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Local Juneteenth Trailblazers honored for activism, bolstering children

Award 'means people are paying attention to what younger people are trying to say'

Kindergartners Taylor Seering-Brooks and Bray’Shaun Payne cut paper for a project during class at Faith Academy in Iowa City on Friday, November 22, 2013. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Kindergartners Taylor Seering-Brooks and Bray’Shaun Payne cut paper for a project during class at Faith Academy in Iowa City on Friday, November 22, 2013. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
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Speaking out, introducing children to the arts and providing faith-based education to low-income students were actions celebrated at the Juneteenth Trailblazers Awards earlier this month in Coralville.

The Sankofa Outreach Connection, a group of women of color in Johnson County, presented the fourth-annual awards June 14 at the Radisson Hotel & Conference Center to Nikesha Jones-Jenkins, founder and director of the Jones Academy of Performing Arts in Coralville; Mariam Keita, a City High School senior; and Faith Academy, a K-6 private school in Iowa City.

Outstanding leader

Jones-Jenkins said she struggled to hold back tears as she was introduced as the recipient of the Trailblazers Outstanding Leader award. That’s because RaQuishia Harrington, North Liberty City Council member, noted Jenkins always gives students rides to and from performing arts practices and events and opens her home when someone is in need.

“If they don’t have the arts they are missing out on a whole bunch of things,” Jones-Jenkins told The Gazette. “Some kids are so talented; they need outlets to express themselves.”

Jones-Jenkins started teaching dance classes 20 years ago when she moved to Iowa City from Chicago. In 2017, she founded the Jones Academy of Performing Arts, which now hosts the Dream Divas dance team, Dream Center Tumblers, a drum line and workshops for acting, piano and visual arts.

The academy has 52 students and no one is turned away because of inability to pay. Although the academy doesn’t have a studio, Jones-Jenkins holds practices at Four Oaks, Iowa City Community School District gyms and the Coralville Recreation Center.

“I have some great people who are supporting my vision,” she said.

Emerging Activist

Following the 2016 election of President Donald Trump, Keita was “sad and mad and frustrated” and gave those emotions full vent on social media.

“I remember lashing out at anyone who didn’t share my shock and disdain about a Trump presidency,” Keita said in a recent interview. Three years later, she’s realized that wasn’t the fairest or most productive approach. The rising senior has since found her voice by participating in an anti-hate march, speaking at a City Council meeting and working together with other students to advocate for human rights and positive change.

While Keita doesn’t like to be singled out for an award, she appreciates the recognition for her cause.

“The emerging activist award means people are paying attention to what younger people are trying to say,” she said. “It shows young people, women, people of color and Muslims all have the power to effect change.”

Keita, who will be eligible to vote in 2020, said she is tuning into politics and plans to participate in the Iowa caucuses in February.

Transformative Organization

When Faith Academy started in 2013, it had 13 students in kindergarten and first grade. This year the school had 88 students and graduated its first class of sixth-graders.

“It was a very special celebration,” said Head of School Doug Fern.

About 85 percent of Faith Academy students quality for free or reduced lunch and about 90 percent are students of color, Fern said. Tuition pays about 10 percent of the school’s $800,000 annual budget, while fundraising covers the rest.

“Our funding is totally reversed from a traditional private school,” Fern said, crediting “community partners and donors/investors who care and are on board with what we try to do.”

Faith Academy, a registered nonprofit, has started the accreditation process through Christian Schools International, which allows students to get some services through the Grant Wood Area Education Agency. The school also transports a handful of kids to Iowa City public schools for help with speech or reading, Fern said.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Cedar Rapids provides after-school care at the Faith Academy, located in Pepperwood Plaza on Iowa City’s southeast side.

l Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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