Thomas, Newark schools’ 1st Rhodes Scholar, knows he is role model — and relishes helping city

By Tom Bergeron
Newark | Aug 28, 2018 at 6:45 am
From our print edition

Jordan Thomas, Princeton University Class of 2018, was one of 32 U.S. college students to be awarded a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship this year.

And, while he is not the first Rhodes Scholar from Princeton (or other New Jersey schools), he is the first graduate of the Newark Public Schools to be given the honor.

Thomas will leave for Oxford University in England on Sept. 23 and start classes on Oct. 8. He will study there for two years.

He already has had a busy summer. In addition to preparing for his trip — and accepting admission to Yale Law School in 2020 — Thomas has served as an unofficial spokesperson for the city of Newark.

He recently gained attention when he penned an open letter to a fellow Princeton graduate, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, asking him to bring the company’s much coveted second headquarters to the city.

Thomas, who speaks frequently with Newark schoolchildren, recently talked with ROI-NJ about how his life has changed since becoming a Rhodes Scholar — and how he is going to use the award as a platform to help change Newark and society.

ROI-NJ: You are now a symbol of success for Newark — a role model others will want to hold up as an example of what can be. You never asked for that, but it’s something you seem to have embraced. Is that accurate?

Jordan Thomas: It’s definitely something I’m well aware of and I don’t take it lightly. In every endeavor that I undertake now, in any sort of public statement that I make, I try to be very transparent in what I’m doing. I try to keep up on social media. And I understand that everything that I put out there is being watched closely and will come under scrutiny. I think that I embrace it, because I understand that it gives me a great platform to represent my city and to inspire people.

I’m often asked, ‘What has been the craziest part about getting a Rhodes Scholarship? What’s been the best part about it?’ 

There’s the tangible part. There’s a network that you acquire. There’s the knowledge that you’ll get from studying at the University of Oxford. But I think the intangible is the platform and the power that it gives you to inspire others. For me, showing people from my city and beyond that, yes, you can come from a troubled background, you can come from difficult circumstances, and, if you apply yourself, you can still achieve your dreams and you can set your sights on a goal and have the wildest of dreams become a reality.

I want to show people that Newark is so much more than the sort of troubled history that you hear about all the time with crime and violence and poverty, that there’s great potential in Newark and there are great products coming out of Newark. I try to use my story as an example of how you can’t count us out. And, so, I understand that everything I do now is being very closely watched and that, in a lot of ways, when I speak, I speak on behalf of my city. But I embrace that because I think that there’s something really beautiful and empowering about it. 

ROI: Promoting Newark, trying to bring business to Newark, trying to do economic development for Newark is not just a full-time job, it’s a full-time job for an organization. Yet, you are adding that to an already-busy life. It would be fair for you to say, ‘I’ll get back to you in about five years, I have some other stuff I want to do first.’ But you’re willing to take that on. How do you have that much time to do that? 

JT: Well, it’s definitely a stretch. Every day, I’m responding to messages. I feel like I almost have a full-time job just keeping up with messages that I’m getting from friends, family and external people who get ahold of me through social media or otherwise. I’m just constantly being asked: ‘What’s going on with Newark? What’s going on with this Amazon project.’

Some of it is positive and some of it, I have to say, is skeptical: ‘Is this really the best way for you to be using your time,’ they ask. I suppose that’s sort of what comes with the territory when you enter into the spotlight: You have people in favor of what you’re doing, and people opposed to what you’re doing.

But, I think it’s so important to keep the conversation going. And, so, I’m actually very intentional about taking time out of my day, every day when I have a few moments, and giving very detailed responses to anybody who reaches out to me.

Is it something where I would have a lot more time on my hands to do other things if I weren’t sort of entering into the spotlight and trying to represent my city? Absolutely. But it’s part of what I enjoy. It’s part of what I love. I think that there’s a need for it. And what I’m doing is valuable. And, so, whatever it takes, I make sure that I make the time to keep trying to advance my city and just make the future better. 

ROI: Obviously, you have a connection to a lot of the leaders in Newark, but, specifically, are you talking with the mayor or someone in the mayor’s office, every day, every week, every month? Do they reach out to you? Is it just casual or is it pretty consistent? 

JT: It depends on what the project is. If there’s any way that I can be a resource to them, I’ve made it very clear that I want to help and they’re well aware of how they can reach out to me. For the Amazon thing, this was something where I knew Newark had been shortlisted and I was excited about it because I knew that it was, in so many ways, just a symbol of the progress in the city. And the city was trying to get anybody on board that they could. I told them, I want to help with this if there’s any way that I can contribute? The op-ed was that. 

But that’s just one example. Another way is with the school system — and I think this goes back to, ‘When is it that they’ll reach out to me?’ When they feel like it makes the most logical sense, given my background and what I can offer, they’ll reach out.

The school system is one way where we actually do partner a lot, because I have a good understanding of the public school system. I’m a product of it and I have a good vision for what I think it can be going forward. And I also just love getting into the schools and talking to the students. I do a lot of work with the Newark public school system, but I don’t have a formal position with the city. I would say it’s more casual, where I help out in whatever way that I can.

ROI: Your efforts to help Newark are admirable. But, let’s talk about being bigger than who you are and bigger than Newark. Have you been getting any attention from any national movement, whether it’s Colin Kaepernick or Black Lives Matter or any other group that’s saying, ‘Here’s someone we want to bring in because he’s a face of what we want to do?’’’ 

