Q&A with Urban League of Essex County Young Professionals president Jason Grove

The Urban League of Essex County Young Professionals (ULECYP) have been raising their profile in the area this summer with well-attended and highly rated networking events at Newark’s Taste Venue. I asked ULECYP president Jason Grove about the association’s mission, the type of members they’re seeking, and how ULECYP plans to help drive and localize a 21st-century civil rights agenda right here in Essex County.

Andaiye Taylor: What is ULECYP’s mission, and how does it fit into the broader mission of the National Urban League Young Professional movement?

jason grove ulecypJason Grove: The Urban League of Essex County Young Professionals (ULECYP) is made up of a network of young professionals here in Essex County. We are a member chapter of the National Urban League Young Professional (NULYP) movement across the country that provides leadership development, economic empowerment and community volunteer opportunities for other young professionals. The organization is an auxiliary of the National Urban League and trains, develops, and educates young professionals to take leadership roles within the National Urban League, the civil rights movement, and society at-large.

Our members are defining, developing, implementing, and leading the “now” generation civil rights agenda. The ULECYP and NULYP mission is to engage young professionals towards the achievement of social and economic equality. We do this by providing an effective forum through which young professionals can support the overall mission of the Urban League through mentoring, tutoring, scholarships, economic empowerment, political engagement, and leadership development programs. Our chapter implements local programs in support of the National Urban League’s five-point empowerment agenda, the Opportunity Compact, and the I Am Empowered pledge.

AT: What types of members do you hope to attract to ULECYP?

JG: We are looking to attract members aged 21 to 40 who are proficient in their profession and masters of their talents. Our ideal members are also responding to the call for community engagement using current technologies; impacting others with energy and passion; prepared for work and life with a vision for the future; improving their health and fitness each day; guarding and increasing the civil rights gains of their ancestors; and expanding economic opportunity and building wealth for themselves and their community.

AT: You’ve been hosting networking events here in Newark. What can young professionals expect from your networking events?

JG: At every networking event we always try to provide “The Perfect Room” — a healthy mix of people from various backgrounds and disciplines, interested in building healthy business and personal relationships. I always reiterate that we are the current and next generation of leaders. We are looking for members and community partners that share similar values.

AT: What initiatives will ULECYP be taking up in the next year?

JG: We’ll be hosting a college fair with the mission of creating a pipeline to college for area youth, voter registration drives, an initiative around home ownership and affordable housing for young professionals, and a cooperative economics initiative involving hiring, spending, procuring, and development using local sources.

Follow ULECYP on Facebook and Twitter, and learn how to become a member on the Urban League of Essex County website. Stay on top of ULECYP networking events on our calendar at brickc.it/ulecypevents.

Featured image via ULECYP.

Sweet Peace (in Military Park!): fayemi shakur discusses why you should consider taking up yoga

Yoga isn’t just a physical practice: it promises mental and spiritual benefits that can pay dividends in its devotees’ every day lives. Below fayemi shakur, who teaches a free yoga class on Saturdays in Military Park here in Newark, discusses what drew her to yoga, and why you should consider trying it too.

What about yoga drew you into the practice?

I started practicing yoga about seven years ago. I took my first class at a gym I went to with my sister. I was pleasantly surprised: it wasn’t nearly as intimidating as I thought it would be. The sense of peace I felt after class was evident from day one. But, it wasn’t until I met my teacher, Jennifer Kohl from Lotus Yoga, that I really began to deepen my practice.

At her former studio, she often gave dharma talks and chanted in Sanskrit. My spirit was really drawn to that. That’s something I didn’t get in yoga classes that were geared more towards fitness. Independently, I read and studied the I-Ching – a form of Chinese divination and philosophy – for years, which continues to be a part of my practice.

I was attracted to learning about yoga philosophy as a way of life. I didn’t practice any particular religion, and I needed a disciplined spiritual practice I could relate to that was universal and holistic. It grounded me and continually gives me balance and personal goals to work towards incorporating into my life. The thing that really got me open was learning about the yamas, the niyamas, and the five causes of suffering.

There are lots of yoga styles – which do you practice, and why?

fayemi shakur 2I’m open to all styles and paths of yoga. There are many yoga systems and paths across the globe of course, so I haven’t tried them all yet. Some paths go beyond a hatha yoga practice consisting of asana and meditation. For instance, karma yoga practices include volunteer work, and it is a path of service. Nada yoga is the yoga of deep inner listening. It’s the yoga of sound, which includes meditation, listening to good music, and turning off the television and other distractions. Other physical yoga styles are Kundalini, Kemetic, Ashtanga, Iyengar, Vinyasa, Restorative and Bikram, or hot yoga — all considered Hatha yoga.

As it’s said in yoga, “Many paths, one truth.” I haven’t tried one yet that I didn’t like, although vinyasa is my favorite style. Vinyasa is so beautiful. The poses are sequenced in such a way that one pose flows to the next. It’s like poetry to me. All yoga is beautiful.

What motivated you to share your yoga experience with others through teaching?

I’m a 500 hour certified yoga teacher, and I’ve been teaching for almost three years. I’m at the very beginning of this journey. I was encouraged by Jennifer Kohl and fellow yogi Danielle Mastrogiovanni to enroll in Lotus Yoga’s teacher training. They kept telling me they thought I could be a great yoga teacher, and I was sincerely puzzled by that. Like why? Honestly, when I started practicing I was just trying to find a way to eliminate stress and anxiety. I never would have thought I would be teaching yoga today. I’m grateful they encouraged me to do it.

Teaching community classes was a required part of my teacher trainings, so I couldn’t shy away from it. I completed two trainings where I studied yoga sutras, The Gita, Sanskrit, anatomy, alignment, and so much more. The trainings lasted for months at a time, and they were hard. Some of the concepts were so intense, it was difficult to come back afterwards and engage in the real world.

My perceptions started changing. Our Sanskrit teacher, Manorama, told us that yoga was an ego bashing process and I found that to be true. I learned that yoga is not for pacifists. I read something that said what Americans need most is more humility, and that arrogance will forever keep us separate from each other and from the Divine. Arrogance and spiritual ecstasy can’t go together. So we constantly have to balance these things. I learned a lot about anger and how yoga could be used as a tool to foster healing, strength and improved focus.

I decided to start teaching as a part of my karma yoga practice with the hope that others could apply yoga to their lives in their own way. It only works if you do it. I started to learn what I needed to embrace from within and how to be still so I could hear. I’m still learning. A good teacher can sharpen your practice by jarring you out of complacency and self-satisfaction so that new possibilities appear.

What can newcomers expect from a session with you at Military Park?

I’ve been teaching a Saturday morning class at Military Park for about a year since the park re-opened. I always want newcomers to feel at ease in their bodies and abilities, even if it is their first time. It’s an open level class, but I teach mostly beginners.

It’s not a religion. I teach in a way that complements students’ religious beliefs. I think it’s important to de-mystify what yoga is and teach it in a way that’s relatable. We’re also living at a time when we are seeing and experiencing a lot of change, violence and stress all around. I want to share my practice and how I use it to confront and deal with those things while practicing a sense of calmness and balance.

