For some Newark teens, a sign of better times

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on January 14, 2015

Aziz Coleman, 18, of Newark looks at the "Happy Street" sign that he created when he was in the Essex County Juvenile Detention Center last year. The sign was erected in October, but Coleman, who now attends Berkeley College in Newark, had no idea it was on a street pole when he saw it for the first time recently.

 

The first slogan that he saw on a street sign, "Newark Luvs You Bruh," wasn't the one he crafted.

Nor was "Live Today Love Today," the second one he spied as he continued to walk along Market Street toward Broad Street.
But the third sign, "Make God Big Homie," was his baby.

It was the first time Aziz Coleman, 18, of Newark had seen his message discouraging teenage gangs members from looking up to gang leaders they often call "big homie."

"I did that purposely because, when people get locked up, they're always talking about their big homie,'' Coleman says. "But when they get locked up, their so-called 'big homie' is not there for them.''

No one sends money, no one writes letters and no one comes to visit – except the higher power that Coleman says kids call on to bail them out. "They depend on God to look over them and help them get out of their situation, as if God was their big homie," he says. "So you might as well make God your big homie at all times."

That was his thinking when he participated in the "Happy Street Signs" project to promote positive messages in Newark. But Coleman was in the Essex County Juvenile Detention Center at the time and wasn't sure if his words would actually be put on a street sign. So he didn't give it much thought afterward. In fact, he forgot about it after getting released in April.

But the city made a big deal of it, with a press conference in October, when 150 signs were attached to street poles with the help of the project's creator, Killy Kilford. The New York-based artist, who hails from Britain, recruited Newark high school students to come up with 10 positive messages for this anti-violence campaign. Each slogan had to be no more than four words and each word had to be less than six letters.

The students tasked in this mind teaser were from Central High School, Arts High School, St. Benedict's Prep and Sojourn High School, a school unknown to many because it is located inside of the juvenile detention center.

Coleman was there when Kilford visited the detention center to explain the project to incarcerated students. Some of them were skeptical at first, but when I met them at the detention center, several said that the project quickly became an avenue for them to give something back to the community in which they had caused problems.

In their opinion, Coleman's sign was the best. I can't identify them because, unlike Coleman, who is 18, they're still minors waiting for their cases to be adjudicated. But for you to connect with them, let's call one of them the "Invisible Man,'' because that's the book he was reading when we spoke.

"People are going to judge you, but you don't have to be how somebody judges you,'' he says. "You can be somebody completely different.''

That's his interpretation of the novel and how the street sign project affected him.
"I viewed it as giving back, because I have five brothers and I don't want them to look at this (being in jail) and think this alright. By doing what I'm supposed do, I can encourage them while I'm away. This is not where it's at.''

The guy sitting next to him admires Shaquille O'Neal, and one day, he'd like to do what the big fella and former NBA star has done for Newark, which is to give back to the city.
O'Neal has constructed a movie theater, donated to the Boys and Girls Clubs, and he's involved in plans to build condominiums downtown.

He says the street project was therapeutic and allowed him the opportunity to express himself in ways most people wouldn't think. "Even though we're incarcerated, it doesn't mean we don't have good intentions,'' he says.

Being in the detention center meant that none of them could attend the press conference with students from the other schools, whose signs were also chosen. The Sojourn classmates, however, were represented by Vincent Bonds and Eleanor Elcock. Bonds is the instructional aide, and the school harassment intimidation and bullying coordinator at the detention center, and Elcock is the substance awareness coordinator. Together, they saw what their kids could do when given a chance to be part of something that was transformative and redemptive.

"A lot of them contributed to the some of the violence in Newark,'' Bonds says. "They jumped at the chance to participate in something to redeem themselves.''

For the project, the kids, about 60 to 70 of them in the detention center, exchanged ideas and made it competitive, at times, to see who could come up with the best phrase.

"You saw their hearts, instead of what they were there for,'' Elcock says. "They really wanted to do something significant and purposeful.''
Coleman wanted to do so, too. Maybe something like this could make a difference. Why not, right?

But he got sidetracked when he was released in April. Like many who say they're not getting locked up again, Coleman began hanging with the wrong crowd a month after going home. Somebody in that crew robbed someone else – and Coleman was there.

He was arrested and held at the Essex County Jail until it was determined in August that he wasn't the culprit and had no involvement in the robbery.

The light bulb in his head is on now, and he says he gets it. He's in school. His circle of friends is small – more like a square, he says.

Coleman is going to need the big homie on his street sign more than ever now. He became a father last week.

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