In the center of downtown Trenton, in a nondescript building, about two dozen teenagers have been meeting in recent months, forming a close-knit group that embodies all the challenges commonly associated with adolescents and young adults in modern cities.
The third floor of the building rented by the College of New Jersey and operated by Trentonworks, upstairs from the Dunkin Donuts on the corner of State and Broad streets, is where they go to find their voice. There they find a circle of their friends sipping spring water and munching apples and pretzels.
At the center this night is Bentrice Jusu, 23. She graduated from Wake Forest University in North Carolina last year and has created a nonprofit organization called “Both Hands,” which provides opportunities for creative expression for kids in Trenton, especially in filmmaking, Jusu’s passion.
Tonight’s discussion is about creative expression. The kids, all from Trenton Central High School, wear their hearts on their T-shirts and hoodies. On the back of one, it says, “Learn from yesterday, Live for today, Hope for tomorrow.” A nearby T-shirt reads: “Real teens, real life, real results.”
Jusu is a TCHS graduate who grew up on Hermitage Avenue and who still lives there with her father. Her parents emigrated from Liberia in the 1980s but no longer live together. Her father shares her interest in filmmaking, filming weddings and other events for Liberian couples in the Trenton area.
At Wake Forest Jusu developed her interest in what is known as “community-engaged learning,” which happens to be an idea enshrined at the College of New Jersey in Ewing Township as a requirement for new freshmen through the Bonner Center for Civic and Community Engagement, which asks students to give back to their community during their undergraduate years.
Bertram Bonner, a Brooklyn native, became a wealthy builder of dozens of development projects from Massachusetts to Florida. He and his wife, Corella, settled in Princeton. There he created the Bonner Foundation with an endowment of $100 million and headquarters on Mercer Street. He died in 1993.
The foundation, says president Robert Hackett, supports Bonner Scholars programs in 65 colleges and universities, mostly east of the Mississippi River, with about 1,500 students participating in the program. There are Bonner programs at Rutgers and Rider universities. Students are recruited into the program and receive scholarships depending on financial need and their commitment to community service.
“We provide funding in two areas,” Hackett says. “Anti-hunger, including a lot of groups in the Trenton area.” These include food banks and soup kitchens. “We also fund a service-based scholarship program,” he says. Each campus runs its own Bonner program and scholarships are for four years.
“Part of the unique nature of this program,” Hackett says, “is that Bonner scholars become catalysts for engaging students across the campus in community service. We work not just with the student, but with the colleges. TCNJ is one of our most stellar programs. They’ve done an excellent job.”
Patrick Donahue, 50, the assistant provost for Community Engaged Learning at TCNJ, says it was about 20 months ago that the college decided to establish a presence in downtown Trenton — as part of its participation in the Bonner program — and leased the space at South Broad and West State where Bentrice Jusu, Bonner Scholars, and others hold programs for local residents. The space is called Trentonworks.
Donahue and his wife live in Trenton’s Mill Hill section, on Mercer Street, a few doors from where late Trenton mayor Art Holland moved in during the height of the unrest that hit the city in the 1960s. The Donahues, who met while attending Rutgers, have a son attending the UMass and a daughter attending Stuart School in Princeton.
Donahue was born in Trenton and grew up in North Brunswick, where his father worked for AT&T in employee training. His mother was an emergency room nurse in New Jersey and New York City. He is the co-author of several journal articles and one book on community engaged learning and civic engagement. He is also a past board president of Isles Inc.
“By us having a facility here in the heart of the community, it helps us build knowledge of the citizens,” Donahue says. “We all learn by teaching to some degree. We connect a teaching and learning experience to a real need of the community. So our students are learning a great deal about the context of their coursework, about themselves, and what it means to be an engaged citizen.”
There are 102 Bonner scholars at TCNJ. Donahue says that it is an intentionally diverse group: 50 to 60 percent have economic need and 52 percent are minorities. The students meet hourly community service requirements and develop skills that can improve their communities. Scholarships can be worth up to 100 percent of tuition.
“It’s like a football team,” Donahue says. “We have freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors. We recruit them to come to TCNJ. Freshmen at TCNJ are required to get off campus to do work and that responds to what our community supporters ask of us. It’s very powerful. You get to unite a group of students to issues that are bigger than themselves. Over four years, they go from being strangers to friends to family. The work breaks down the lines that normally divide.”
There always seems to be something going on at Trentonworks. Donahue says there are citizenship classes on Mondays; Jusu’s group meets on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays; art students working with ARC in Ewing also meet on Wednesdays; and on Thursdays a team of Bonner students meet to discuss economic and community development issues. There is also a speaker series — the state attorney general has spoken on community service. Documentary films are also shown, including “Camden 28,” about anti-war activists in Camden in the early 1970s.
As one who has been involved for many years in efforts to restore downtown Trenton, Donahue has an idea about the kind of effort that can yield steps forward, namely sustained involvement by people “who don’t have their own agenda, but who will work together. I’m optimistic,” he says. “I’ve seen over the years that colleges and universities have a role to play to help communities build on their strengths. We can be part of that process.”
He says the Trenton Downtown Association and its executive director, Christian Martin, “deserve a lot of credit. Martin really paved the way for us (TCNJ) to be here. His leadership has been key.”
Trentonworks collaborates with the Trenton Downtown Association and Isles Inc., the organization that has been working to redevelop areas of downtown Trenton since 1981. Besides developing handy websites, Bonner scholars are also using the computer lab on the second floor of Trentonworks to create computer “apps” that may be useful in the city.
For example, as TCHS students arrive for their filmmaking class with Jusu on the third floor, another group is meeting on the second floor with former Penn State professor Celestine Chukumba to fine-tune a website that will be made available publicly to guide potential customers to businesses in downtown Trenton and inform them about which stores might have items they might be looking for.
“There is a partnership with TCNJ, Both Hands, the Bonners, and Community Engaged Learning,” says Jusu, adding “These kids have a perspective and every perspective is valuable. They’re anxious to create.” The nondescript building in Trenton’s downtown is as good a place as any to do so.