It’s important to see people of color engaged in yoga. Yoga is for everybody and all shapes and sizes. I think when people see me doing it they realize it’s something they can do too. I’m not a heavy promoter when it comes to yoga. Most teachers aren’t. Only if someone asks. It should come naturally.

We begin class with a dharma talk and silent meditation. We have a goal to work up to 20 minutes of mediation every day but for now we are at five minutes. It takes time and effort to learn how to meditate and engage the breath work required in yoga. The class serves as a group practice, and I provide some simple guided instructions. Sometimes I share the wisdom of the yoga sutras, some days I might share an inspiring poem by Maya Angelou or Nayyirah Waheed. Any wisdom I share really doesn’t come from me. It’s an ancient wisdom or universal truth.

I love music and incorporate it into the class as well. Sometimes I teach a restorative class, sometimes vinyasa, or if the students say they want power yoga, I’ll give them that. The restorative classes seem to be the favorite among the students, which essentially is a centering of the breath and the body, aligning the physical and the mental by practicing stillness and gentle movement. There is something special about being in the grass, under the sun, practicing in nature that feels so good. The remodeled park is truly a beautiful space. The class I teach in the park is open to all and parents can bring their children. The little ones love yoga too. It’s a special kind of sweet peace.

Yoga’s health and wellbeing benefits are highly touted by people in the know. What are those benefits?

Yoga helps alleviate stress and anxiety, but it also can provide greater clarity and awareness mentally and spiritually. The benefits of meditation and its effect on the brain are incredible. Yoga and meditation should also go together. The asana – the poses – are what help prepare the mind for meditation, because the body is both stimulated and relaxed in way that activates the analytical and intuitive abilities.

These benefits improve mental clarity and help us make better decisions. Physically yoga helps increase strength, balance, focus, and flexibility. Practicing yoga can also alleviate pain and discomfort, aid digestion, improve the nervous system, circulation, posture, cardiovascular health, and provide relief for asthma. Every yoga pose has a health benefit which I discuss in class.

I love to think of the poses too as metaphors for other things. For instance, feeling the feet rooted into the ground and the sense of balance and awareness that it inspires. Holding your eyes on a focal point, knowing that you must or you will lose your balance. Maintaining a pose and keeping perfectly still when you feel like you just can’t hold it any longer. Some days you will fail to practice – we all do – but you try again and get better at it. Everyone comes to yoga for different reasons, but the spiritual component of yoga as a way of life is just as important as the physical benefits.

Lastly, what type of work do you do outside of yoga?

I work at Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art in downtown Newark a few days a week as a consultant and marketing manager. I’ve been at Aljira for about three years. Essentially, I’m a cultural worker.

My job there entails strategic marketing and communications, public relations, content management and development for the Aljira blog and social media, sharing news about what’s going on in the arts and supporting Aljira’s exhibitions and programs.

I’m also an independent writer. Writing is my first love; organizing is my second. My work has been published in The New York Times, The International Review of African American Art, Nueva Luz photographic journal, Ebony.com, UPTOWN, and HYCIDE Magazine. I initially started writing political and cultural news stories in 1999. These days I write more about art, which gives me a new way to explore various topics. Short story writing or curating exhibitions and programs may be the next thing I try. Who knows? But, ArtLife Media is my consulting company through which I make money and provide a range of services.

I believe in supporting and valuing the arts, cultural institutions and programs in our communities, and most work I do is a part of my social and creative practice which includes community service. In the past year, I also taught yoga at N.J. Regional Day School for special needs and autistic youth. I just do what I love and I appreciate having that freedom. Still, I’m very discerning and mindful of what I say yes to.

fayemi shakur’s “Sweet Peace” family yoga and meditation class is held every Saturday from 10:30am to 11:30am in Military Park. The class is free and mats are provided. On inclement weather days, the class will be held at The New Jersey Historical Society at 52 Park Place just across from the park. To check out more free classes and activities, visit www.militarypark.org.

Remember R&B group Surface? They’re now ReSurface. ‘Get closer to’ them at Suite53

There is a whole generation that grew up off love songs wafting from the smooth R&B vocals of 90’s groups such as Surface, whose memorable tracks include “Happy” (1987), “Closer Than Friends” (1988), “Shower Me With Your Love” (1989) among others. With an album aptly entitled “ReSurface, Where Have You Been?” the group, comprised of David “Pic” Conley and John Feva, are aimed at reasserting their vocals and rhythmic sounds among old fans, as well as a new generation of R&B lovers.

Now fans in the greater Newark area can see ReSurface live at Suite53 (53 Edison Place, Newark; $20 cover includes new CD) on Friday, June 5th starting at 9 pm as the group celebrates their album release with a live show, part of the full alum launch that kicked off on June 1st.

“Because of my past music I still wanted to keep things pretty much close to the Surface in doing this record. So that’s kind of what you should be expecting,” Conley said. “Not a lot is new under the sun but I just took the old and blended it with the new to bring you what we have.”

Released on June 1, the CD “ReSurface Where Have You Been?” is produced by David Pic Conley, who is now based in Aurora, Colorado. Fans of the old sound can expect that plus some freshly flavored stylings by the team which consists of Gene Lennon, Gene Lake, Jam Benton, Derrick “Derky” Culler and the newest talents to join the team, Martin Blockson and Mjestie Brooks. Both a part of the group and the production ensemble, Conley has remained at the helm by co-producing all of the songs in conjunction with the team. He also co-wrote all of the tracks alongside John Feva.

The first release, “We Can Fly,” produced by Conley with Gene Lake, has already started generating a buzz with its video on YouTube. Showing off his co-writing skills on the song is West Orange New Jersey based John Feva, who was formerly managed by Russell Simmons.

Having also produced and written for major artists such as Aretha Franklin, Stanley Jordon, George Benson, and other notables like Victoria Beckham and Damon Dash, Conley reenters the R&B world as an industry veteran ready to connect with fresh listeners worldwide.

Q&A with Isaiah Little: Imagining a better block on Bergen Street

Better Block Newark is inviting community volunteers to help complete its first public spaces project at Bergen Street and Lyons Avenue. The project entails imagining by doing: bringing the community together to build temporary public spaces called “parklets” that might become models for more permanent ones or, as the founders of Better Block state on their website, a “demonstration tool…so that communities can actively engage in the buildout process and provide feedback in real time.”

I spoke with Isaiah Little, project manager in Newark’s Office of Information Technology, founder of GalleryRetail, and Brigade Captain of Code for Newark, about how the community can use this project to create a living vision for a better block in their neighborhood.

What is a parklet?

It’s a park that you create out of a parking space. Parking spaces make up about a 9-by-20-foot space. For a parklet, you remove the car and put in a mini public space instead. It can be made out of concrete and similar materials, or it can be made out of palettes. We’re going to do palettes for Better Block at Bergen Street. We’re essentially giving the community more shared space, more public space, more green space.


What’s the setup going to look like on Bergen Street?

We’re going to have three parklets. One is going to be children’s themed for activities like playing with legos, and I know the Newark Mommies group is going to meet there for a portion of the day. Then there’s a relaxation parklet with comfortable chairs and pillows. And then the mini tech park will have wifi so people can do work. The idea overall is to bring some of that Military Park vibe to Bergen Street.

How long will these last?

