Non-profit Spotlight pays kids to attend, gives them dinner and encourages their artistic development

On Monday, the parents of 40 children enrolled in youth program SPOTLIGHT attended an orientation at The Spot JC on Wilkinson Avenue in Jersey City. Funded by an $80K grant from Hudson Partnership Care Management Organization (CMO), for 18 weeks Spotlight will provide 40 children from nine to 21 with instruction in and access to the arts, with a focus on theater as well as photography/videography, and art’s therapeutic properties.

For The Spot JC co-founders Ibn Sharif Shakoor and Terrence Williams, it’s the culmination of something they both wished they had a version of when they were young and growing up in the very same area. The Spot JC is located in the Greenville/Bergen Lafayette neighborhood.

“The youth program kicked off yesterday,” Williams said Tuesday. ‘We had an orientation for all the parents to come with their children. We walked them through all the variables of the program, all of the things the program has to offer — things like door to door transporation for the kids to get home. We’re reaching out to other services and partnering with them to make sure we can aid and help these kids with the services they may need that they’re not receiving. … Thanks to Olga Levina from (nonprofit arts organization) Jersey City Theater Center (JCTC), we even thought about the kids not having something to eat for the evening. They’ll be getting out at 6:30 p.m., so we partnered with a nonprofit organization that is going to provide dinner to the kids, or at least a to-go plate to take home with them.

“This is something that we haven’t quite seen in our community — I don’t think — ever. And the most important thing is we decided to pay the kids. We’re giving them $600 stipends for their time.”

Though the program was originally envisioned with 12-year-olds at its lowest age range, that changed during enrollment. “We had a couple of nine-year-olds show up yesterday, and we were open to the idea of incorporating them because it makes it a lot more interesting,” Williams said. “We have children with a range of attention spans who are at different points in their life. We wanted to have a program that was inclusive of everybody in the county but also a program that taught them three things — obviously an introduction to art, also … we want to normalize therapy at The Spot JC Foundation. No one wants to hear, ‘Oh, you need to go to therapy’ … (But) we all need therapy to heal our childhood traumas. There’s just like a stigma behind it, so the way we incorporated the therapy is through … group activities and group sessions at the end of each class … using our art-forms to heal while also (third, in The Spot JC Foundation’s goals for Spotlight) getting (the youth) a business acumen to survive in that medium.”

Williams is still amazed by how fast and how well things came together. Months ago, Spotlight was just an idea he had while he was sitting in his basement. He spoke to Shakoor, an educator, about it, who was on board immediately. Part of the origin of The Spot JC comes from Shakoor and Williams having been resident artists at JCTC — who had to move this past year. “That’s what prompted us to go into business for ourselves,” Williams said. They established The Spot JC as a for-profit co-creative space. But as they developed their nonprofit component, The Spot JC Foundation, they built on what had been a positive partnership with JCTC — run by co-founder/artistic director Levina and associate artistic director Ashley Baptiste Williams, a spotlight theater instructor, along with Yvonne Roen.

“They were huge a help so that we could receive the state funding for the programming as well as offer the theater component to the youth,” Williams said. “The (kids) are going to be trained by two actors who have a plethora of experience in theater. These kids are going to come up with a whole concept, a whole play to write. They’re going to perform it based on theater practices and training … on March 27 in front of a large group of people. We have field trips to expose them art as a business and art as a collective form that you can make money from. We’ve set up field trips to galleries. We’re looking to try to get them to go see ‘Hamilton,’ a Broadway play. They’re going to do rehearsals at White Eagle Hall as we get closer to the end of the program.”

Tuesday, The Spot JC Foundation was awarded 5013C status. Williams recalled his first idea for a nonprofit — one that would teach young men how to tie a tie, because his mom had to teach him to do it for his eighth grade graduation. He was an introverted kid, much more content to draw and learn cooking skills from his grandmother, than to go outside and be what was considered a typical, extroverted boy into sports. “I knew there was a void,” he said.

One of the tenets of The Spot JC Foundation is how arts can help people growing up and living in a challenging, disenfranchised area.

“These kids (here)– they take on the deficit of their ancestors and they take on the new challenges that come with an evolving universe,” Williams said. “The only way to overcome deficits in my opinion is through your ability to think critically and art does that. Art teaches you how to think artificially. … It just gives you a better shot at life, a better understanding of yourself as a human being, the things you like, the things you don’t like, and it helps you to even pivot in this world. And we’re all artists.”

“Art is universal, mental health is universal,” Shakoor, the Spotlight program’s classroom liaison, said Tuesday. “Our imaginations a lot of times provide an escape and we conjure all these things from our brain, internally, and they mix with our environment. For lack of a way to put it, that’s why (historically) Black and Brown peoples’ art always seems so much better. Not that all ethnicities can’t have art. There’s just something special about it for us because a lot of times we have nothing else but our ideas. They don’t come from privilege and wealth where art is acceptable and it’s almost second-nature. For us we have to find ourselves through the arts, and the art finds us and it’s just a much deeper process. I went to 41 school. I had an imagination. I didn’t know how to cultivate it.

“For me that’s why I’m happy about this program,” Shakoor added. “It allows you to pinpoint creative spots within the youth…. It’s really about the information, the access and the know-how to pinpoint and cultivate the things that are already in you.”

Learn more about The Spot JC Foundation at. instagram.com/spotjcfoundation/ where a link to the Spotlight registration form is featured. Also note The Spot JC, 15 Wilkinson Ave., is hosting a free Thanksgiving turkey giveaway Friday, Nov. 19, from 5:00 p.m. to 9 p.m., in association with artist Quis Chandla.

Robert G. Mull

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