There are so many amazing organizations here in Jersey City, but it seems like there is a deficit of programs geared specifically towards teenagers. That is why we founded CCAJC!
I learned about the Jersey Art Exchange, an after school program for teens in Jersey City, after receiving an email from founder Jacqueline Arias after my post “The Truth About Jersey City.” I wanted to hear more about the program, so we went to their location (that also is available as a multi-purpose space for rental) to meet with Jacqueline.
JAX is located at 114 Monticello Avenue in the Bergen Hill/Jackson Hill/Greenville Area.
What’s your name?
What do you do?
I’m the founder and director of the Jersey Art Exchange.
What is the Jersey Art Exchange?
We are an after school program for teens in the Jackson Hill and Greenville area, but we’re open to all teens in Jersey City. We offer art education and music classes for teens.
That’s awesome! How long has this been around?
We started in the summer of 2017 and since then, we’ve been doing after school programming.
Can you tell me a little bit more about the classes?
We have music classes. We have music volunteers that come in and teach guitar, piano, vocals, whatever the teens want to be taught. We follow this model that’s based out of the MIT labs called Computer Clubhouse models that’s used all around the world. What they do is find out what the teens are interested in and then create workshops around their interests and guide them. It’s teaching them technology based on their interests so they don’t feel like it’s work and it ends up being fun for them.
What are the ages of the kids in this program?
13 to 18. We want the teens to have their own space. They don’t often have a space they can call their own, and we want it to be a clubhouse where they will come back and hang out.
Is it every day?
It’s Monday through Friday.
How did it start?
I’ve been teaching Media Arts for over ten years. I was teaching at the Boys & Girls Club’s Best Buy Teen Tech Center, and I taught at the Learning Community Charter School, I taught in Brooklyn and in the Bronx with my own program. I’ve been an educator and teaching Media Arts for a long time. I’ve been living in this area for about 7 or 8 years and I saw a lack of after school programs for teens. I’m also an artist, I went to school at Parsons in the New School and my background is in photography and video art. I’ve been doing art shows since I’ve been here, too. My husband and I do music and art events, and we’ve been doing pop ups for a while. We liked the idea of creating a community-based art space where there can be an exchange, where the community can meet artists, and people in the neighborhood can participate in what’s going on in the space. It’s important for us to involve the community and serve the community, and we also want to acknowledge the people who have lived here for a long time and made the area what it is. The “exchange” in the Jersey City Art Exchange is something that we take very seriously. When we have art shows here or music shows, we want people to give back in some way. They can give back as mentors, volunteers, or they can rent out the space. We just had someone from the neighborhood block association donate toilet paper and paper towels, and it’s wonderful because that’s something we need constantly, and for them to make the effort and think about us is very sweet.
Everything counts! So how did you reach the kids? With CCAJC, my biggest issue was getting kids for the program.
Well, I was working for the Boy & Girl Club for 3 years and some of those kids came with me. Lincoln High School is right around the corner, so we have signs and encourage students to come in. We also try to have parties and fun events for teens. Building relationships within the community is also important. I go to neighborhood block association meetings and I just get to know the people in my community, people who go to churches, everyone. Building those relationships is important, people want to know your heart is in the right place.
It’s been slow-going. The summer was amazing, we had a lot of kids over the summer for our program. It takes time. It takes time for kids to know about it and find their interest in it.
Right. How do you fundraise?
We’ve done fundraisers in here. We’ve worked with Jersey City Ties on an event.
Where can people donate?
Online. On our website, we have a place where people can donate. Or they can stop by.
How do you feel about the changes in Jersey City and how it’s affecting the youth living in these areas? Like, as you mentioned, gentrification.
I don’t think this neighborhood has changed that much. Downtown has changed, and I’ve never lived Downtown so I can’t really speak to that. To be completely honest, there are less empty spaces in this area than there were a year ago. People keep saying it’s going to change, but it hasn’t. I don’t see it changing that quickly. It’s complicated. I was just at a town hall meeting recently and Fulop was there, and I talked to him about this Monticello strip area since there’s so many empty retail spaces. I’ve met with a lot of the owners and they want $2500 or $3000 a month for rent, and there are over 60 empty spaces. It’s unreasonable to ask for that much. A lot of them don’t live in Jersey City so they’re not connected to the community or care about building the community, so they can just write it off and I think they’re waiting for a big payout. A lot of people in the community don’t want it these generic stores and franchises to come in, they want small mom-and-pop shops and that’s impossible for people to do with those kind of prices. Fulop’s answer was something along the lines of, “This is happening all over the place.” Which is true, it’s happening in Soho and the East Village. He said we kind of have to wait until the market fixes itself, but I feel like there has to be some ways we can incentivize or tax these people. If you’re just going to leave it empty, there has to be some sort of convincing them and encouraging them to rent it out.
Any plans for the future?
Our Black History Month event was awesome, a local charter school came in and performed with our teens. We had some local musicians who came and performed. We’ve spent the past few months focusing on the teens’ work. We recently had a dinner, and we’re thinking about creative ways we can bring income to the space because I’m covering all the costs with grants but they don’t come in on a regular basis. We’re trying to find creative ways to cover our overhead costs, and one is having dinners. We were also thinking about turning this into a yoga studio a few times a week. We also wanted to rent out this space for birthday parties. I really wanted to turn this into a coworking space because it would be ideal for that, but I don’t know it the neighborhood is ready for that.
Anything else you’d like to tell us about the space or programs?
Over the summer, we worked with Youth Radio out of Oakland, CA and the kids created an online gentrification map. They were using the Google platform as its base, they created their own map, they designed the colors of it, and they chose what was on their map. A lot of them chose their family members in the neighborhood, so we went to their houses, photographed the façade of the buildings, and then interviewed them. We created some podcasts, some videos, and it’s online! It’s really lovely because these women have been here since the 70s or 80s, and they talk about what life was like then and how they feel about the area changing. We also do a lot of career-based field trips, and I’ve taken the kids to WNYC and Yahoo!. I helped one of my students with a portfolio for Calarts, she’s applying to do Character Animation. She had no idea what it entailed, she had to do an observational drawing. Not only do we provide a place for the kids to be creative and explore that creativity, but it’s also a place to help them with their careers and with college.
It’s also a safe place for them. One of my favorite times when I’m with the kids is seeing them just mingling and building their own relationships with each other. A lot of them don’t go to the same school, and a lot of them haven’t really found their niche. Our kids are not the athletes in the school or maybe not even super academic, or they haven’t found their place yet and they need a place to be creative and find themselves or get that confidence that they need. One of my favorite stories is a boy that I had in Boys & Girls Club who was very talented and really insecure. We worked together on his music and I taught him how to edit video, then he eventually started joining clubs at school and stopped going, which I thought was a sign of success. He gained the confidence and skills that he needed in order to socialize in a healthy way.
That’s great. What do you love about doing this?
I just love the kids. The kids are really awesome. I’m an artist and I’m in my head a lot, so it’s nice to have the kids who are always keeping me present. If you really are about kids as a teacher, you’re really present and focused on them. They’re fun to be around, they keep things light, and they’re a pleasure.
That’s awesome, you do great work.