After 25 years, a new ‘flowering’

Rutgers exec Marcia Wilson Brown uses her activist past to guide the Women’s Association into the future.

With her sedate dress and welcoming handshake, Marcia Wilson Brown, standing in her suite of wood-paneled offices in the Rutgers Center for Law and Justice, is the very picture of a big university administrator — professional, calm and competent. And she is all those things. After working at Rutgers University-Newark (RU-N) for 15 years in a variety of posts, Brown is now the Vice Chancellor for External and Governmental Relations for the school, which is renowned for its emphasis on outreach and community engagement.

But don’t let Brown’s sober exterior fool you. She’s really a firebrand — an activist in executive clothing.

“I came to Newark as a radical — Angela Davis hairstyle, out in the street, fist in the air, ‘We must have democracy, we must end racism,’” she recalls.

“I just happened to end up — as I say to Nancy all the time — going undercover into the very institutions I railed against.”

“Nancy,” of course, is Nancy Cantor, the university’s Chancellor, with whom Brown works closely, creating programs that help more Newark youngsters and more students from first-generation families attend and thrive in college, among other priorities.

Brown not only engineers ways to smooth the path to university coursework for the city’s residents, she also serves as the university’s liaison with community and civic groups. And for the past year and more, she’s made that outreach extremely personal — by serving as the President of the Women’s Association (WA) of NJPAC. She’s guided the Arts Center’s largest fundraising organization, and its 2,500 members, into the group’s critical 25th anniversary season of 2019.

It’s work that’s a long way from the activist family legal practice Brown thought she’d have, when she first came to Newark from her native Detroit to attend Rutgers Law School ­— but she discovered that she likes doing work that leads to new possibilities. She credits RU-N’s long time provost, Norman Samuels, for moving her from “the street of activism” to working in the university’s administration, to make education — both graduate and undergraduate — accessible to more Newarkers.

“There’s a pit that many activists get in — we become very good at grievances, but we’re not very good at harnessing power. I wanted to be an opportunity-builder.

“Norman became my mentor, and he pulled me aside and said: ‘Come back to the Law School and do the work that got you here,’” she recalls.

So she did, and she’s been hunting out new ways to create opportunities for the city’s young people ever since.  Brown also briefly left RU-N to take up a post at the Lucent Foundation, directing the company’s philanthropic funds toward organizations that provided educational opportunities for city children. And she co-founded (with Junius Williams and Richard Cammareri) the University Heights Neighborhood Development Corporation, which built some of the first affordable housing in Newark’s Central Ward. But she kept returning to Rutgers-Newark, in one capacity after another.

(Somewhere in between all those jobs, she also found time to start an a cappella group, Return to the Source, again with Junius Williamsnow the City of Newark’s official historianand to establish the Newark Repertory Theater Company. Although she rarely performs in a formal setting these days, she’s still known to break into song at meetings, letting loose a powerful, room-filling alto to underscore a point.)

She’s also been part of NJPAC for many years; she recalls Gov. Tom Kean pitching the idea of the Arts Center to Newark’s business leaders at the Newark Alliance, which she was part of in her Lucent days, and making the argument that the arts could be an agent of change for the city.

Today the WA, which raised the first funds that allowed the Arts Center to be built in the 1990s, is in a period of transition, Brown says. While it will always fundraise for NJPAC’s community programs — like the Arts Center’s extensive educational offerings, which send teaching artists into schools across the state — its mission can grow in size, she posits. Where the WA traditionally focused its efforts on mounting NJPAC’s annual Spotlight Gala and Spring Luncheon and Auction — annual fundraising events and much-loved, elaborate celebrations — Brown sees further opportunities for her fellow current WA members.

“Look, NJPAC is pushing its way into a new future, and being very imaginative and very intentional about the breadth of its vision and connectivity — it’s constantly trying to reach new audiences and create new partners,” says Brown, who credits the Arts Center’s CEO, John Schreiber, with expanding and strengthening NJPAC’s mission.

“I think it forces the WA to have to rethink, then, our role in that mission, because we’re walking side by side,” says Brown. Under her leadership, the WA has held its first retreat, and during this anniversary year, plans are in place for both internal meetings and a day-long charrette to workshop the WA’s next incarnation.

She notes that WA members in the organization’s early years were often the wives of NJPAC’s financial supporters and Board members — “and they were women who did remarkable work. They raised the money that put this institution on the map,” she says, saluting the “spirit of adventure and commitment” of the group’s founders. She adds that these earliest members also designed the WA’s signature fundraising programs and founded NJPAC’s volunteer corps, which has become a pathway for Newark residents to experience the Arts Center.

These days, however, Brown points out that the WA’s typical member is just as likely to be a high-powered executive like Aisha Glover, CEO of the Newark Alliance, or Dini Ajmani, Assistant Treasurer of the State of New Jersey.

And these new members, “They’re saying ‘I want to be engaged,’” Brown says.

Brown explains the WA’s new direction could involve new kinds of programming; already, a WA event on International Women’s Day, called A Gathering of Givers, which paired a panel discussion on how women are changing philanthropy with an opportunity for Newark-area women to connect and network, was a sold-out success.  Brown is even overseeing a reconsideration of the WA’s name. (She favors the moniker [email protected] herself.)

But those are changes she won’t make alone; she says she’s working her hardest to support the evolution of the WA’s mission by channeling the energy of its members — what she calls a “’we-us’ process” of collaborative progress.

That by itself, she says, is challenge and inspiration aplenty, as she often finds herself in “a room filled with women who are all so bright we could turn the lights right off. We don’t need the lights! It can be high energy but I call it a flowering of the spirit.”

Which is a good thing, Brown says. Giving everyone room to bloom means harnessing the energy of all the women who support the Arts Center and its work on behalf of Newark’s children.

“To me, I like that. The messiness of change, the messiness of innovation, the messiness of growth is a space that can be wonderful — and make people feel like they’re wanted in this space.”

May 13, 2019