Full Interview of educator and activist Yvette Jordan by Betty Maloney

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Betty Maloney: Okay, so I am here with Yvette Jordan, a teacher at Central High School. I just have a series of questions. Are you scrolling them?

Yvette Jordan: It’s okay.

Betty Maloney: I wanted you to tell our readers about the water crisis in Newark.

Yvette Jordan: The water crisis in Newark basically is a public health crisis. And what has happened is that lead is leaching into the water. While the reservoir for Newark, the water there is okay, but when it reaches the taps of residents there is a problem. The problem is lead is leaching in and some other contaminants’ have leached in. I was made aware, and some others who are members of Newark Educators Workers caucus (NEW) caucus were made aware in February 2018. 

NRDC which is National Resources Defense Council informed us at a meeting in February 2018. They are a global environmental justice organization, they are an NGO and have been following several injustices in Newark one of which is, as I said, is lead leaching into the water. They informed us of the lead exceedances in Feb 2018. Newark had lead exceedances since June 2017. They followed this every quarter and in Sept 2017 had informed our city, sent letter to mayor informing him of lead exceedances. And this is above the 15 parts per billion as stated by the federal regulator, EPA. Unfortunately our city was non-responsive to NRDC as well as several other community-based organizations known as CBS’. These CBOs also signed on the letter in Sept 2017.

The mayor, he did nothing. In December of 2017 more happened in terms of exceedances, so the level was higher and higher. So finally in Feb 2018, NRDC representatives and this were 2 attorneys met with NEW caucus and informed us of the lead exceedance. They stated, “I’m not aware if you know Newark has lead in its water.”  We were shocked, we were flabbergasted and upset. We said, we don’t know what you are talking about. And they said well your levels are actually rivalling Flint. When we heard that we were stunned, since we knew what was happening in in Flint, Michigan. 

They explained what had been happened over the 7 months, since June 2017. Said they needed a plaintiff for a federal lawsuit. We asked, since you sent a letter signed by other CBOs signed the letter, why aren’t any of them signing on? Well, they said, unfortunately, that what is happening is that many organizations were slipping away and we are making the assumption what is happening they are fearful for their money in terms of federal or state dollars and have an allegiance to the mayor. And because of that we need a plaintiff, and they are not it. So since we, as educators, and folks who are really concerned about number one our students, other residents in Newark and their families, we felt it was our responsibility to step up and say yes, we would do this. Which we did. And therefore we informed the city in April 2018 of our intent to sue. The city started then to say we everything was fine…

The mayor was absolutely saying our water is fine, the source water is okay. He omitted the fact that from the source water which is in the reservoir to the tap is different because it’s treated. And since it was not treated properly we have lead. And he was omitting all that information and was not informing our residents. So from April through June 2018 he was worried about or seemingly worried about the city’s image. And because of that was saying everything is fine. In June we followed the lawsuit. The lawsuit is NEW caucus, NRDC, et al vs city of Newark and state of New Jersey. That is basically the water crisis in Newark right now.

Betty Maloney: The next question I want to as, you have been very visible, you are a strong articulate African American woman, you have been speaking out on this issue in the news, on radio, wherever you can, to students and the community. Why did you personally … I know you mentioned being a teacher and a member of NEW caucus… but why did you personally decide to put yourself out there on this issue?

Yvette Jordan: Well, I am a resident of Newark, I’m a homeowner in Newark. And I felt it was important for somebody who lived and worked here to actually stand up. And unfortunately many people in our community, and when I say ours, I am talking about black and brown community are not standing up. And at the same time I was thinking about writing a book about self-advocacy and then all this happened. It really spurred what was already inside of me in terms of self-advocacy and I think it’s extremely important for those of us who are in the community to stand up and speak for themselves. So what I am seeing especially in school, meaning my classrooms, is many inequities. And things that are happening and students aren’t standing up for themselves and parents aren’t advocating for themselves. In particular if you talk about something such as special needs populations, and all the things they are entitled to and parents are just … I don’t want to say ignorant, my husband you should not say they are ignorant … because of their lack of knowledge about what they are entitled to, they are not advocating for themselves. And I thought here is another issue and help especially the issue in terms of a child’s cognitive abilities even though lead in water is not overwhelming it is an influence when a child is suggesting this so I thought it was important for someone to step up and for me as a Black woman I thought it was really timely for me since I am already concerned and writing about self-advocacy and here is an issue and I felt I should step up and I have.

Betty Maloney: That’s great. In the beginning the word was put out by the city and also the superintendent of the schools that the water was safe. Why did they say that and can you share any of the latest developments about the water in the schools?

Yvette Jordan: Well in 2016 what happened is that several schools were tested for lead and some were found as being contaminated. I was teaching in a school where all of the water fountains were shut down. The Board of Education would supplied us with water in the classrooms. I would have a gallon of water every day and students would come in with a cup if they felt like having water. My understanding now is that schools are safe. However recently WNYC has a story who broke a story maybe a couple weeks ago about the contaminants in school water and laid out exactly how some schools still have some lead in their water. So that was in issue, IS an issue of concern.  The Newark Board of Education though says everything is safe in their school system.

Betty Maloney: They are still saying that?

Yvette Jordan: Yes. 

Betty Maloney: Even after this investigative reporter?

