Chris Gadsden is a former Jersey City councilman, a community activist, and the principal of Lincoln High School. He is running for an “at-large” seat on the city council.
Born and bred in Jersey City, Gadsden attended NJCU and graduated with a B.A. in history and sociology. He went on to receive his master’s in education administration and supervision from St. Peter’s University.
Gadsden has been married for twenty years to his wife, Petal, and has three daughters, 8, 12, and 14.
We sat down with Gadsden last week and got his take on a host of pressing local issues.
JCT: Why do you want to throw your hat in the ring for a councilman-at-large seat?
CG: I’ve always wanted to be part of the change. In my Snyder High School yearbook, someone asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I told them that I wanted to affect change. I was influenced by my history teachers, including Tom DeGise.
When I was in college I was in Americorps, something Bill Clinton set up. I served in a transitional shelter for homeless women. There, I found my love for teaching.
I was going to go to law school and political science, but I realized I just wanted to bless these kids. That’s when I shifted to social studies.
I’ve always had the civic bug in me.
JCT: Were you to be elected, what are the top three things that you’d like to accomplish?
CG: Number one, I want to further the conversation of affordability and home ownership. When we talk about the wealth gap, it’s because folks aren’t stable, they aren’t able to remain. You have to intensify home ownership. Number two would be recreation and fully funding the department and bringing back programs to help give these kids opportunities early in life. We’ve removed a lot of programming that kept these kids engaged. Third would be to help implement programs to help deal with some of the violence that’s taking place in Jersey City.
We need to create an atmosphere of shared prosperity where all people can partake of the prosperity in Jersey City.
I know you asked for three but four would be fully funding our schools. The state has told Jersey City that because of the tax base, it [Jersey City] was able to do more to fund its schools. And that’s why legislators removed adjustment aid. Over the next two years it’s going to be very important for the city to come to the table to produce revenue to fully fund its school. That’s one of the things I had started talking about with the late Michael Yun—to share revenue—to share PILOT money to the Jersey City Public Schools.
We can do things like creating an income tax here in Jersey City, occupancy taxes for apartments that aren’t being rented. Developers may have to pay more. So we have to be very creative in creating funding sources for our schools.
JCT: That’s a good segue as to what you’ve experienced as a principal. What specific programs do you feel are the most underfunded at your school?
CG: Funding for us would be more in the nature of student support.
JCT: Is that guidance?
CG: It could be guidance. It could be SEL — social emotional learning — it could be just meeting those basic needs of our students. It could be funding extra-curricular activities to fully engage our students. If this pandemic taught us anything, it’s very important to have socialization, to have safe places, to have these buildings open even after school, to engage our community. We have to continue to invest in technology.
We have to create pathways for our students. That means that there’s training to make them employable. These are the things that are important to create wealth and to change the narrative.
The lower the medium income is in a particular neighborhood, the more devastated that neighborhood is. The more education that people get, the more economic resources they get, it allows them a better quality of life.
We’ve got to support youth as early as seven and eight, second and third grade. Mentor them, apprenticeships, train them up so that they can get into the job market.
JCT: When you look at these kids who need this intervention, this extra help, what is that need arising out of? Is it poverty?
CG: Poverty is a condition. Poverty is also a state of mind. In New Jersey, the wealth that’s accumulated on average for white families is about $100,000. The Black or Latino family, it’s about $100. If you look at the median income and correlate it with test scores, you’ll see that there’s an issue. So we have to address on a macro level these economic factors that are stressing folks. I’m adding more benefit for my family and my kids because of the resources I can provide my kids.
The schoolhouse has to have a lot of resources in it because it has to make up for the lack of resources in the community.
I don’t want to make excuses for our students, but I do want to say that they require more.
JCT: What do you think the current administration is doing right and what do you think they’re doing wrong?
CG: Let me start with the positive. It’s kind of tough. If you ask, how is the city doing, it’s bringing more people in, it’s very diverse, it’s a beautiful thing bringing different languages and cultures together. That’s a positive. The problem is that the city [government] has nothing to do with it. When you see new developments and new parks it looks like success on the surface.
The negative side of it is that there are so many people who don’t feel connected to the new development. They don’t feel connected to the electric car chargers, the new parks.
JCT: Is this because of poverty?
CG: As we move forward, you’re going to see it even more exacerbated because COVID has left a large portion of the population unemployed or underemployed. So, you’re going to see a lot more discontent while the city says ‘we’re moving forward’ with investors.
JCT: What do you think the city can do about poverty, which is an intractable problem?
CG: It could be very deliberate. The city owns property. You can dedicate property to first-time homeowners. You can fully fund recreational programs where you get the kids off the street. The city can learn a lot from Newark, the way they’re approaching their youth. There used to be job training.
And I’m not knocking or hating anyone who has the resources and the wherewithal to take care of their family because they work hard. But you can’t leave a group of people behind and say ‘Oh, it will fix itself.’
JCT: How is the city doing on public safety?
