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Future Looks Bright

Cumberland County’s Future Remix program aims to help at-risk youth achieve their greatest potential.

by Sharon Harris-Zlotnick

If anything could set off an alarm about youth, gangs and guns, a May 2021 mass shooting would be it. On that fateful night, hundreds were enjoying a birthday party in Fairfield Township when shots rang out, killing three and wounding 11.

Horrified by the carnage, a diverse group of community, healthcare, governmental agencies, law enforcement and media immediately pooled their resources and skills to battle the madness. This new coalition spearheaded a county-wide campaign to combat the scourge of youth violence and offer positive alternatives for at-risk youth.

After a year of hard work and small group meetings, the Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office launched “Future Remix” on May 16. The name reflects the hope that by “remixing” and reimaging their futures, young people can change what they fear is a doomed future. This campaign will connect young people with relevant assistance and services.

The idea formed when several community “stakeholders” confirmed their personal stake in helping young people. Upper Deerfield resident John Fuqua vowed to persuade local residents to get involved once he learned his own nephew was at the party.

During his own tough Bridgeton childhood, John Fuqua personally experienced the emotional devastation of gun violence. Those events made him determined to leave Cumberland County decades ago. After earning an English Literature degree from William Paterson University, Fuqua secured a teaching position in Jersey City. He loved teaching, but recognized his family responsibility in 2007.

He returned to Bridgeton to mentor and “save” his nephew from gang life. Sadly, Rakeem, 18, was shot and killed in 2008.

Fuqua’s efforts came too late for Rakeem and he remembers that date as among his life’s most traumatic moments. As his nephew was fatally injured, Fuqua’s mother Mary Jane Tillman of Bridgeton, Rakeem’s grandmother, suffered a heart attack and passed away that same night.

Overcoming enormous grief, a spiritual awakening changed his life’s purpose. Fuqua and his wife Tasheka soon founded the nonprofit Life Worth Living, a grassroots organization that works with area high schools and youth.

The Life Worth Living mission is to empower youth and young adults, ages 11 to 25, “to live long and fulfilling lives.” This is accomplished through networking, recreational opportunities and real-time mentoring and support. Young people can learn to appreciate their own talents and potential. Fuqua claims that boys are more prone to violent actions, but girls commit more assaults.

As Life Worth Living’s Chief Engagement Officer, Fuqua says, “I firmly believe I was called to do this work and lay a positive framework for these young people.”

Following the May 2021 shooting, former Cumberland County Commissioner Director Joe Derella and NAACP Leader R. Todd Edwards organized those early meetings. Fuqua praises the commitment and “amazing leadership” of numerous individuals and groups. These include Vineland community leader Victor Jimenez, the New Jersey State Police, the Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office, all Cumberland County school district superintendents, then-County School Superintendent Leslie White-Coursey and Bridgeton Mayor Albert B. Kelly.

County Public Safety Reform Strategist Tracy A. Swan, MPA, MA, has had a long career in public safety. She worked at a Rutgers University think tank for years before joining the Prosecutor’s Office in 2021.

“Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae has an innovative perspective about keeping people out of the criminal justice system, Swan says. “Rather than prosecuting them after the fact, she sees it as more practical and cost-effective to allocate money at the front end. Incarceration and addressing the aftermath of violence and crime is expensive.”

Numbers support that premise. Swan confirms that between 2012 and 2020, juvenile arrests decreased by 73.7 percent, from 900 to 247. These declining figures surpass the national averages.

Multiple New Jersey Attorneys General have designated Cumberland County a model county for assistance. Since 2009, the AG’s office has awarded multi-year funding that promotes positive youth development like life skills, pop-up recreational events, and cultural programs.

As part of the county’s vision to reduce violence, Swan provided Life Worth Living with technical assistance on a grant proposal to the New Jersey Attorney General’s office last January. They requested funding for their “Credible Messenger” program, which uses local community emissaries to spread the word about peace instead of violence to solve “beefs.” By February, Life Worth Living was awarded $430,000.

Many “messengers” have transformed their own lives following prison sentences, which gives them more “street cred” to deliver a hopeful message. Reaching gang members and at-risk children at the right time may help them avoid a life torn apart by crime and prison.

This dire situation is substantiated by grim statistics from the annual Kids Count report, the Census, and poverty surveys. Cumberland County ranks among the worst of the 21 New Jersey counties for health, safety and education. The median $50,460 family income is less than half of the state’s median, meaning 17 percent of children live below the poverty threshold. They also may regularly experience food insecurity, child abuse and neglect.

Public exposure was critical to launching a successful Future Remix campaign. Although Cumberland County has many proactive programs, young people or their families frequently did not know how to access them.

The original coalition understood that Future Remix would take financing. Inspira Health CEO Amy Mansue quickly offered her help. She contracted the Brownstein advertising/public relations agency of Philadelphia for a public relations strategy and Harmelin Media of Bala Cynwyd, PA, for marketing and media services.

“Amy wanted a deeper re-engagement with the community. She volunteered her time and Inspira’s economic and promotional support. Inspira’s Robin Walton managed the project and coordinated the outreach,” says Swan.

Currently, 17 regional organizations participate in Future Remix, offering their expertise in several specific program areas. The Prosecutor’s Office manages the Future Remix website, which is unlike other information and referral websites that include social components like daycare, etc. Swan explains that Future Remix only targets specific youth groups already at risk of joining gangs and perpetrating violence.

The Future Remix website lists several youth service categories. These include after-school programming, conflict de-escalation, mentoring, employment & employment readiness, leadership, life skills, music, recreation, and supportive counseling. Most are based in Bridgeton, Vineland and Millville because these cities’ larger populations experience a higher percentage of the violence.

Public interactions prove the ad campaign and word-of-mouth referrals are working. Numbers continually update, but Swan confirms nearly 5,500 individuals have already visited the Future Remix page 21,688 times. They have engaged 899 times by clicking, scrolling, and/or downloading information. Also, 105 people have contacted specific organizations for services.

To further advertise Future Remix, 187 Posters on display, in both English and Spanish, have been distributed countywide. Youth may also access information about the campaign via short-form Facebook and Instagram videos that feature Cumberland County youth. Other promotional materials include billboards and local in-store displays.

Every young person deserves a promising future. With so many committed behind-the-scenes, that goal is within reach for Cumberland County’s youth to forge a brighter tomorrow. n

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