They’re going to be temporary. Our goal is to show the potential, and as we think more about development, we can encourage the community and decision-makers to revisit these types of ideas to make better use of the street and public spaces. But these will be disassembled by the end of the weekend.


What has community involvement looked like so far, and how can the community lobby for more permanent versions of these parklets?

We’ve had at least two official, large general community meetings. So the community has had the opportunity to chime in with what they’d like to see.

They’ve also been part of our build days and painting days, so they’ve been able to provide feedback and ideas of what they’d like to see then as well. Now, we want to show what the street could look like if we gave it that love. In addition to the parklets we’re going to have bike groups come out – kind of show what the experience of bike lanes would bring to Bergen Street south. There’s also going to be a bistro-style eating opportunity. So the community can decide what pieces they like.


Would you say this is almost like a lean startup approach to development and beautification?

I would agree – especially the part about getting out there and doing it. This is similar to lean [startup] where you get out there and do it, see how the community responds to the idea, and then adjust. We can conceive it in real life, and then innovate and evolve the original idea.

Code for Newark will be there taking surveys to gauge which ideas were the favorites and what people would like to see more permanently. We’ll be taking that information back to planning, housing and economic development, and information technology for deliberation.

Better Block Bergen takes place Saturday, June 6 from 12pm to 6pm at Bergen Street and Lyons Avenue. All are welcome to attend and volunteer. Email betterblock@ci.newark.nj.us for further inquiries about this project.

The Better Block Newark @ Bergen Street project will run from Lyons to Lehigh Avenues

City’s new “We Are Newark” Tumblr showcases city employees

The City of Newark recently launched a new Tumblr blog entitled WeAreNewark, meant to showcase what Mayor Ras Baraka calls “Newark 3.0,” embodied in this case by a diverse legion of city employees.

The inaugural post is a profile of Carrie Velez, the city’s principal personnel technician. Angela Daniels, the city’s press officer and social media manager, said these snapshots of city employees are meant to put a face behind the people who ultimately make the city run. “Everyone’s job is important, and we are using this blog as a method to showcase who we are, what makes us different, and also use this as an outlet to share our love for our City,” she wrote in an email, before adding that the blog would highlight other developments in town.

True to its name, the blog is meant to further press home Baraka’s “we are the mayor” message from the campaign, underscoring just how many people who were heretofore unknown to the general public work behind the scenes in city government. City employees interested in being featured on the blog are asked to contact Daniels at danielsan@ci.newark.nj.us.

End of the beginning: Rashawn Davis finds his footing after Newark’s municipal race

It’s an early spring Saturday afternoon in Newark, and I’m bumping along Springfield Avenue in the backseat of a red Buick. Rashawn Davis, 22, is seated in front of me in the passenger seat discussing the details of his next event with his campaign manager, Chad Montague. He’ll be visiting St. Ann’s Soup Kitchen in Newark’s West Ward to read at a literacy program and serve food to the kitchen’s Saturday morning clientele.

For Davis, this Saturday afternoon is the coda to a week spent working at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on community policing issues by day, and talking to the likes of me at night (I interviewed Davis for this story four days prior to our soup kitchen excursion).


Image credit: Andaiye Taylor

At St. Ann’s, Davis is greeted warmly by the soup kitchen’s staff. He heads into a long, thin reading room where children have gathered around a table, and reads Babar Comes to America to a young girl. When he’s finished there, he crosses the facility and heads into the kitchen, where he dons a baseball cap and matching apron, and receives a rundown of the day’s menu from kitchen staff. Asked to make some remarks to the people he’ll soon serve, he assents readily and walks out to the middle of the floor to say a few words.

His basic message to the soup kitchen attendees: that he’ll be working on their behalf in the political off-season, far away from the klieg lights and media hype that contribute to the circus-like feel of campaign season here in Newark. This, in a nutshell, is the blueprint for Davis’ life after his first political run.

Unto the breach

Newark might be one of the oldest cities in the country, but look at its current demographics, and at the people who are most affected by the city’s most pressing problems, and the watchword is undoubtedly “youth.”

Newark indexes slightly higher for pre-adult youth than the state of New Jersey, and the city boasts a senior population of only 8.6 percent, versus the state’s 13.5 percent. Young people are the subject of the city’s raging debate about education, and the hardest hit by unemployment. They’re both the most frequent victims and perpetrators of violent crime.

Yet Newark’s political leadership is characterized by legacy, incumbency and, well, age. It’s a particular concern for Davis, who worries that the experiences, worldview, and talents of the millennial generation are essential for moving the city forward, but missing from the city’s local government leadership. The needs of that generation, and of the city on the whole, can’t be sufficiently addressed because of youth underrepresentation, Davis says.

So in 2013, while the Newark native was still a college undergraduate at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and buoyed in part by his core group of friends – all enterprising young black men from cities around the country – Davis decided to “be the change” and run for office in his hometown.

Failing forward

Davis entered the campaign with the intent to do as well as he could, but on the merits, it was highly unlikely that he’d pull out a win. In the beginning in particular, attention to his campaign was slow-going, and money was scarce. He was also up against Newark voters’  tendency to vote for incumbents and other known entities in local elections (a tendency they share with the average American voter). Davis was decidedly neither.

Davis made it clear to me that losing wasn’t fun (“for a week or so after the election I didn’t talk to many people, and I was a little disenchanted with the system,” he said, mostly due to vandalism and other assorted ugliness his campaign weathered as voting day drew closer). But Davis also knew that losing the race was merely the end of the beginning of his plan to be a change agent in Newark. “We still had a ton of opportunity ahead of us, even if we didn’t win,” he observed.

In the technology startup world, this is called “failing forward.” The concept: statistically, an entrepreneur’s first venture is unlikely to succeed. But launching a new venture, and all the activities that go along with it – defining a vision, creating an execution plan, hiring the right (or the wrong) team members, getting investors to contribute funds – these make for such dynamic learning experiences that founders often find themselves in high demand for new opportunities, even if the business they founded didn’t succeed. They fail forward.

Davis’ first run conferred similar benefits. Hearing from Newarkers helped him understand what he would need to accomplish to make his pitch to Newarkers resonate better. Trying to get an audience for his message with a lean team and even leaner funds made the importance of serious fundraising and smart staffing apparent. And the attacks Davis said his campaign experienced after his first big press mentions – on PolicyMic and MTV – awakened him to the ugly realities of Newark politicking during campaign season.

Back to the day-to-day


Image credit: Brian Rock

In this way, Davis’ first run helped bring shape and clarity to the work he does now. Working backwards from the types of arguments he would like to have made to Newarkers about his record during his first council race, Davis has been able to marry issues he sincerely cares about with a plan to accomplish milestones that the community can easily understand and appreciate.

In the most concrete way, that work has involved the creation of a Civilian Police Review Board under the aegis of the ACLU. While systemic – and often deadly – abuse of communities of color by police has recently become a marquee issue in national conversations, Davis’ work precedes this attention, instead coming on the heels of the Justice Department’s announcement last July of a federal monitor to keep watch over the Newark Police Department.

Davis is being intentional about how he spends his post-campaign time in other ways. One of his initiatives is to bring young professionals and creatives together to collaborate on projects in Newark, and to simply be aware that they’re a resource for one another here in town. To that end, he recently hosted an “Innovator’s Happy Hour” at Newark’s new Skylab rooftop bar. “I knew what it was like to wonder if you had a community here,” he said of his motivation for organizing the event.

