JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Most days between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., Muhammed Akil sits in his office, trying to help solve the problems in Jersey City, N.J.
Police department, housing, economic develop, water issues, parking, they all fall under him as the chief of staff for Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, who took office July 1.
The New York City skyline might be out Akil's office window, but the Lima skyline will always be in his heart.
“There’s not one day I don’t look back and think that part of my success in life is because of the foundation I received in Lima,” Akil said.
Akil, 43, grew up in Lima, attending Whittier Elementary, South Junior High and graduating from Lima Senior. They’re more than periods of time for Akil: They’re important lessons learned by one of the middle sons of Henry Luster, who died in 1996, and Starr Luster while growing up on South Union Street.
“My home was on the corner of [East] Eighth and [South] Union [streets]. All my friends and the neighborhood kids knew it,” he said. “If you needed a positive word or a hot meal, you could come to 1701 S. Union St. They knew Miss Starr, who was my mother, or Mr. Jesus, what they called my dad, would give them a hot meal and a positive message.”
He learned a strong worth ethic in that home, thanks to a solid two-parent household, he said. Other positive outside influences helped him along the way, including legendary midget football coach Ray Crisp, who died in 2011.
“Just being around him all summer long and into the fall helped,” Akil said. “He took a little kid like me and gave me confidence when I had very little. If he said you can do it, with that big booming voice, you could.”
Some of those lessons learned on Lima’s south side fit into his work for Jersey City and its 247,597 residents in 2010. Despite the size difference, there are similarities to Lima.
“I see a bunch of kids 5 to 15 years old, even 5 to 25, who need opportunities,” he said. “I see kids who need mentoring. I see kids that need organizations to care. Some of what we do here in this administration is purely based on experiences in Lima, Ohio. Go figure.”
One of the first priorities in Jersey City was bringing in summer camps for youth, giving them positive opportunities.
“Crime, jobs and recreation all go together, and we’re creating a synergy of those three areas,” he said. “When you have a solid jobs plan connected to a recreation plan for youth, those two help reduce crime.”
That’s a change in thinking in that city, where most debates centered on how many police officers were on the street.
“There can’t just be more police on the street. There has to be more police on the street while providing job opportunities while giving youth positive activities to engage in,” Akil said. “That’s what we’re focused on in the next 90 days.”
Akil came to Jersey City 12 years ago to join a previous city administration. He spent nearly a decade there, helping at-risk youth. He also has an organization, More than a Race, in Jersey City.
“I got a call from the new administration that took office in July 2001, and they’d heard about the work I did in Chicago,” Akil said. “They asked me to come out and work in this new administration. I reluctantly accepted the position, with the thought I’d lived in the Midwest all my life.”
As it turns out, that Midwest upbringing, perfected in college at Bowling Green State University and then brought just short of a degree at Northwestern University, helped him succeed. He worked for Jersey City as a mayoral aide, a corporation counsel aide, an assistant business administrator and then systems analyst for the city’s Department of Health and Human Services, hiring and supervising a staff of 25.
Those numbers are little higher as chief of staff, dealing with eight autonomous department directors and 2,625 municipal employees.
“I can discuss things in very basic terms when around people are used to living in the big-city environment,” he said. “There’s something about small-town values you pick up in a place like Lima, Ohio, that simply makes people more reasonable. You can simplify things for people.”
Akil returns to Lima a few times a year to visit family. He’s pleased with some things he sees, such as moving “away from an industrial past and moving towards a medical future.”
Lima can succeed if the children here learn the lessons this city provides, he said.
“There are no shortcuts to success,” Akil said. “You have to put in the work, day after day. If you put in the work, people will recognize and appreciate and embrace you. The right people will do that.”