant lots here in Ward F. There has to be a mechanism in place where we’re repairing these dilapidated abandoned lots. Of course they’re not going to get them for free, but there’s just so much we can be doing as a community. For the life of me, I can’t understand why we’re not doing it.

JCT: On Liberty State Park, certain people have aligned themselves with Paul Fireman and others with Friends of Liberty State Park. What’s your position?

Gilmore: I don’t know Fireman personally. It’s a public park, and it should be treated as such. I don’t see how someone offering to improve the park should get land from the park. I just don’t understand the argument. The whole park should remain a public park.

JCT: Does that include Caven Point?

Gilmore: Yes. The whole part of the park should remain a public park. They should make sure they clean the whole park and implement active recreation.

JCT: Should kids be back in school?

Gilmore: Kids should be back in school on a scaled-back basis. Some kind of hybrid.  The problem is that you have “Zoom fatigue.” My daughter’s teacher says, “Mr. Gilmore, your daughter is great in the morning but not so great in the afternoon.”  That’s because she’s checked out after 12 o’clock.  She don’t want to be on that device all the time. You’re missing that intimate dialogue.

There’s a whole a whole segment of the population that we’re not even talking about that’s suffering the most. And those are the kids who grew up like me, who are in special-needs classes, who need the intimate attention, who need that extra encouragement from the teacher’s hand on his shoulder…the teacher’s direct attention to solve a problem. That demographic is suffering mightily.

JCT: What do you think the mayor has done well and what has he not done well?

Gilmore: He’s done well with respect to speaking out on certain issues. On the Black Lives Matter protests he said “I’ve seen you loud and clear, and something will be done about it.” Subsequently he turned around and has done nothing from an administrative perspective.

One can make the argument that Jersey City is the most diverse city in the world. And then we look at leadership, and we see that the majority are white individuals. I was shocked that it was at 70 percent. I raised this issue at a departmental level, that we didn’t have enough representation of our diversity, that we didn’t have enough females, enough Black people, enough minorities. That’s something that can’t happen.

JCT: The mayor has talked a lot about the fact that he’s diversified the ranks of the police department. What kind of difference does that make from the perspective of the community?

Gilmore: While he has brought in more minorities, he hasn’t necessarily changed the culture. But in the upper management and the leadership, how many Black police deputy chiefs are there? How many Black captains are there versus their white counterparts?

It’s one thing to have a Black public safety director, but it’s another thing for all of the whites in the administration to be making all of the decisions.

JCT: Do you think by virtue of being Black, you’re going to make better decisions?

Gilmore: Hell no! That’s the thing. Before Chief Kelly came in, the mayor had met with Black individuals in the community and said that he would appoint a Black chief. And when they appointed Chief Kelly, a lot of people were upset, and I went on social media, and said I think the mayor made the right choice in bringing in Chief Kelly. Based on all of my interactions with Chief Kelly when he was in the West, I though that was a good thing.

I’m going to hold this position. Don’t give them the job just because they’re Black, but don’t not give them the job just because they’re Black.

JCT: What changed the trajectory of your life? Was there one moment where you decided that you were going to get out of the life you were living?

Gilmore: That moment came for me when I saw the correlation between education and incarceration. I reassessed everything I had been taught up until I was 19. I reassessed my entire life. I never valued education whatsoever. I was content getting 65s and 70s. I had so much influence on people from a negative perspective, and it’s because I was under the impression that I was supposed to be macho, and I was this big-time this-and-that and all this other crazy stuff.

JCT: Do you remember where that happened?

Gilmore: I was in Garden State Youth Correctional Facility in the law library. I was 19 or 20.

JCT: You did some state time? How long was that?

I had a 120-month sentence. I did 80.

JCT: That was a drug-related charge?

Gilmore: Yes, all drugs.

JCT: How old were you when you got out?

Gilmore: I went in when I was 19, and I came home when I was 26.

JCT: And by that time you were thinking about this issue of education?

Gilmore: Oh, no. Once I found that information, I started educating people immediately inside of the facility.

JCT: So, you had to serve your time while thinking I’m going to get out and change my life?

Gilmore: I wasn’t in a rush to get home I wanted to stay home.

JCT: When you got out, did you feel pressure to go back to your old life? Was that a struggle?

Gilmore: It was an extreme struggle. But I was fortunate to have my dear friend Mr. Roden (Don Roden), who supported me. He’s a rich white guy who lives in the middle of America who just said that he was going to take his time and his resources and invest it in disadvantaged communities. He started this program up. He made sure we had our resources, and he educated us. And once you become educated, you become self-sufficient. I met him while I was in. I met him from a referral from one of my college professors.  She couldn’t understand why I was still in.  She said, “You’re one of the smartest students I’ve had from the streets and in here.”

I took all the college courses they had to offer. I took some classes twice just to keep myself busy and to help others pursue their academic career. Then if was off to the races.

Guys would always joke with me because I was a big-time drug dealer. “Man you ain’t going to school when you go home.” And I was like “No, I’m telling you, I’m going to Rutgers.” People was looking at me like I was crazy. They said, “You’re saying you’re going to go from here to Rutgers? We know you’re smart, but you’re not that smart.”

JCT: Are you going to take contributions from developers?

Gilmore: We’re not taking money from developers. We’re not putting ourselves in debt before we get a seat. We’re not going in owing anybody anything.

JCT: So, you’ll quit your city job if you get elected?

Gilmore: At the rate I’m going I’ll probably get fired before. They’ve moved me five or six times during the pandemic. I’m a big target.

JCT: You have no civil service protection?

Gilmore: They’re very strategic.  They’ll find a way.

Aaron is a writer, musician and lawyer. Aaron attended Berklee College of Music and the State University of New York at Purchase. Aaron served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador. He received a J.D....