Davis is also continuing to hone his ideas for how to elevate civic life in the West Ward, and in the city at large. One of his favorite ideas? “‘City Hall to Go’,” he said. “You take a van of City Hall employees to a different corner in a neighborhood each week, park it there, and let people come and get their questions answered there. It’s like a City Hall substation,” Davis explained of the idea he first learned of at the “innovation lab” at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

And in general, Davis is in favor of a muscular approach to the city council office. “The demand on council people is so much more” than what they are required to do by statute, Davis said. “Council members need to have visionary insight,” in order to do their part to improve the city, he added. From figuring out how to reform the blighted Pabst Blue Ribbon brewery site on South Orange Avenue, to maximizing commercial opportunities along the Orange Street corridor, Davis says an “expansive mindset” is required for council members to help unlock Newark’s potential.

In the next few months, Davis says he expects to continue dedicating considerable time to the Civilian Police Review Board, an initiative given new dimension by the current national climate. More tactically, Davis plans to start interviewing for communications, funding, and intern staff.

And perhaps he’ll accomplish a thing or two he can’t anticipate at the moment. “This in-between time is new,” he said.

Featured image credit: Brian Rock

#AfterTheRun is our yearlong series examining the life and work of Rashawn Davis after his city council run.

Read the next article in this series, Settling into the campaign post-season, Rashawn Davis doubles down on issues and builds bridges.

#GiveNewark: Let’s help get Newark’s Ayana Stafford to a prestigious film program in Cannes, France

First, a full-disclosure author’s note: I am contributing to the campaign I’m about to describe in the story below.

Second, if you read nothing else, know that Ayana Stafford — Newark native, Arts High School graduate, William Paterson alumnae, film entrepreneur, and film teacher — has been accepted into a prestigious film program taking place this May during the Cannes Film Festival, and that if we join forces with the sixty-plus people who have already contributed to her GoFundMe campaign (as of this writing), we can all help her get there.

Here is the link to her GoFundMe campaign: gofundme.com/ayanafrance.

Video about the “Creative Minds” program

Now for Ayana’s story. Ayana initially studied theater while a student at Arts High School, but a teacher there introduced her to television and film, opening up an entirely new world to the young performer.

“Our teacher was new, he was young, he was fresh out of school, and had a lot of energy and passion,” Ayana said. With his help, Ayana and her classmates launched “Jaguar Journal,” a student-produced television show that Arts High School students still produce today.

The experience made it clear to Ayana that she was more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it, so when she matriculated at William Paterson University for college, she decided to study film.

Since then, Ayana has made television and filmmaking her world, including working for News12 New Jersey and VH1, helping out with a few independent films in New York City, and even working on the set of hit television show Gossip Girl.

But a life change caused Ayana to rethink the balance between her career aspirations and her personal life: just as her television and film career started gearing up, Ayana became a mom. “Working 13-hour shifts would not be possible for a new mom,” Ayana said. She knew she would continue working in film, but decided to localize her career. “I wanted something here in Newark, to be on my own schedule,” she said.

So Ayana took all she’d learned and started Leopard Stripes Productions here in town. Eager to add business management to her skillset, she took a local entrepreneurship course offered by Brick City Development Corporation (now the Newark Community Economic Development Corporation). BCDC also awarded Ayana a $5,000 startup grant, with which she purchased the cameras, audio equipment, and lights she still uses today.

Under the banner of her new film production company, Ayana has launched a number of television and film projects, including TTYL, a youth-focused talk show featuring local college students, and a documentary entitled The Race to Save Brick City, about the 2014 election between Ras Baraka and Shavar Jeffries, which she screened at CityPlex12 just prior to the mayoral election.

Trailer for The Race to Save Brick City

Ayana also trains recent high school graduates in film production.

All that experience made Ayana feel ready when the “Creative Minds” film program at Cannes opened up the application for its internship program earlier this year. The program, according to its website, enables early-career film professionals to “make key contacts that will help them establish a career in the film industry.” (The Cannes Film Festival is one of the most esteemed film festivals in the world.) A mere two weeks after Ayana submitted her application, she was accepted into the competitive program.

But her journey to France doesn’t end there. Before she can jet to Cannes to work on a short film, network with peers from around the world, hobnob with some of the top executives and creatives in the film industry, and tout Newark’s potential as a film hub in a high-powered international setting, she needs one more important resource.

“Money!” she said when I asked how the community can assist her. The program granted Ayana a $500 scholarship, but the lion’s share of the $5,000 in program and travel costs are up to her.

And that brings us back to her GoFundMe campaign, which has already raised a little bit over half of the money Ayana needs to fund the program. In order to lock down her place in Creative Minds, she needs to see a surge in contributions to the effort by Friday, April 17.

If Ayana has her way, potential supporters will get back more than just the warm and fuzzy feeling of helping a deserving Newarker reserve her spot in a coveted program. “I want people in the film industry to know about Newark and to bring [the industry] here,” she said. “We have a great urban landscape, and were so close to [New York] City.” She sees serious potential to bring crews here to shoot city scenes (just like the makers of The Dark Knight Rises did back in 2011), and to employ Newarkers in film production.

To contribute to Ayana Stafford’s GoFundMe campaign, visit gofundme.com/ayanafrance.

#NewarkToLondon: Travel maven Madeline Boughton personally funds Newark students’ London trip

Six Newark public high school students are spending spring break in London, an all-expense-paid weeklong trip made possible by the diligence – and the 401(k) funds – of one passionate Newark native.

“No one is talking to children in Newark public schools about travel,” said Madeline Boughton, the trip’s organizer and primary benefactor.

At the age of 31, Boughton has traveled to 21 countries, camped out in the Sahara, and spent two years in Paris earning her Master’s degree. While she credits her parents with instilling a love of travel, she says discussions about studying abroad were nonexistent in high school.

Boughton has since become an outspoken advocate for the inclusion of international travel programs in urban school districts. Her platform has taken her door-to-door, visiting public high schools throughout the city where, she admits, several principals have flat out rebuffed her offers to speak with students.

“Sometimes they tell me no,” Boughton says. “They say we have to focus on graduation, and getting a job, and going to college. It’s not something we have time for.”

But she is hoping – “gambling” may be the better word – that this trip will inspire school leadership to shift their perspective. That is why she has invested $12,000 of her own money to make the trip happen. Without any corporate or philanthropic sponsors, Boughton initially turned to crowdfunding to cover the cost of airfare, hotel fees, and food. But when a two-month Indiegogo campaign only yielded $2,330, she withdrew the rest of the money from her own 401(k).

Madeline Boughton pitches the benefits of a weeklong London trip for Newark high school students in a video posted to Indiegogo. After the $25,000 campaign yielded just $2,300 in donations, Boughton funded the rest of the trip out-of-pocket.

“I was really stressed out and worried because I really didn’t want to cancel the trip, because I didn’t want to let the children down,” she said.

For their part, the students themselves were excited as the trip got underway. “The wait in Newark airport seemed like a couple minutes, it’s amazing how time flies when you’re excited,” blogged Joshua Skillern, a junior at Technology High school, as the trip got underway on March 29. “When we boarded the plane, none of us could keep quiet.”

