Born and bred in Syracuse, Mark Muhammad hopes to make impact as school board member

Muhammad is familiar with the conditions of public schools and has close ties to the greater Syracuse community.

When Mark Muhammad was a young child, his father would drive him and other children around local neighborhoods in a garbage truck belonging to the Syracuse Department of Public Works. They took rakes, shovels and brooms and went to work cleaning up the clutter that lay on city streets.

But after a month went by and the mess returned, Muhammad would get frustrated and ask why they were doing it. No one else was out cleaning, and he couldn’t stand the work in the first place.

“I think and I hope that I can make a difference. Obviously, the mayor thinks and hopes that I can make a difference, and really the service is nothing new to me."
-- Mark Muhammad

“It wasn’t until I got to be an adult that I understood what he was doing,” Muhammad said. “He was trying to instill in us community service and taking responsibility for your neighborhood. That’s what it was about.”

Now that he has fully embraced the idea of community service as a professor and everyday citizen, Muhammad is ready to share his passion in a new role. He became the newest member of the Syracuse City School District’s Board of Education in January when Mayor Stephanie Miner appointed him to finish the term of former commissioner Bill Bullen.

Muhammad was initially surprised by the mayor’s request because he believed there were other individuals equally qualified and closer to the public school system that could fill the void. However, he decided to accept the added challenge for one simple reason.

“I think and I hope that I can make a difference,” Muhammad said. “Obviously, the mayor thinks and hopes that I can make a difference, and really the service is nothing new to me.

“The school board is just serving in another capacity, another arena, so it’s nothing new.”

Muhammad is no stranger to the conditions of public schools and the greater Syracuse community. He was born in the city and went to a number of different grade schools before graduating from Henninger High School in 1978.

He earned a degree from Cornell University in industrial labor relations and eventually returned to Syracuse. Over the next 10 years, he found whatever odd job he could before deciding to pursue a master’s in speech communication at SU.

He began teaching as a graduate student and has done so for the past 17 years. He currently leads an orientation seminar in the Renée Crown University Honors Program that focuses on verbal communication skills.

His previous honors course, “From the Hill to the Hood,” gave students the opportunity to learn about issues confronting the city, including poverty and gang violence. As part of the class, they collaborated on a variety of community service projects aimed to help city residents.

Eric Holzwarth, deputy director of the honors program, said Muhammad would bring former gang members to visit students in class and find creative ways to eliminate their fear of the inner city. His glowing student evaluations were proof that the format was a hit, and Holzwarth believes his ability to connect with others will make him a valuable asset to the board.

“What he has to say makes sense, and he delivers it with a kind of professionalism,” Holzwarth said. “I think he’s going to be really good at engaging people who might not have thought about some of the dynamics of kids in our schools in the way that he has thought about and worked with them year after year.”

Muhammad’s willingness to help goes beyond the classroom. He spent about 12 years on the Board of Trustees for the Gifford Foundation, which funds nonprofit organizations in Onondaga, Madison and Oswego counties. The foundation focuses on increasing the capability of those organizations to help people in need and building better neighborhoods through community engagement, according to Heidi Holtz, its director of research and projects.

If Holtz had to describe Muhammad in one word, she said it would be “caring.” When she first heard that he had been appointed to the board, she immediately knew the mayor had made a great decision.

“He’s from here, he knows people and I think he is able to particularly speak for those who are often unheard,” Holtz said. “He believes in helping those people who don’t always have a place at the table to get a place at the table.”

Muhammad’s efforts have not gone unnoticed by those in the community. Aaron Patterson, who currently works at the Seals Community Center at Kirk Park, believes Muhammad is perfect for the school board because he’s “for the kids.” After collaborating with him on homework programs at local community centers, Patterson also admires the way he inspires his own students to be better citizens.

“He’s always out in the community,” Patterson said, “so if you’re out in the community and you’re there with your class and your class sees you do it, then they’re gonna want to do it also.”

Muhammad said one of the biggest issues that still plagues Syracuse is segregation. While the number of African-American elected officials has risen, he said the reality facing families in the Black community is little different than it was 30 years ago.

As willing as he is to roll up his sleeves and help, though, Muhammad said the key to making the school district as effective as possible for everyone rests in the hands of its students. He implores them to embrace their education and figure out how they can use it to best serve themselves and one another.

In the meantime, he’ll do whatever he can to help them out.

“The bottom line is how is this going to benefit the students,” Muhammad said. “That’s going to be a driving force for me, and I believe that everybody that comes really cares about that. That’s the reason why we’re in business, forgive the expression, and the reason why we exist.”

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