Mark Comesañas (SASN ’04) remembers growing up in Newark, steeped in the teachings and community of La Vid Verdadera Church, where his father has been pastor for 30 years.
“I’d watch him teach bible study and give sermons,” said Comesañas. “He was always more a teacher than a preacher, and he was a big influence in my life.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Comesañas followed in his father’s footsteps and became an educator himself, teaching in the Newark Public School system for eight years before pivoting to Principal of UPLIFT Academy, then Head of Schools for LEAD Charter School, and then recently being named Executive Director of My Brother’s Keeper Newark.
The constant among those roles, especially the latter three, has been Comesañas’ commitment to helping youth and young men of color who fell through the cracks of the traditional educational system to gain a second chance. He’s been focusing on “opportunity youth”: young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are not in school and not participating in the labor force.
Though he never dropped out of school, Comesañas, 41, knows this territory well. A product of Newark’s Ridge Street School and St. Benedict’s Prep, he and his wife, Leslie, had their first of three children when Comesañas was just 18 (Leslie was 19). Looking back, he realizes his life might have taken a very different turn.
“I remember thinking then that I’d be just another statistic,” said Comesañas, “that I was a young Latino man who got his girlfriend pregnant and will not pan out. Now I’ve been looking at other young men and helping them not be a statistic. Countering that trend has been my life’s work.”
Comesañas, who is of Cuban and Puerto Rican descent, started teaching at his church as a high-school sophomore, working with 6-to-8-year-olds on Sundays. He fell in love with the process: preparing and critiquing his lessons, and finding creative ways to engage the kids. When he arrived at Rutgers University–Newark, he dual-majored in History and Urban Education and, as a new father, had little time for a traditional college experience, instead working his way through school via a series of jobs that included lifeguard, substitute teacher, and business recruiter for the Newark Office of Economic Development.
After graduating from RU-N, he taught literacy and social studies at Luis Muñiz Marin Middle School for eight years, while earning a master’s degree in Educational Leadership from Montclair State University. In 2012, just as he was finishing up at MSU, Comesañas met Robert Clark, a connection that would change his life.
Clark was the founder of YouthBuild Newark, which, as part of the national YouthBuild organization since 2003, has helped opportunity youths get their GED and train for jobs. When the two met, Clark was running YouthBuild and working with then Newark Schools Superintendent Cami Anderson on alternative-education strategy and directing the Education Department’s Office of Career Readiness, where Comesañas landed a job working as a Supervisor for Curriculum and Instruction under Clark and Anderson, then became Principal of an education re-engagement center for local youths.
In 2013 that center became UPFLIFT Academy, which Comesañas headed as founding Principal for four years, using YouthBuild’s model within a Newark district school to continue to serve formerly incarcerated and other challenged teens and young adults.
The idea behind UPFLIFT Academy, it turns out, was part of Clark’s grand vision for serving opportunity youths in Newark and beyond, one that would serve multiple functions for this population, and in 2016 he formed an umbrella organization, Newark Opportunity Youth Network (NOYN), to do just that.
The following year, NOYN started another educational initiative, LEAD Charter School, to be the cornerstone its educational effort, with Comesañas as founding board member and Head of Schools.
NOYN has grown since then to encompass education through LEAD; workforce development in the spirit of YouthBuild Newark, which NOYN absorbed; systems building with the Newark Youth Workforce Collaborative; and policy, advocacy and mentoring through My Brothers Keeper Newark, the local chapter of one of former President Barack Obama’s signature social programs.
“It’s best to think of NOYN as a strategy, with each part like spokes of a wheel,” said Comesañas. “The genesis was Robert’s experience with YouthBuild.”
In June, Comesañas was named Executive Director of My Brothers Keeper Newark, a move that will take him out of a strict educator role and into mentoring, direct-service and policy advocacy. But his take on the latter is informed by his years as an educator, meaning that his goal will be not to advocate for opportunity youth but to advocate with them, empowering them to advocate for themselves.
“It’s important to see opportunity youth as an asset for solving community problems, rather than problems themselves that need to be solved,” said Comesañas. “I’ve seen the full spectrum of experiences these young men deal with in struggling and wanting to drop out of school. Our aim is to get their opinions on causes and solutions and incorporate them into MBK’s action plan.”
It’s also vital, in Comesañas opinion, to heed Newark Mayor Ras Baraka’s dictum that “Newark is resource-rich but coordination-poor,” and rather than reinvent the wheel, to form strong partnerships with community organizations already doing great work around education, criminal justice reform, healthcare and other pressing issues impacting men of color, and use data-driven solutions, to maximize MBK’s impact.
In all of Comesañas’ roles as a leader in Newark’s educational and social-service sectors, it is the example set by his father and mother, who is also a Newark schools educator, that have continued to guide his work in leaving a positive and lasting legacy on those around him.
“It was always implicit for me to serve people in the city. My brother and I felt that very early on, from our parents’ example,” said Comesañas. “Every blessing we’ve ever had is designed in the service of others, my father always said. We reap what we sow not just for us but for others. That’s a responsibility I have always felt, and I feel blessed to be able to do this work.”
Story originally appeared in Rutgers School of Arts & Sciences-Newark.