With the help of an essay contest, Boughton hand-selected Skillern and four other high-achieving Newark high school sophomores last spring.  All honors students, the London entourage boasts two Rutgers Future Scholars, an NJIT Upward Bound student, and several athletes.

The itinerary includes touring Wimbledon and attending a Royal Shakespeare Company production. Students will also spend three days at Wroxton College, Fairleigh Dickinson’s satellite location in London, and the site of Boughton’s study abroad experience as an undergraduate. There, they will further explore Anglo-American cultural differences.

“We’ll be giving the kids that are coming over guidance about what it is they are seeing, some of the differences they may encounter, and why those differences are there,” said Dr. Nicholas Baldwin, dean at Wroxton College.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that international travel programs are absent from the curricula of Newark’s traditional public high schools. In a district where school administrators are saddled with addressing grave realities like low test scores and graduation rates, and where there’s been confusion and wrangling over the controversial “One Newark” school district reorganization plan, it’s easy to understand how a weeklong trip overseas could seem extraneous to school administrators, if not downright frivolous.

But in spite of both the steep monetary requirements and competition with more pressing priorities, access to excursions abroad for Newark students could be worth the effort in the long run, offering a global outlook for students who are inheriting an increasingly connected world where unprecedented global competition is a reality.

With this trip under her belt as a proof-of-concept, Boughton says she will seek the funding and support required to take a group of Newark high school students overseas every year.

 To read more about Boughton’s endeavors, see pictures from the trip, and read student blog posts, visit TravelingMad.com.

ayesha fainesAyesha K. Faines is a North Jersey-based writer and television journalist. Her non-fiction work explores millennial entrepreneurship, personal development, and the intersection of race and popular culture. A self-proclaimed “afromantic”, she also enjoys writing romantic fiction and poetry. She blogs regularly at www.xoAyesha.com and tweets @ayeshakfaines.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Madeline Boughton invested $23,000 of her own money into the students’ trip. In fact, she invested $12,000.

Brick City Love: Power Couples who are helping to shape Newark

power couples new tableuAll photos: Tamara Fleming/Tamara Fleming Photography

This Valentine’s Day, we wanted to celebrate just a handful of the many couples who are shaping Newark together, using their love for both the city and for each other to power their efforts.

Below are our conversations with a few Newark couples who are doing just that. They’re making their impact on the city as small business owners, civic workers, educators, environmentalists, artists, professionals, social workers, and community advocates. Some are Newark natives, and others are new to the city.

We asked each couple how they met, how Newark factors into their love story, and what Newark has to offer couples. Single and looking? Fear not — we also asked them for a few date night recommendations.

We’re calling the lovebirds featured below “power couples.” Our contention is that power couples don’t have to be marquee names known coast to coast (though we wouldn’t put it past any of these couples to get there eventually). They can also be the homegrown duos working sincerely, tirelessly, and together on behalf of the city they love.

All couples portraits were taken for this feature by Tamara Fleming of Tamara Fleming Photography.

“Kaimara”: Kai & Tamara Campbell

Native Newarker Kai has worked to attract business to Newark, and Tamara is a marketing pro and entrepreneur who has worked extensively with local restaurants, founded the local website NewarkPulse.com, and is working to create networks for information sharing, support, and fun for Newark mothers. Together, the parents of two young children recently launched Burger Walla, an Indian cuisine-themed burger joint, on Halsey Street.


BCL: How would you define a power couple?

Kai: My definition of a power couple is a bond shared by two [people] that makes both of them better, bringing out the best in each individual for the good of the work. A power couple does things together, pushing forward, with a positive influence.

Tamara: It’s also a couple that is a part of their community, can influence their community, and is helping make changes for the better.

BCL: How did you meet, and how does Newark factor into your love story?

Tamara: Newark is our love story!

I was hired by the city to coordinate Newark Restaurant Week, and Kai was working for the city. We spoke for the first time at the launch party for [the local blog] GlocallyNewark, and as I was falling for Kai, I was falling in love with the city too.

Some of our first dates were around the city, like lunch at Assaggini Di Roma, drinks at Blue Mirror, and picnics in Branch Brook Park. We lived on Halsey Street (where Kai had lived for years) and had a very Newark wedding downtown. As business owners and residents, we are strong proponents of supporting local, and for our wedding we used over a dozen Newark businesses, venues, and talent. We are still very much Newarkers and are raising our two daughters here.

Why did you choose to launch this venture together?

Tamara: I have always believed a strong relationship is similar to a successful business partnership: to run smoothly and effectively, each one must have their strengths and weaknesses, and strong communication is the key. We have each other’s loyalty and support in all we do – opening Burger Walla was just another venture.

Kai: Tamara was the inspiration behind me going out and starting companies. She is my business North Star in a way, as a confidante, mentor, and partner. To have such a strong businesswoman – she’s had her own marketing agency for 16 years – as a resource, it was and is a blessing. We work so well as a couple, it would be foolish not to try to beg her to be a partner in everything I do.

Business is just who we are at the end of the day. We see needs and our passions, and try to match them always if we undertake a venture. Business is an extension of our marriage.

What does Newark have to offer young couples?

Kai: We are at an interesting time, where there are opportunities all over the city, whether in education, living, or creating. We are creators, strivers, and pushers, which is what couples naturally are.

When you’re young, you have so much energy, and that needs outlets. Bring that positive energy here and express it in any way that you can. Even children count – they’re the fruits of such glorious labor and energy!

Tamara: In the fall, we hosted a Newark couples social to get to know other young couples that have made Newark home and hope to continue that this year. And two years ago after becoming a parent, myself and a friend started Newark Mommies to create a community of moms to share resources, plan playdates, and more. It’s been a great way to introduce those new to Newark to other couples as well so they know they’re not alone.

BCL: Where are your favorite places to hang out in town?

Tamara: With our time being tied up with [their new venture] Burger Walla and having two kids under 2, we don’t really get out in a traditional sense. However as a mom, I’m a big fan of all our green spaces in the city during the summer – the splash park and orange boardwalk at the Riverfront in the Ironbound, Military Park, and the farmers markets. With cold weather, we frequent the Newark Library system. If time allows we – especially Kai – enjoy the arts, music, and indie scene downtown.

Kai: Since Skipper’s closed, I would have to say Halsey Street or Newark Airport. Halsey Street represents the past, present, and future of our city, while the airport is a constant reminder of how we take Newark with us around the world.

Besides Burger Walla, in what other areas have you worked to influence Newark?

Kai: I worked in economic development under both Sharpe James and Cory Booker, in real estate development, as a leader in the Halsey Merchant Association, and as a board member in what was once Newark Screens (now CityPlex12).

Tamara helped the city run the first Newark Restaurant Week, coordinated the largest Halsey Street block parties, started NewarkPulse.com, ran three ShopLocal campaigns, serves on the board of the Friends of the Newark Library, is one of the founders of Newark Mommies, and volunteers in many more committees and organizations.


“Jherick”: Jheryn & Alturrick Kenney

Jheryn and Alturrick’s relationship happened because of chemistry, shared values, and one incredible stroke of luck in an airport. Alturrick, manager of port activities for the City of Newark, and Jheryn, a corporate sales professional, have actively corralled a social network of like-minded young couples in Newark. And move over North West, get back Blue Ivy Carter — the couple’s young daughter, affectionately known as “BK” (Baby Kenney), has become something of a local celebrity as the couple shares highlights of her development with friends on Facebook.


