A once-troubled Newark mom who’s now helping teens finds uncommon support at Drew.
By Christopher Hann
They don’t exactly make a likely pair, the suburban white woman with the divinity degree and the African American from Newark, N.J., with the criminal record. Yet the Rev. Tanya Linn Bennett, of Drew, and Jessica “Jayda” Jacques have collaborated on a promising new mentoring program designed to steer teenage girls from the Newark area away from a life of gangs and drugs and crime. In other words, away from the very life to which Jacques herself had once succumbed.
They first met in April 2008, at a gathering of Newark activists working to reduce violence in the city. Bennett heard Jacques recount life as an errant teen. A member of the Bloods who was convicted of aggravated assault at 15, she spent three years in a juvenile jail. But as a young mother she was determined to turn her life around, and part of the transformation meant taking other wayward girls under her wing. “I want the worst ones,” she says now. “If I don’t get those, there is no need for this program.”
Bennett was moved. As university chaplain, she wanted to get Drew involved with Jacques’ mission. “She’s got such a strength and courage about her that you just want to get on board,” says Bennett. “I thought there was a natural link between the civic engagement we do here at Drew and what Jayda was doing in Newark.”
It was Bennett, in fact, who suggested the group’s name: Nine Strong Women. “I just thought it was indicative of what we were trying to do,” she says, “which was work intensely, one-on-one, to empower our young women.”
Communities of Shalom helps people with what they need most
Three years ago the United Methodist Church went looking for a national partner for Communities of Shalom, its wide-ranging, faith-inspired community development initiative. On the strength of its long-standing focus on civic engagement, the Theo School won out.
Now based at Drew under the direction of the Theo School’s Rev. Michael Christensen, Communities of Shalom provides “asset-based” training and $2,000 seed grants for local social service groups. Asset-based community development, Christensen says, helps identify a community’s resources—rather than focus on its needs—and how best to mobilize them.
The training equips each group to identify a geographical area, known as a Shalom Zone, in which to focus its work. More than 100 Shalom Zones, including two in Africa, are active today. Shalom Zones combat poverty on an Indian reservation in South Dakota, provide grief counseling to families affected by violence in Baltimore and tend an organic garden in Richmond, Va.
In a Shalom Zone, Christensen says, “You can bring peace, harmony, health, healing—all of the things we mean by shalom. We hope to transform the world. It’s a pretty ambitious goal.”—CH
To learn more, visit communitiesofshalom.org.
The lessons that Jacques seeks to impart cut a wide swath through the girls’ lives: from responsible conduct to personal hygiene, from dressing for a job interview to resolving family conflicts. “First and foremost,” she says, is their education: She encourages the girls to maintain a 3.5 grade-point average.
Her efforts have not gone unnoticed. Last September Jacques and the girls—she calls them “my ladies”—were prominently featured in Brick City, a Sundance Channel documentary that chronicled Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s struggles to govern the city. In November the group found a home in a restored mansion in Newark.
Drew’s contribution to Nine Strong Women has come via the campus-based Communities of Shalom, a national organization that helps sustain more than 100 active community development sites, or Shalom Zones [see story at right]. Bennett, who serves on Shalom’s national committee, helped enroll Jacques and three members in a five-part training program that will help the group create its own Shalom Zone. Shalom Director Michael Christensen says the training will enable them to identify and access local resources, conduct strategic planning and “tell their story” for grant-writing purposes. “Since Nine Strong Women has been introduced to Drew,” Jacques says, “it’s been nothing but love.”
Among those who came to Drew for the first training session on a rainy Saturday last October were Brianna Moore, 16, a junior at Newark’s West Side High School; Jasmina Parker, 15, a sophomore at East Orange Campus High, who arrived with her 1-month-old baby, Jahmier; and Adeira Kpodi, 16, a West Side freshman.
The girls say their involvement with Nine Strong Women has helped focus their lives. Moore, once a borderline student who got expelled from school for fighting, now gets straight A’s and talks of college. Parker, who’s determined not to let single motherhood stop her from her goals, wants to become a veterinarian. Both cited Jacques’ influence in their development.
What has she taught them? “Respect, trust, behavior,” Kpodi says. “I didn’t see Jayda as a stranger. She was like us. She wanted us to become better.”
Nine Strong Women intern Jazzmine Smith, a Drew senior, arranged for Jacques and the girls to stay overnight with students at Umoja House, Drew’s Pan-African theme house. In April the nine charter members also took part in a rite of passage in Craig Chapel.
“Part of the plan for any young person is to expose them to as much positive ‘newness’ as you can,” says Bennett, “to give them some vision of what is possible.”