Yvette Jordan: Yeah.

Betty Maloney: What, you know, you talked a little bit already about the concern already about special ed students. As a teacher, what do you see as the long term effects of the water crisis on the children of Newark. Will this problem be with us, do you think it will be with us for generations to come?

Yvette Jordan: Well the long term effects, and I don’t want to talk about necessarily health effects so I can talk about what I see as a qualitative issue in that the people are not advocating for themselves and what they need. In terms of the cognitive ability of students that I see in my classroom and I see in my school, which is Central School, where one third of our students are labeled special needs right, the issue is that where is this coming from. Is the lead from the water from the paint, from the dust, or is it a myriad of concerns. Including that kids are just effected through water and whatever else they may be exposed to. So I don’t want to say that lead is the only issue that is causing their impairment, I don’t feel it is, however it is a contributor and that is what a lot of residents are not understanding.

An example of this is yesterday, I am a member of a book club. I drove somebody home. She lives only a couple of block from me. She lives in Newark. So I said you want a ride home and she said sure. So we were talking about water and she said she hasn’t even tested yet. I said it’s a year and a half in, what are you waiting for? She said oh I don’t know, I guess I’ll call soon.

Who does that? This is the issue that I’m concerned with every day. Is that people are not stepping up, understanding the importance of what is going on. So that is what I am trying to convey, so when you ask me questions like is it generational I absolutely feel it is because it effects this generation and until the next one educates their kids it’s going to be a problem. It’s just like you have to shake people. Folks need to wake up.

Betty Maloney: Chicago is in the midst of a militant strike that addresses a number of social issues around the well-being of their students. What would you want to say to teachers and their unions about social justice issues and you can talk about it in terms of what is happening here in Newark around the water crisis.

Yvette Jordan: My cousin is a very involved with CTU and she also is a history teacher, same as myself, so we talk a lot. And she said you can’t talk about inequities for us without speaking about the inequities for our children in where they live and how they live. This is a problem and it’s the same thing in Newark. Unless we address these social ills happening in our communities in terms of housing, in terms of employment, in terms of simple things such as health and food you can’t address what is happening in the schools.

So when you talk about Chicago and a militant strike, even that verbiage is really curious to me. Because I don’t think it’s militant at all. They are addressing the inequities they see in their city that are effecting their students. So what I think, and the reason that NEW caucus actually exists, is because we want to address social justice issues and things our union was not addressing such as what is happening in our community affecting working families and therefore effecting our kids. 

Betty Maloney: Our cities have aging infrastructures. Neighborhoods of people of color and poor have received less services and been ignored while some neighborhoods in our cities that can be easily gentrified have been the first to receive services. Chicago teachers union when talking about the lack of services in the schools highlighted the south and west side of Chicago that is predominantly African American. In Newark we have seen the neglect of certain neighborhoods over the years. Newark, always a city predominantly of immigrants and people of color especially a large African American population, is seeing the first stage of gentrification. 

And we are in a stage where corporations see the potential for profit in Newark. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which sits on one-third of Newark land, has a profit every year and it expects as the largest deep water port on the east coast that it will increase their profits by 6% plus each year. As a result of the changing economics of the city, who do you think should pay to fix the infrastructure of the city of Newark and why do you think that?

Yvette Jordan: Okay, the [port] revenue is 4.67 billion. In terms of infrastructure and tax abatement and what is happening in Newark at this moment in terms of gentrification I think a lot of this should be laid at the feet of corporations. If corporations are reaping the benefits in Newark they should also sow some of these seeds in the community by helping to support where they are making money. For example when lead service lines needed replacement, and you figure it’s between $270 and $300 million dollars that is a drop in the bucket for large corporations at the port – as well as Prudential and whoever else is here and is making enormous economic gains. So if you look at certain areas in Newark in particular downtown and then you go up about a quarter mile into neighborhoods you see the stark difference. So because of that they have a responsibility to the residents and the city of the whole in my view to lay some money at our feet for fixing infrastructure problems. 

Betty Maloney: Since the present crisis will have long term effects. What do you think should be demands of residents of Newark? In the news two have been raised by Flint, which might have won their suit, is called for lower water bills. Another one is recently in the news, a gentleman was talking about setting up a fund, that there should be a fund like 911 that would deal with the medical and educational needs of the residents of Newark which will be generational. Are these demands that you think should be raised and are there any others that you would think need be raised?

Yvette Jordan: I definitely feel in terms of the water bill, yes, the same thing that happened in Flint should happen here. Recently, I think it was on Thursday or Friday, when that decision was made about the water bills in Flint and ameliorating that for some of the residents I think it was great. And I definitely thought why can’t we have some of that same relief. In terms of that, absolutely.

And the 911 fund, or what Hill Harpers law firms is setting up, if there are any health concerns and/or educational needs for those who are affected  by this in a deleterious way, yes, that should be set up as well. Any other demands, I think we need some oversight in what the city is doing right now. And oversight, I am talking about judicial oversight. Because, unfortunately, the residents of Newark have lost the trust of our city government as well as state and we need somebody to actually follow what they are doing to ensure it is actually done right. I had something else I wanted to say, oh well.

Betty Maloney: Great Yvette.  Thank you.

Yvette Jordan: No problem.

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