How did you two meet?

Jheryn: We met at the Blue Mirror. I was at a scholarship fundraiser costume party for the National Sales Network around Halloween 2008, and I had recently become single. My friend Kwabena, who was the president of the organization at the time, said he had someone he wanted me to meet. He called Alturrick, who was his childhood friend. He happened to be on a date…

Alturrick: …I wasn’t on a date at the club. I was on a date in another location.

Jheryn: Yeah, so he ended his date early and came up to the Blue Mirror. I saw him when he came into the room, but I didn’t want to seem overly interested. Keep in mind that everyone in the room has a costume except him. He sticks out his hand and says, “Alturrick Kenney. Nice to meet you.”

I said, “Nice to meet you. Who are you supposed to be?” because he wasn’t dressed in a costume, but he seemed so official.

And his response was, “Working black man.” And that was fine by me.

Alturrick: She had on a pageant outfit that said “Miss Congeniality.” [To Jheryn: You thought I forgot that!]

[Jheryn to Alturrick: I did.]

Alturrick: When the party was over, I asked if she wanted to connect. She said yes. When I asked what she was doing the next day, she said she had to wake up at 7 in the morning.

Jheryn: He asked me if I needed a wake up call, and I wanted to test if he was going to be true to his word, so I said “sure”.

Alturrick: I set my alarm for 6:57 a.m., and at 6:59 I started making the phone call. At 7 o’clock I pressed “Send,” and of course she woke up. We started dating.

Jheryn: I always thought he was a great guy, but [over time] I had concerns that we might not work because I’m Christian and he’s Muslim, so we broke up a few times. After the last time, I was coming back to Newark from Phoenix and had a layover in Charlotte. There were like five people in the area where I was, as I was going from one concourse to the other, and there was this one gentleman in a Johnston and Murphy men’s shop. I saw him from behind and thought he had nice stature. Then he turned around, and I said to my friend on the phone, “You’re not going to believe it.”

It was Alturrick. He’d randomly gotten up that morning and decided to go to Charlotte. Who does that? And on top of that, he’s already at his destination, yet he’s in the airport shopping? Who does that?

Alturrick: I don’t even have Johnston and Murphy clothes, either. I don’t even have Johnson and Johnson!

Jheryn: I really think it was a divine appointment. Alturrick was put there for me to take another look. And here we are!

How would you define a power couple?

Jheryn: I think that power is about living a life that’s true to you, and one of the things Alturrick told me before we got married was, “I serve the city of Newark and the people in Newark. This is who I care about. This is what’s true to me. And I’m going to continue to do this.” So I think for him, his power is in doing what’s true to him.

I think the way that we support one another – anything and everything I do, he supports me, and vice versa – and work together to build each other so that we’re better than we would be individually, is power. And we never stand in each other’s way.

Alturrick: I think also being in a space where we’re trying to self-improve and become better than who we are, and make sure whatever we do is a reflection of who we are. When I met Jheryn, she was in sales, but she was also always helping build women. And she’s still that – a person who’s consistently building herself and the people she surrounds herself with. She makes sure she surrounds herself with ambitious women.

Living in an environment where there may be a lot of negativity, you don’t get that sense from who she is. I think being powerful is the ability to see opportunity in any circumstance and take full advantage of it. That’s something that Jheryn exemplifies, and something that we try to do as a couple.

How would you pitch Newark to young couples and families?

Jheryn: That’s easy — and I talk about this all the time, because I’ve learned to love Newark over the years. One of the best things about Newark is that even though it’s a city, it still has a small town feel. It’s like [the television show] Cheers, where everybody knows your name. In other places, people are so consumed with themselves, but in Newark, everyone is so interconnected — especially people who are doing something positive.

When we had BK – our baby girl – I can’t tell you how many people brought food and gifts and things like that. When we’re out and about, people will stop and talk to us and ask about her. I think that’s why Newark is so attractive — there’s a sense of community here.

Alturrick: Our daughter is like a local celebrity. I think people really care about her growth and her development. They enjoy seeing her get older, and they enjoy seeing us be parents for the first time. It’s a real example of a village.

And there’s a lot of great people – and specifically great couples – in Newark. You just have to find it. One of the things we did is connect ourselves with other young couples who are ambitious and striving to become what they hope to become. You can look right here and find people who are married, who love themselves, who love their wives, who love their husbands, and aren’t shy about expressing their commitment to one another. That’s been the Newark that I’ve known, and I try to always convince people to look beyond the [reputation] and get the experience.

Where are your favorite places to go on dates in Newark?

Jheryn: Duke’s [Southern Table]!

Alturrick: Vonda’s!

Jheryn: Duke’s Southern Table is our absolute favorite. Vonda’s is our second favorite. Taste [Venue] is great. Also, [Alva Tavern at] Hotel Indigo.

Alturrick: We go to Burger Bound, Francesca’s [Pizza], and Mercato Tomato Pie. Oh, and Burger Walla — Kai and Tamara are a great couple.


“Gabrielabeth”: Gabriela Celeiro & Elizabeth Salerno

Gabby and Liz share a love of the environment, animals, art, and justice. The pair – a social worker and Rutgers professor, respectively – moved to Newark in 2012, and made a robust life teaching, serving LGBT youth, becoming neighborhood caretakers, making new friends, and getting to know Newark.  On October 21, 2013, they were among seven same-sex couples who were married at City Hall by then-mayor Cory Booker, a milestone for equal marriage rights in New Jersey.


Let’s go back to the beginning – what was your first meeting like?

Liz: We met at the Hetrick-Martin Institute (HMI) in New York City. That was in 2008. We had met a couple times before and acknowledged each other, but didn’t really have a lot of time to connect.

But this was the time that we got physically near each other, and there was a real strong connection, whereas before we’d be running in two different directions. One night a bunch of us were out together, and I offered to walk her to her next destination. And what we always reflect on now is that our hands kept hitting each other, and we were like, “Why can’t we get away from each other?”

Gabby: Liz had been a counselor for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth for five years in New York City, and I’d just been hired as a sexual health educator, and when we met it was just an instant connection. I wasn’t looking to date at the time, but it felt like there were magnets connecting us. We connected as friends before it was romantic.

You met in New York City — how did you come to live in Newark?

Liz: Gabby was still in school for her Master’s in Social Work, and she had one more year to go, but HMI really wanted her in Newark to work with youth, and Gabby really jumped at the opportunity to move here.

We moved from New Brunswick in 2012. They call it a city, but it’s really small. We were looking for something with more of a scene, more connections to New York City, more connections to a larger artistic movement, because we were bored. So when the opportunity arose [for Gabby], my job [at Rutgers] allowed me to switch offices to Newark. We found a really amazing place to live – Newark really allows you to move into places that are old and have personality and character.

Gabby: Our friend Rachel is amazing and does a lot in the community, and she told me about the environmental movement here, the artist movement here. I knew I was going to be able to come in and get involved in a real community here.

What did the move do for your relationship?

