Spring has sprung in Trenton. And that means look out for the return of First Fridays On Front Street. The annual series of spring/summer evening events starts May 4 and continues through September.
The project is made possible by the Trenton African American Cultural Collaborative of Mercer County.
Its executive director is Latarsha Burke, who has overseen the organization’s transformation from a single summer festival to a year-long series of activities.
“It’s kind of rare, especially in our community, to have a nonprofit organization that’s 100 percent African-American and 95 percent run by black women,” says Burke. “I’m just glad that we’ve been blessed to raise money not just to do one event, but events during the entire year. And we’re all volunteers. Nobody gets paid to do what we do.”
Burke began as a volunteer in 2011 doing logistics when the organization was simply the Trenton African American Pride Festival. The festival’s director resigned at the end of 2012, and the group voted Burke in as the executive director. The festival was still a grassroots effort, and she knew she wanted it to grow and become more than just one celebration with a parade every summer. But first she had to learn everything from scratch.
“I didn’t know anything about fundraising, about organizing, event planning, nothing. But I just knew that it was something that could not be lost,” she says.
In 2014 Burke changed the name of the organization to the Trenton African American Cultural Festival to widen its scope, and then the organization became her business. She continued adding different events along with the festival like the youth sports expo, art exhibitions, and film events for youth. At the end of 2015 it was necessary to slow down a bit because with almost 15,000 people it was growing quickly, no longer just a volunteer commitment. It was like a whole other job for Burke.
The organization then needed to pursue its nonprofit status, which was obtained on June 19, 2017 — a good omen since it was granted on the African American celebration of freedom day, Juneteenth.
Soon Burke and the organizers had another idea and changed the name of the organization to the African American Cultural Collaborative of Mercer County or AACCMC.
“I didn’t want to restrict our events just to Cadwalader Park. I wanted to spread the word about our contributions throughout Mercer County. I said that instead of not doing anything, let’s do smaller events. So since I work downtown for the state I know there’s absolutely nothing going on in downtown Trenton after 5 p.m., which is crazy. That’s when we started doing our events downtown on Front Street,” she says.
Burke approached Maurice Hallett — owner of 1911 Smokehouse on Front Street — and presented the idea to him and asked if he would sponsor a First Friday event.
This fourth year will follow the formula developed with the Smoke House. The street is blocked off for live music and entertainment for children and adults. Hallett secures the liquor license and outdoor permits so the AACCMC can serve food and drink from his restaurant.
Burke, 46, was born in Newark, and raised in Jersey City. She moved to the Trenton area in 1990 when she became a student at Trenton State College, now the College of New Jersey. After graduating in 1994 she began a career as a juvenile detention officer, then a case worker, which led to becoming a program coordinator for at-risk youth and adult offenders. She says her work encouraged her to do more because what she was seeing in the homes of affected youth was so negative.
“I work at a program that oversees expecting and parenting youth. The state has funded programs to house young women and fathers who want to raise their children as single parents or to co-parent. I’ve been working with at-risk youth for the past 24 years. My career started at the Mercer County Youth Detention Center. Then I was put into residential programs, group homes, I’ve worked in halfway houses. I love working with adolescents,” she says.
Elegant, tall, professional, and friendly, Burke seems perfectly suited to work with Trenton adolescents in group homes who may need a positive role model.
“Going into those homes in Trenton is a whole other world,” says Burke. “It would depress me to see that they weren’t exposed to anything. That’s why I wanted to be a part of something that would bring free arts and cultural education to the community. We do workshops on financial literacy, the importance of the father being in the home, we try to cover everything. Education and empowerment are a part of our mission,” she says.
Burke says that her parents were not active in the community and just trying to make ends meet. But her factory-working mother was very strict about maintaining good grades and about making school a top priority. And both she and Burke’s electrician step-father viewed education as a way out, even though they couldn’t afford many extracurricular activities. The result is Burke and her brother, Charles, a professional photographer.
Burke, married since 1997 to her husband, Andre, is also a parent with two children and two step-children, ages 29, 24, 23, and 21, plus two grandchildren. She lives across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania.
Burke emphasizes the educational value of the First Fridays events and all the opportunities for good networking and fellowship that the events provide.
After the shooting at Art All Night last summer many folks are concerned about safety and security at Trenton-based events, especially nighttime events. But Burke is pragmatic. “We’ve never had any major incidents at any of our events. I hope people recognize our track record and start financially supporting the organization,” she says.
Then she looks to the positives. “At First Fridays we have vendors, and we have nonprofit tables, too. There are so many resources within the Trenton community that people don’t know about,” Burke says.
Despite those who dismiss Trenton, Burke and others see the city as a hotbed of cultural and historical learning opportunities and fun. Fortunately supporters have seen the potential and are responding. Local AACCMC supporters include Capital Health, Trenton Social, NJM Insurance Group, and Burke’s alma mater, the College of New Jersey. National sponsors include Walmart, PNC Bank, and Wegmans.
The organization has also recently received a grant from the New Jersey Council on Humanities. “We received the grant not only to do events, but to educate the community on exactly what the African Diaspora is. Part of that planning grant provides funds to go into the community and ask what type of cultural programming they want to see,” Burke says. “Also, to go into East Trenton and do events like a First Fridays, or some type of cultural programming. Again, bringing the culture to them. Because you know the way Trenton works, some people don’t leave their four blocks. So we’re going to go into those communities and do this cultural programming,” she says.
First Fridays on Front Street is from May 3 until September 6. Rain dates are also scheduled. There is a poetry cafe series from August to February of every year as well. Burke also plans to bring the African American Cultural Festival back to Trenton this year on Saturday, August 17. She and the group are also adding a Parade of the African Diaspora, an undertaking the AACCMC has been planning since 2017.