Trenton art project hopes to share the potential and the full story of residents lost to violence

Bentrice Jusu

Bentrice Jusu. (S. Bola Okoya/Potential Project)

Trenton firefighter, artist, and activist Bentrice Jusu has spent the last five years conceiving of her latest project.

It began with a near death experience while celebrating her birthday at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando on the night in 2016 when a gunman killed 49 people in the second deadliest mass shooting in American history.

“I had a thought,” she said. “What if I didn’t make it that night? What if I was one of the victims? What would have happened to all the work my students and I were working on?”

Three months later, one of Jusu’s students was killed.

“We never finished his art pieces and I became addicted to this concept of potential,” she said.

That became the catalyst for “The Potential Project.”

The project, which launched on Juneteenth this year with some funding from the Kresge Foundation, will employ all types of artforms — from storytelling and visual art to photography, and digital media — to remember people lost to homicide in New Jersey’s capital city through the eyes of the people closest to them.

As of Sept. 7, 21 people have been murdered in Trenton so far in 2021, down 7 from this time last year when the city set a new murder record with 40 homicides in 2020.

The narrative that often accompanies homicide victims is a negative one, Jusu said.

“It’s not, ‘this person was a beloved son,’” she said. “They were here, they were doing this, they were involved in this activity … That very may well be true. They were also incredibly loved by their family and friends.”

This is not the first public art project that Jusu has orchestrated. One of her well-known projects is a mural she coordinated with the East Trenton Collaborative. The mural features images of the city’s past from The Trentonian archives and photos taken by young people.

“I wanted to give the teens an opportunity to be archivists and historians where they can go around the city,” she said, “and capture the thing that they wanted to always remember, capture anything that they wanted their children to remember.”

Jusu envisions The Potential Project as an interactive memorial that will break the fourth wall, she said.

Yellow squares will be placed in the city at places significant to the stories of the lives being honored. Through a mobile app, a user can scan the square to learn more about the person and see photos of them.

“You’ll see sides of them you probably wouldn’t have saw if you just read a basic article,” said Jusu. “You’ll hear sides of them from their immediate family members.”

In addition to Jusu, five other artists from Trenton will contribute to the project including recording artist Umar “BIG OOH!” Alim, singer/songwriter Hana Sabree, poet Terra Applegate, and videographer Diego Gordon. Jennet Jusu, Bentrice’s sister, will incorporate dance.

“No matter what the paper says, no matter how you perceive people, no matter the stories you hear [from a] third person whatever the case may be, it’s somebody that loved the person. It’s somebody that was affected by the death. It’s somebody that misses that person,” said Alim during a virtual panel at this year’s Art All Night festival in Trenton.

Alim added that the project will prevent people from forgetting those lost to violence.

“I feel like this is a platform to keep their name alive and talk to the family to get perspective on the story,” he told the panel.

Mental health is also at the forefront of the project. In addition to learning about people lost to violence, the app will connect users to mental health resources in the city.

Natasha Shabazz, community engagement director from the Trenton Health Team is involved, along with Michele Madiou, Mercer County’s mental health administrator, and Kimmie Carlos with Motivational Consulting, to make sure the artists were prepared and had adequate support before talking to families.

“When you’re sitting in front of somebody that has been truly affected by gun violence or violence in our community, it’s not just a conversation,” she said.

The app and the art pieces are still in development and there is no timeline for when it will launch. Jusu said she is going to give the project “the respect that it needs” to allow families to be active participants.

“I am very grateful and honored that they want to be part of this, that they are brave enough to take part in this,” she said, adding she “can’t begin to imagine the level of difficulty” in opening up on a personal level.

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