Gabby: We’ve become good friends with local artists in our community, and we support them at local arts events, hang out at their houses, go to their studios. We plant trees in the neighborhood. It’s makes us a better couple, because we can do things together that we really care about. There’s almost so much to do that we don’t have to leave. That’s something that Liz and I enjoy.

Liz: Gabby and I are different – I’m cautious, and she takes more risks, so we really balance each other – but when it comes to what we value, we’re 99.9% the same. If we see an animal that’s hurt in the road, we’ll stop, get it, and give it a burial.  People in the neighborhood think we’re insane, but that’s what we love. We’re aligned in the way we look at the environment, at the way people contribute to it. Here in Newark, there are incinerators, we’re surrounded by an airport, there’s highways going through it — it isn’t healthy. We’re very committed to Newark’s healing. Not just the people, but the land, too, because that can make for a better quality of life.

Gabby: But it’s really interesting, because neighbors around us are starting to say, “Oh, you two feed the birds. You water the trees. You pick up garbage.” The ladies next to us that run the laundromat started planting tomato plants. So I do think that there has been an opportunity to invigorate the community — it’s little things that make the community better.

As a same sex-couple, at first we were definitely stared at, and now it’s interesting to see that we’re being recognized for what we do in the community, and not just our sexuality. It’s not just, “Oh my god, there’s these lesbians,” which I definitely felt a lot more at first. It’s interesting to see the shift from being an “other” to being [considered] part of the community, and having that respect. Or at least being tolerated. But there’s been many people who have totally welcomed us.

You were married at Newark City Hall when same-sex marriage was legalized in the state. How did that come to be?

Liz: That was largely Gabby being noticed for the work that she does.

She had been volunteering in the Newark pride community, been involved in the peace parade with the Barat Foundation, had been doing mentoring and counseling for the LGBT youth community in Newark – Gabby never says no to anybody. I think that from there, they wanted to choose people that were dedicated to the community, that they know love each other, and that have a devotion to social justice not just for LGBT people, but for people in the black community, those fighting for gender equality, people with disabilities — those are things that we’re passionate about.

It really undermines your relationship to not be recognized. You have this love for each other, but to have people really put you in that “other” category — it does something to the way you operate in society, like you are less than. It’s a heartbreaking thing. So people understood that [with the City Hall marriage ceremony] we would feel celebrated for once, not denigrated. For once. For once it was about being honored. And I think people thought we would get that.

Gabby: It wasn’t that easy. We had to go to the court several times. We had the ceremony at midnight, but at 9 p.m. they called us and said we had to go back to court again. It was like the Amazing Race of gay marriage.

But the courts in Newark were really sweet, and worked with us to make it happen. But then when we arrived, there were protesters. But it was still beautiful, and [then-mayor] Cory Booker and his team and the judges were wonderful. It was celebratory and beautiful and I couldn’t have asked for anything more.

At the time I was a bilingual counselor for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered youth in Newark, and it felt great. I felt like, “I’m doing this for you. I want you to have the rights that you deserve.”

Liz: I have to say one thing about Cory Booker. I think that there’s a lot of distrust of politicians, and I didn’t get that sense that this was a political stunt for him. I’m a social worker, and I’m trained to understand where people are coming from, and I felt this genuine want to help from him.

Where in town do you like to eat, socialize, or just hang out?

Gabby: My favorite place to eat right now in Newark is probably Monk Room. I love 27Mix, and I love Coffee Cave — I love the stuff that goes on there, and the owner is cool about letting people have events there.

Liz: I like the new park that they put on the riverfront. You can see the skyline from there.

Gabby: We went there and they had a house music DJ and we danced outside — it’s nice.


“Tichaughn”: Vaughn & Tichanda Thompson

Woman has dog. Man “steals” dog. Woman and man fall in love, get married, move to Newark, and get down to business. Tichanda Thompson is an entrepreneur who has gotten several projects filmed in Newark, including for the Oprah Winfrey Network and a few top brands. Her husband Vaughn has gotten to know Newark in large part in his role as principal of Eagle Academy for Young Men, New Jersey’s first all-boy public school. How bankable is their love? You can find their family in a print campaign in the Bank of America on Broad and Market Streets.


BCL: How do you define a “power couple”?

Tichanda: I would define “power couple” as two people who can stand alone on their own merits, talents and strengths, but when combined with their partner, the chemistry creates a powerful union because each party compliments, encourages, supports and uplifts the other. They work as a team and a united front against all obstacles and distractions for a common goal.

Vaughn: I would emphasize that being a power couple is an ever-evolving journey that requires a collaborative effort of support and mutual admiration for each other’s pursuits.

Tichanda: We don’t work together per se, but I have gotten Vaughn and our kids booked in many print and commercial campaigns that I have been a part of. We now call it our “family business”!

BCL: How did you two meet?

Tichanda: I was in Virginia at a friend’s house planning to go to a Mike Tyson fight party, which was canceled last minute. All dressed up and no where to go, me and my friend decided to drive to Brooklyn…except I had my new puppy with me in a dog crate.

When we got to the party, I realized there were too many people inside to let her run around, so I left the crate outside with my friend and went inside to put our bags away. When I came back, [my friend] was standing outside with an empty crate! She said a guy had opened it and taken the dog and ran down the street. That guy was Vaughn.

Vaughn: Tichanda was surprised that someone had the audacity to run away – sort of – with her dog. A look of disbelief. It was funny though.

Tichanda: I ironically called my mom the following day and told her I’d met my husband. We were married 5 years later almost to the day. We actually won a wedding and honeymoon from that story – the winning entry was: “He stole my dog and stole my heart”!

What brought you to Newark?

Tichanda: After living together and getting married in New York, we decided to look for a home, and we ended up in Newark. We were drawn here by the city’s potential and close proximity to New York City. We loved our up-and-coming neighborhood as well as our neighbors, and the buzz surrounding the city and Cory Booker.

We decided to start our family here, and now we have two boys that were actually born in our home! I know no matter where we go, we will always have a real connection with Newark.

Vaughn: My students and their families are the best and most authentic connections to Newark. New businesses will develop, but the pulse of Newark is its residents. My students offer me a realistic perspective and true insight into the challenges and positives of living in Newark.

What are your favorite things to do in town?

Tichanda: We really enjoy the events that come to town – especially since we have two kids – so we are always at the Prudential Center or NJPAC at a concert, or at a sporting event. We like local events as well, like the Lincoln Park Music Festival, and the newly renovated Military Park and Riverfront Park. We also like 27 Mix and Dinosaur BBQ.

Vaughn: And I like to visit Nico’s Restaurant.

What does Newark have to offer couples?

Tichanda: I think Newark has a lot to offer. From a supportive community of entrepreneurs and small business owners to proximity to New York City, the airport, and other Jersey attractions, I really think the changes that I have seen in five short years are tremendous. I think we are still only seeing the beginning of what Newark has to offer!

Tamara Fleming of Tamara Fleming Photography shot all of the portraits for this feature. To learn more about her photography services for “power portraits”, visit TFP’s website and Facebook page.

Two pioneers of Newark’s skateboard scene mentor a new generation of riders

Featured image above: James Wilson (fourth from left, without skateboard) and a group of his pupils at an exhibition of his art in January 2015. Photo courtesy James Wilson

If asked to name skateboarding’s East Coast capital, most skaters would likely be hesitant to name Newark.

And it’s true — Brick City is still a far cry from East Coast skateboarding epicenters like Philadelphia and New York. But the scene here is also a far cry from its beginnings, and it has evolved tremendously in recent years.

It’s evident in the annual Street League skating events taking place at the Prudential Center; in the immense popularity of Shorty’s, a homemade skate park in the Ironbound; in the number of kids seen skating the ledges at Washington Park, or zipping up and down Market Street on summer days.

As Newark continues to develop its identity as a skater’s city, a lot can be learned from two of the founding members of Newark’s scene — James Wilson and Quim Cardona.

The pair helped plant the roots of the Newark skating scene before many of the kids who are pushing it forward today were even born. The two met through skateboarding in the early 90’s, and have remained friends and well-loved figures in Newark and New Jersey skate culture ever since.

From Garden Spires to Washington Square Park

Wilson has been skating here for two decades. Born and raised in the Garden Spires housing complex, he’s worked professionally as an artist and art handler in Newark and Manhattan, as well as a slew of other jobs that have ranged from a plastic factory in the Ironbound to real estate throughout New York.

Skateboarding has been a constant pastime and passion all along. Through his brand Scorebrx, Wilson designs decks, clothing, and art pieces, all revolving around the themes of Newark and skateboarding.

scorebrx boards

A row of Scorebrx skateboards at Washington Park in Newark, summer 2014. Photo credit: Brian Pujada

Now 35, Wilson’s been skating since he was 10, when his mother’s boyfriend first taught him how and took him to Washington Square Park, then the heart of New York’s scene. “The first time I ever saw a kickflip, I was hooked,” said Wilson, referring to a skateboarding maneuver. “Even when my mom and her boyfriend weren’t together any more I would carry the torch, at 12, and head to New York by myself to skate,” he added.

These were the early days of East Coast skateboarding, and Newark didn’t yet have a scene to speak of.

“I learned you had to get out of Newark — into the suburbs or across the river — if you wanted to find the other skaters. And that’s what saved me, too, because then I was not at home – not in the Spires – where I didn’t fit in anyway,” reflected Wilson on those formative years.

Life as the offbeat kid who was into art and inseparable from a skateboard could be incredibly difficult in the Spires where, for Wilson, being different only compounded the hardship and violence facing everyone in the neighborhood. As one of the few skaters in the city at the time, Wilson said he was well-known for his pastime, and often ridiculed and attacked for his passion.


Enter Cardona

Quim Cardona, now a fixture of Jersey skateboarding who has logged over 15 years as a pro, grew up outside of the city, but his Newark roots still run deep.

Cardona’s father was a local celebrity in the Ironbound due to his small family medicine practice on Ferry Street, which he maintained for 40 years. Although Cardona grew up in Scotch Plains, he spent countless hours in Newark.

Cardona met Wilson over 20 years ago, skating outside PSEG’s headquarters on Raymond Boulevard downtown. It was a place where a lot of Jersey skaters would congregate on their way to sessions in New York.

Wilson fondly remembers his first interactions with Cardona, recalling that “he was one of the most talented, naturally gifted skateboarders I’ve met in my life, hands down.” They were part of a crew immortalized in the film Kids. Many of the young New York-area skaters in the film went on to have long careers in professional skateboarding, acting, and the arts.

Cardona has had one of the longest-running and most successful skating careers in the group. He earned his first pro board in the year 2000, and has been riding for skater brand Organicka since 2002. Cardona has also graced the cover of Thrasher magazine and been featured in countless video parts, all while based in Jersey.

thrasher_quim cardona

In addition to skating for Organicka, he founded Sushi Wheels in 2013, and is also involved in Newark’s art scene, actively painting and making music.


Riding into the mainstream

For both Cardona and Wilson, skating was something they initially began doing because they felt different from their peers. But with the sport’s explosion in popularity in the last decade, skaters have gone from misunderstood and maligned to coveted.

“It’s bigger than ever,” said Cardona. “Celebrities’ children skate. Prime ministers’ children skate. Famous people of all types skate. Lil Wayne and Wiz Khalifa skate. I mean, even Justin Bieber skates. All these people are skateboarding,” observed Cardona on skating’s rise in popularity.

“When I first started skating, kids would laugh at you, hike on you, yelling ‘don’t fall,’ call you names. And if you didn’t have the nerve you’d end up fighting them,” said Wilson. “Now when they see you riding down the street and see you kickflip, kids ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’, or they demand tricks,” he continued.


Giving back to Newark

Cardona and Wilson are using the rise in interest around their sport to positively impact Newark, the city that played an active role in their development as skaters and individuals. Both have taken to mentoring young skaters here, guiding their growth both on the board and as young adults living in an often-harsh environment.

Cardona has participated in skate clinics and camps in the city. In addition to mentoring young skateboarders, Wilson has been involved in the city’s mural programs, and hires homeless youth to support his art-handling and gallery work in order to help them learn a valuable and in-demand trade.

For both of these veteran skaters, working with young people is about a lot more than teaching a kid to kickflip.

“My young friends look at skateboarding as the only way out of the situation they live in. I tell them that’s great, but you always have to do other things to get to where you want to be. You have to develop skills in many different areas,” said Cardona.

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Quim Cardona ollies a bicycle at New York City’s Astor Place, one of the city’s most famous skate spots. Photo courtesy Quim Cardona

“On average, out of 10 skaters in Newark, only two are going to make it. Maybe only one. For the others, it’s good socially. It’s good to be around your friends. It keeps your hopes up. It definitely keeps you out of trouble,” he added.

Cardona said his goal is to keep his pupils grounded, positive, and focused on becoming well-rounded young men and women, not just better skaters.

For Wilson, his youth work is about developing attitudes and self-confidence.

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James Wilson poses with a Scorebrx skateboard at Newark’s Washington Park, summer 2014. Photo credit: Brian Pujada

“Skateboarding is a metaphor for life. These are goals that were once impossible. Before you can ride down the street, let alone ollie a curb, you have to start,” Wilson said. “Kids complain about not being able to land a complex trick, but there was a time when they couldn’t even stand on the board,” he added.

“Any time you land a trick, you bend the universe to your will. If they could apply the same rules to skateboarding – that repetition, that focus, that nothing else mattering attitude – to every other goal they had, they’d be fine. They’d be better off,” Wilson continued.

Skating certainly isn’t a panacea, but it is a safe and structured outlet for a growing number of young adults. The influence of successful and relatable skaters can help ensure that a kid’s decision to pick up a board can change their life for the better, even if in small ways.

But even with the sport growing by leaps and bounds in the city, Newark is still far from a skater’s paradise. Cardona said its only skate park is often neglected because of its location.

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 Cardona lands a frontside nose slide. Photo credit: Felipe Lara

“The park on Avon stays empty because too much bad stuff happens. When I go there it’s always empty; my friends tell me it’s always empty,” Cardona lamented, referring to Jesse Allen Park, which enjoyed a ribbon-cutting celebrating the second phase of its major renovation in 2012.

Cardona sees skateboarding as an area to raise Newark’s profile, and if young people in this city continue to pick up skateboarding at the rate they have been in the last decade, Cardona’s dream just might become a reality.