CG: The city needs to have a better conversation with people on the ground. I’ve got students who are ravaged on a weekly basis by gun violence, whether it be someone dying or whether it be someone shooting on the block. And a lot of times when the shootings take place, if a person didn’t go to a hospital or say I was shot at, it’s not reported. That level of violence in the lower income neighborhoods, those voices are drowned out.
JCT: How do your students feel about the police? It it trust, distrust or something in between?
CG: Some students feel like the police are an occupying force, other’s think it’s necessary because they’re deterring something.
In our school, we have the benefit of the SROs—the school resource officers—because once an officer is inside of a school and engaging with the students and forming those relationships, when they see those officers out on the street, there’s a different level of respect. We’ve had an SRO in our school for a long time. Our SROs in Jersey City have been a tremendous asset. I always say is that the SROs we have in the western district are the best in the country.
The narrative about me and others is that ‘Oh, they spent the whole summer talking about the CCRB [civilian complaint review board] and this and that. People don’t talk about the relationship between the officers and the school administrators and support staff that deters a lot of the crime that doesn’t take place. That’s not a part of the mayor’s narrative.
You have Frank Gilmore, Pam Johnson, Dwayne Baskerville, Steve Campos, and Dennis Febo who are doing the work to stop the violence from happening. They’ll talk about that [police] car that was on the corner of Union and MLK that helped stopped the crime. No, it didn’t stop the crime. Frank Gilmore probably talked to a student and told him, ‘You need to do this that and the third.’ That’s not being promoted but people need to see that the community is really unified. The stakeholders, the residents, law enforcement, everybody really coming together. We’ve got to build bridges, but this administration doesn’t build bridges.
JCT: How are you going to balance being a principal and a councilman?
CG: I did it before in 2016 and 2017. The work I do now—being a principal and community activist—that’s work I do already. My wife is very supportive. I do need to find balance because my family still needs to see me.
The people need independent leadership.
JCT: There’s a lot of dissatisfaction among progressives that the inclusionary zoning ordinance didn’t require a higher percentage. What’s your position?
CG: You don’t want affordable housing off-site. People were asking for twenty percent because you wanted to add affordable housing to a market that’s saturated with market-rate housing. In its current form, it [the ordinance] misses the mark.
JCT: Lewis Spears is apparently thinking about running for mayor. Are you thinking about teaming up with any of the independent candidates?
CG: I’m thinking about partnering and teaming up with anyone who’s going to affect change. I look forward to working with a lot of independent candidates so we can have a great exchange of ideas and dialog over the next few months.
I’m going to tell you early on that I support the candidacy of Lewis Spears. I think it adds another layer of excitement, especially for younger people. I’m very excited about the candidacy of Frank Gilmore, a dear friend of mine.
JCT: As an at-large councilman you have to balance the city that’s more affluent and the city that’s worried about putting food on the table and staying safe. How do you balance those two sets of needs, and are they in conflict?
CG: No, it’s just what people need. We can focus on the quality of life issues of downtown residents, insuring that their tax dollars pay for the services they want. On the south side of the city we have to insure that the taxpayers who want recreation, who want resources inside of A, B, and F, that they get theirs. It has to be shared prosperity. You’re doing well down there on one side of the city, which is a beautiful thing. You earned it, you work hard. Now people down here need to have to make sure that resources are allocated to them as well. We live in a very wealthy city, a very progressive city. We can do all these things.
JCT: Joyce Watterman would say—and I’m sure the mayor would say this also—that they’ve built Berry Lane Park, the Annex, more buildings on MLK, and brought people to the South Side and increased business and prosperity. Isn’t that a good thing?
CG: It’s a place, it’s a building, a shell, it’s an office, something in cooperation with Brandywine. It’s just something to say, ‘On those new developments that I need a park, I need a centerpiece.’ So that when people are filling up the brownfields, people need assurances to know that we’re building up the infrastructure for you to invest. After you do that, what are you going to do to invest in the people who actually still live here?
All these things are milestones for investment. You create public safety buildings to let them know that you can build on the south side so they know it’s safe.
JCT: Is that a good thing, or are you saying that it’s self-serving?
CG: Yes, what I’m saying it’s something for the future when people are saying, ‘How does a public safety building put food on the table? How does it allow my kids to play youth football when you disbanded the whole program?
JCT: What about the Via taxis?
CG: I’d say that’s a positive because of the lack of transportation especially for someone who lives on the west side. When you ask someone who lives down in Marion or lives on Route 440 and 1 and 9, that one bus doesn’t serve the whole community efficiently. You need alternatives because people have pulled back on bus service in the last four years.
JCT: So you’d give the administration credit for that?
CG: [Laughs] I’d give the administration credit for that.
JCT: How are you going to pay for your campaign?
CG: I’m going to have to raise money.
CG: Are you going to take money from developers?
CG: No. I’ve got to get started. I’m going to go old fashioned: ‘I need you, this is fight.’