Jordan Thomas, Princeton University Class of 2018, was one of 32 U.S. college students to be awarded a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. ­

JT: The most high-profile thing I’ve undertaken at this point is probably the Amazon piece. I think it just goes back to my mission. It’s all about empowering and inspiring people. And it’s all about creating opportunities for people who may not otherwise have them.

In the event that something national came my way, I would look at it, and, if it were in line with that mission, I’d be behind it, because I believe that the work is valuable and it’s necessary.

Everyone, once in a while, education initiatives come my way, but Colin Kaepernick’s not calling me up. Maybe if he saw the hair, he would.    

ROI: Those dreams, of course, started in Newark. Let’s take a quick look back. Talk about your upbringing in the Newark Public Schools.

There are a lot of challenges there every day that other people don’t understand, hurdles you have to overcome before the first minute of the first class. You were able to overcome a lot of obstacles, where some other people that may have had a chance to follow the same path found those obstacles too great to overcome. Talk about how you were able to do it and how can you help others take that path you were able to take? 

JT: I went to school on the south side of Newark, and I went to a high-performing magnet school in University. But I went to school in a particular area, the south side, where there are places where you knew you shouldn’t cross a certain corner. You knew if you walked too much further than that, you would be asking for trouble.

I had a group of friends. There were six of us, including myself. In our junior and senior years, four of the six of us had gotten jumped either going to school or leaving school. That’s a small sample size of six guys, and four of us had gotten jumped, and we, by no means, were the exception. So, you’re thinking about physical dangers, you’re thinking about lack of resources. Opportunities are coming now, but you know, we’re still struggling. We can’t compete with the resources of wealthy suburban or rural areas.

ROI: So, how did you overcome it? 

JT: A lot of it was difficult, but it was just keeping everything in perspective and understanding that you aren’t limited by the circumstances before you. And understanding that, as long as I try to make the most of what I am given — which was, I still had books in front of me, I still had teachers teaching me the content and I still had eyes and a brain to do the work — than I can rise above that. That was my mentality. I was going to give 110 percent to making the most of what I’m given and to try to excel here. And, I did.

I ended up coming out of the Newark public school system and being accepted to Harvard, Princeton and Yale. And so, by no means are you limited to troubled circumstances. Yes, there was physical danger. Yes, there was a lack of resources. And still, despite that, three Ivy League institutions saw that there was potential and that there was a reason to admit me.

I use my story just to show people, don’t think that just because you’re coming from Newark, it’s not possible. If you apply yourself and you create a track record that is on par with other students, anything’s possible. 

ROI: When you head to Oxford, are you going to have to take a break from helping Newark to concentrate on your studies? How does that play out looking forward in your mind? 

JT: It’s something I’ve thought about a lot. I think that the role will change for sure. I’m not going to be able to make these frequent visits giving talks to students in the school system.

Not being in the vicinity of Newark makes it difficult to keep some of that physical presence sustained. But, a lot of what I do also is sort of distant partnering with the city. For instance, with the op-ed, that was something that I didn’t necessarily have to be present for, as is the case with a lot of my social media engagement and promotion of the city.

So, I think, there’s still a lot of opportunity to be a symbol of the city, still advancing the interests of the city at a distance online, and, especially through the vehicle of social media, so I’m going to try to do. 

And, of course, I’m not going to be overseas for two years straight. There are going to be times when I come back to visit, and I’m going to make it a priority on my list to make use of those visiting periods in getting into the city. 

ROI: Looking forward, you’ve already said you are going to Yale Law School after two years at Oxford. But — and this comes with the territory — everyone wants to know what you have in mind five, 10 or 20 years from now. Where do you see yourself going? Are you going to be the mayor of Newark in 20 years? Do you want to be the president of the United States? Do you want to be running Amazon? When you think forward, what do you see? 

JT: I imagine that, short-term, after law school, I’d like to practice law, maybe nonprofit legal work or public interest legal work. Again, trying to use the law as a tool for creating opportunities for disadvantaged populations.

Long-term out of law school, I’m still considering what makes the most sense, given my mission. I’ve had the opportunity now to be exposed to a number of different ways to have social impact, whether or not that’s sticking within the realm of the law.

Another thing that I look at a lot now, especially coming from a distressed urban community like Newark and looking at similar communities like Newark, is that so much of the opportunities really revolve around capital and economic development. And, so, I’ve looked a lot at things like impact investment, where you can move capital into the city and really try to grow the economy. 

You look at that and you say, ‘Law, business, what are you trying to do here?’ I tell people I’m still figuring it out, but I know that, regardless of the track that I take long-term, it’s going to involve two things and that’s people and impact. As long as I’m working with people and I know that I’m having a tangible, sustained impact on their day-to-day, then I’m happy and I’m doing the type of work that I love. 

ROI: Last question: You said in your op-ed that you’re willing to meet with Bezos and show him around Newark. Has he reached out? 

JT: (Laughing) No, not yet. I think that’s all about the process. Amazon executives, Jeff Bezos included, have been very private about their search process. They don’t want to create the impression that they’re leaning one way or the other.

But, who knows, maybe once this whole thing is over, whether he picks Newark or not, he’ll send me an email or something.

Whether he ever reaches out to me or not, it’s all about just trying to act in the best interests of Newark and show people, not just Amazon, that we’re ready for prime time.

Read more from ROI-NJ on Jordan Thomas: