Kiermoni Allsion

Peaceful. Reticent. Gentle.

Kiermoni Allison Ark Republic RU AlumA man of few words,  Kiermoni Allison brings recognition to what it means to have grown up in Newark.  Being born and raised here he says, “The depiction of Newark has many narratives depending on who is telling the story.”

With a supportive upbringing, Kiermoni’s gives a richer understanding of what shaped him to become the talented and thoughtful individual he is today.  Kiermoni illustrates Newark as a prolific city and, “Because of its longstanding history in the media, it can be pegged as a city of crime and despair. The city is full of innovators, families and unsung heroes who make life worth living. I am glad to be a product of the great city I call home.”

A recent grad from Rutgers University’s MPA program, Allison spent six years as a Scarlet Knight and now works for the City of New York.

With a background in public administration, Kiermoni finds a natural desire to recognize what the community needs and has a mature awareness of the city on another level.  He sees the city as a progressive engine, with an immense amount of potential such as restaurants, cultural centers, and the presence of new companies moving in.

Kiermoni Allison

Expressing the social expense that is behind all these actions, he says that it often leaves many of the natives and young generations fighting to preserve a culture they once knew.  That’s where his acute passion comes of giving back to his community, through creative and healthy ways such as biking.

Kiermoni’s passion for biking started as an innocent hobby then later became a way to give back.  He was titled as a Schwinn ambassador, a notable biking company.  Biking gives Kiermoni the ability to be free and he wants others to feel the same.  Thinking about his journey, he reveals, “Whenever someone asks me about biking, I always explain it as a sport that I stumbled upon. I learned how to ride a bike at a late age. Years later, I never would have thought I’d be representing a major brand in a city that has molded me in every way possible.”

Kiermoni believes that his best assets are time and effort. In addition, he wants to offer knowledge that will benefit Newark’s diverse population.  With the memories and support of his teachers, mentors, and community leaders, he has collected guidance and strength to share.  Soft spoken, yet confident, he explains, “My vision for biking is simply seeing more people pick up a set of wheels for themselves.”

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Douglass Says

Two years ago, art designer and fashion historian, Douglass Says sat down with Ark Republic (formerly the Bricks 350) to talk about his life growing up in Newark and his experiences in the fashion industry as an African American designer.

Douglass showcased several dresses in Newark’s Pop Up in 2016 that took place in the National Building on Broadway.

With over three decades in fashion, he is literally, a walking archive. In the interview, Douglass provides details of critical moments in Newark fashion, and mainstream fashion industry when black models caused an uproar in Paris.

To pay homage to his full career, and capture how fashion changes, every Spring, Douglass hosts a fashion show at the Newark Library.

From the fashion savvy of Newarkers to owning a business in New Jersey, Douglass documents his life through runways and couture.

Douglass Says Speaks On Fashion Industry and Black Pioneers from Kaia Shivers on Vimeo.

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Gil & Ahmed

Kick. Push. Coast.

An art form, a way to exist, a lifestyle. Skateboarding culture emerges in swift glances of skateboarders weaving through streets in Newark. Of many hues and styles with backpacks seared to their back like wings, a hat and some low top sneakers, they zig zag around potholes, cars and pedestrians with precision.

Two of those who are fairly new to Newark’s skateboarding is Gil and Ahmed.

I met Gil affixing wheels back onto to his skateboard at the Underground Skateshop 2. Rarely speaking or looking up, he prepared his board for a ride in NYC with Ahmed, a 2016 graduate of Rutgers-Newark who described the local skating scene as “popping.”

“There’s so many spots and if there’s no place to skate then you find something to skate from almost nothing because [Newark] is so hilly,” says Ahmed.

Gil discovered skateboarding almost 10 years ago. “One of my friends that always skateboarded. I was never really the type to skateboard, but one day it caught my eye and saw the challenge,” he explained.

Considered a recreational sport. Skateboarding encompasses many elements, including learning how to master skating techniques and the performance of stunts and tricks. “Honestly, we all love to skateboard, but you have to have a lot of time to sacrifice to always skate,” comments Gill. “We have to carry on weight. We gotta work and still have time to skate.”

Gil shyly explains that he is not used to describing his passion of skateboarding and Ahmed is pressing Gil to leave so that they can catch some light while riding in the city. Politely, they excuse themselves.

 

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Lisa Marie Dawkins, Daaimah Flowers Nigeria Brown

I met them with their backs turned away from me, engaged in a conversation of cutting video and working out schedules to finish various projects in the Communications classes at Essex County College.

Lisa Marie Dawkins, Daaimah Flowers and Nigeria Brown represent some students who maximize their experience at Essex County College by using its state-of-the-art media center under the tutelage of Jennifer Wager.

Usually, they are interviewing people and checking for sound and light quality, but they became the subject of inquiry for refreshing and lively conversation ranging for Newark to the recent elections. Funny, intelligent and providing layers to the millennial perspective, each of the young ladies are working to forge new voices and stronger representation in media.

After our interview, I refused to mince their words, so here is an audiocast of our conversation.

Essex County College Students, The Bricks 350 from Kaia Shivers on Vimeo.

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Hawwa Muhammad

My parents came to Newark from Nigeria. We immigrated when I was a baby and we’ve been here since. I went to school in Newark. I grew up by the Colonnades [Apartments by Branch Brook Park]. Now I’m here in the Ironbound.

When you see Hawwa Muhammad walking on Ferry or down Washington Street, you will probably catch a zippy glimpse because she is walking somewhere with an almost fleet-footed gait.

Head straight and eyes set on a destination, Muhammad is hyper-focused to make it to her New York gig, a community class in Newark, her side-business at home or to a volunteer opportunity in the area. Her stare shows she is thinking of a million things in a nanosecond and has a week to finish each project.

hawwaThe Rutgers-New Brunswick (undergraduate) and Rutgers-Newark (master’s) alumna works in the non-profit sector, is a consultant to other non-profits and just launched a business bringing together textiles and social activism.

According to Muhammad, if it were not for her upbringing in Newark, she is not sure that she would have acquired the ability to learn how to fight and speak up like the hundreds of youth and community members she advocates for, for the last seven years.

Soft spoken and reserved, Muhammad says quite emphatically, “I had to learn how to be vigilante so that I could be resilient.”

For Muhammad, Newark made her more personable and resourceful in ways that assist in completing projects or navigating solutions that are critical for clients that work towards improving their structures and tracking success.

No means a different way to say yes in Muhammad’s world. She is an expert in strengthening the structures of business and organizations then pairing them with partners in which the work and services of each compliment overall goals to invoke positive social change.

Muhammad, a member of the Hausa ethnic group in Kano State, Nigeria had the type of parents that pushed her to be a prominent doctor or lawyer. She decided that her gray hairs would come through social activism.

“My parents made sure to shelter me about the usual stories that we grew up on, but because of the network of friends that I had, I decided to work in the non-profit sector of Newark.”

With the precision of a surgeon, Muhammad calculated how she would enter a saturated non-profit landscape in Newark.

Says Muhammad, “I wanted to gain experience to know where I wanted to go, and my next steps. I also had a friend that told me that change has to start locally. She said, ‘You want to make that happen locally before going out to the broader world and make change.'”

After finishing undergraduate studies at Rutgers-New Brunswick, Muhammad interned for several organizations; and decided to stay close to her roots. She interned at The Center for Collaborative Change.

“I thought that this was perfect, this was everything I’d wanted to do to help create change. It was an non-profit that created collaborations to make change in the city. They’d been working on a proposal for Living Cities [during the Cory Booker Administration].”

In her internships then as a full-fledged advocate, she was able to study the processes and systems of community development and government – from red tape to ground breaking events. So excited from her experience, she decided to gain more understanding.

Applying, getting accepted and finishing her master’s at Rutgers-Newark in Administration allowed her to think about the business models that non-profits often lack. It was there she found her niche as a consultant.

Though she works in the city, she launched Pink Trumpet, a consulting firm that helps to retool how nonprofits, businesses, and people achieve better results for underserved communities.

Although, a portion of her proceeds goes to organizations for women and girls, Hawwa wanted to focus on the underserved population of women and girls in Africa. This year, she began Hausa Hawwa, an online boutique that takes textiles inspired by African and ethnic cultures then mixes them with modern designs.

Hausa Hawwa also highlights her Hausa heritage. She explains that Kano has a vibrant textile industry she wants to promote rather than the Chinese-made fabrics that saturate the textile industry as African prints.

“I’m Nigerian-American, and so taking those identities and saying how can I create something that can speak to both of my histories and make people feel beautiful, is empowering and cultivates a sense of belonging.”

In its infancy stages, Muhammad is currently working with a tailor to make more dresses. A graduate of Rising Tide Capital, she focused on the business plan. She wants to implement the second stage for next year — launching house ware that is a play on the word Hausa (pronounced Hawse-uh).

As a triple entrepreneur and multi-tasker, she is constantly figuring out how to balance her work life with the yearn to get an MBA.

She laughs as she talks about her dreams. “I don’t know what I want to do necessarily, but now I know the person I want to become.”

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Eileen DeFreece

Next time you walk on Broad Street, drive up Bloomfield Avenue or travel along the Passaic River on Route 21 ― know that indigenous people carved these roads long before Newark was a concept and much earlier than Europeans touched the grounds.

These roads in which we trek on without much thought were critical thoroughfares where nations traded, held ceremonies, and raised empires before Robert Treat, the European colonial settler noted by American historians as founding Newark.

This is what I learned from the fiercely intelligent and courageous, Dr. Eileen DeFreece, Associate Professor of Humanities at Essex County College.

A member of the Ramapough Lenaape, she belongs to one of the remaining nations still living in the area. The Lenaape call themselves “Keepers of the Pass,” a responsibility in which they protect the old passageways from New Jersey to New York.

Recently, Dr. Eileen DeFreece was asked by the Newark 350 Commission to assist in educating Newark celebrants about the critical role of native people in the celebration of the city’s 350th anniversary.

In an interview conducted by Essex County College students taking a TV production course with Jennifer Wager,DeFreece explains that native populations such as the Lenaape, greeted Robert Treat in the early 1600s at the banks of the Passaic River; offering his contingency of settlers the ability to establish themselves.

Video and Picture Credit: Footage provided by Communications  Program in the Division of Humanities at Essex County College. Interview conducted by student’s in Professor Jennifer Wager’s CMS 110 TV. Photos extracted from video.

Dr. Eileen Defreece, The Bricks 350 from Kaia Shivers on Vimeo.

Knotting together the forked tongue of the white man, DeFreece points out that there really wasn’t much for Treat to set up because a well-structured, thriving nation already existed. Even Treat’s journals speak of villages lined along the Passaic River that spanned deep into the interior of the land.

Treat and other settlers drew up land deeds and land sales that were not honored; and more problematic, in favor of a European ideology of “manifest destiny” ― the notion that a god gave them the divine authority to expand with impunity.

“I read the deed between the Indians and whites [in what is present-day Newark]. I can see how the native folk did not understand the concept of land ownership. How can you own land? Why do you build a fence? Where do the bears and deer feed and live? That is such a ridiculous concept. It was inconceivable.”

The contrasting worldviews between the native folk and Europeans, along with the duplicitous land deeds; the violent attacks against native people; and the eventual efforts to kill indigenous populations resulted in the Lenaape fleeing to another land they occupied in the Ramapough (Ramapo) Mountains.

While half fled to the mountains, the other walked to Oklahoma and still reside there today. The division led to those who relocated to be recognized federally, while the Lenaape in New Jersey are acknowledged by the state, they still fight for federal recognition.

Growing Up Newark

DeFleece was born at St. Micheal’s hospital in Newark and stayed in the city until shortly after the 1967 uprising. Recalling fond memories of playing in a multiracial neighborhood of immigrants and African-American migrants, she smiles when speaking about the knitted community of her childhood ― one that transcended racial, ethnic and language barriers.

DeFreece remembers the stories of the Lenaape told by her uncle, Uncle Sonny, and her father (who grew up between Newark, New Jersey and the Ramapough lands). As well as, the trips on Route 17 to Mahwah and up the mountains to the grave site of her forebears, the DeFreece’s (also spelled DeFreese and DeFreez).

I asked DeFreece if she celebrates Thanksgiving, a question I think about when black people celebrate Independence Day. She said that her mother re-appropriated the day to mean a time to celebrate family and being thankful for life’s blessings.

Her mother, a Virginia migrant of Trinidadian-German-Irish mixture fared differently in a racist South in which she endured many injustices. Like many African-Americans, she moved to the northern part of the country for better opportunities.

“Being thankful” for a native person, according to DeFreece, means being alive and here to tell the stories of her people and fight against the centuries-long injustices native populations continue to endure.

1967 Rebellion

For the DeFleece family, the warmth and village-like neighborhood that Newark offered, suddenly changed when the 1967 Rebellion rocked the city for almost a week.

Leaving 26 dead, hundreds injured and millions of destruction to property, Eileen DeFreece remembers vividly. Still a child, she experienced a trauma that still remains:

“At night, we were told to get down as cars drove up and down our streets shooting. I remember seeing what we now know as National Guards, shooting into the homes of people as they drove down the street,” DeFreece recollects. “My father found bullet holes in house the next day. I was a girl then and could not understand why the police would shoot into our house. From then on, we could not go out and play like we used to.”

Soon after, the DeFleece’s moved to Montclair, but Eileen insists she never left Newark. Similar to a lot of black families who were able to relocate their deep ties to the city kept them rooted. “A lot of my family were still in Newark so we came here for holidays and visited.”

Career & Beyond

eileen-defreece-timelessHer affinity for Newark continued. Eventually, DeFleece accepted a position as a professor at Essex County College. A graduate of Rutgers University, her Ph.D. (her research in Era Bell Thompson a Chicago Renaissance writer) in English, she teaches and researches African-American literature.

Between teaching, DeFleece is also a prolific editor who once worked at Ebony and Jet Magazine. Her striking appearance graced several photo shoots, as she too modeled.

By day she instructs, while in the evening and around a demanding job, DeFreece pursues her passion as a jazz singer ― another legacy that points to Newark’s rich history of jazz.

Recently, the serious professor who immerses herself into everything from Olaudah Equiano to Toni Morrison released her debut jazz CD of classics appropriately titled, Timeless. Smiling, she says that in her second career, she will gig to flex her vocals.

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Jeff Billingsley

Honestly, after speaking with social entrepreneur and multimedia producer Jeff Billingsley for two days, I am still not sure as to how many ventures he is working on. CEO of award-winning Cobblestone Multimedia, his projects and up-and-coming programs, span from Newark to Cannes.

But there are three things that are certain about Billinglsey: 1. His bone marrow is composed of break beats and Jersey House music. 2. His creative work seeks to change and empower. 3. He has lived about 20 lives.

If you live in Newark, you either know Billingsley, know someone who knows him, or have seen his six-foot-plus frame and signature dark sunglasses in the many nooks and crannies of the city.

His knowledge of Newark and the inner-workings of getting things done is a necessary ingredient in a city that sometimes sleeps on brilliant talent teeming in its five wards. With a fervent commitment, Billingsley makes sure that the opportunities for local residents; especially creatives, remain steadfast and flowing.

Currently, one of four Entrepreneurs in Residence at The Newark Business Hub, he serves as a consultant and mentor to Newark residents whose ventures are in media and arts. The Newark Business Hub ― launched by Rutgers Business School (Newark campus) via their Center for Urban Entrepreneurship & Economic Development ― is a networked accelerator program dedicated to cultivate positive relationships between Rutgers University in Newark and local media and arts entrepreneurs and creatives.

Technology, Billingsley insists, sits at the heart of Newark’s value. He has worked through three City Administrations and still pushes media ― and survived, so I think he knows some things.

“Technology is critical to the conversation about what will make Newark different. Apparently, Newark has the most or one of the most extensive fiber [optics systems] running through the city in the country … through The Newark Business Hub and other key partnerships, its about making sure that we are intricately involved in generating economics and using our creative work to be the storytellers of the city.”

Re-Entry Expert
Born, built and educated* in Newark, Billingsley’s three decades of work in music, film, video, digital technology, youth advocacy, re-entry and community development make him one of the few in the city who has intimate knowledge of the major transitions occurring ― and has learned to re-invent himself with every rough curve.

Indeed his first love is music, but his calling is in community advocacy; specifically dealing with youth who were locked up and at-risk populations.

During the Bill Clinton Administration in the early 90s, he was picked to participate in a summer program that trained college students to oversee summer youth employment programs in cities. This was the beginnings of what would be Americorps.

Billingsley’s supervisor, Ted Davis would end up promoting him to supervise the program in Newark while providing mentorship.

Ted told me later that he thought that I was going to be a troublemaker and that he would have to fire me, but I became one of the most successful.

This venture began his lifelong work in youth advocacy and community development in which he curated and launched programs offering transitional and educational programs for juveniles.

So successful his programs in Essex County, his work expanded to Union, Passaic and Hudson. After he began to garner grants to run both federal and state funded initiatives, Rutgers-Newark asked him to direct several programs assisting formerly incarcerated in educational and vocational training; specifically in music, entrepreneurship and the digital industry in its Rutgers Transitional Education and Employment Management.

Later on, Billingsley would learn how to merge his love of music with his advocacy work. Working with youth and music in mind, he directed Ceasefire Allstars, a compilation album of local hip-hop artists that promoted peace; unity amongst rival gangs; increased awareness of gun violence; and used music as an avenue to express ways in using creativity as a productive outlet.

The Ceasefire Allstars concept originated as a way to combat issues of violence and the gang-related crimes surge in Newark in the late 90s and early 2000s. By gathering local at risk youth and artists, the compilation album was more effective than a traditional PSA or fliers. The CD served as a promotional tool used at various communities events. As a result, local youth gained exposure and learned professional vocations in the entertainment industry as they worked to better the blocks they grew up.

Moving forward, Billingsley procured a partnership with Berkelee College of Music to send youth to their summer program.

For five years, he was able to acquire funding from several local organizations and Newark-native, Ray Chambers (another one of Billingsley’s mentors), to enroll about 10 students per year in a highly sought after summer intensive working with emerging young artists from all over the world. Earlier this month, Newark hosted Berklee’s City Music Summit, an annual conference helping its students in professional development. Billingsley, of course, was behind that too.

To this day, Billingsley works with the City of Newark, providing educational programs and consulting various local organizations to run effective programs bridging community with institutions.

The Golden Era

Flipping in the ghetto on the dirty mattress.

Lauryn Hill, “Everything is Everything,” The Mis-Education of Lauryn Hill

From the South Ward, Billingsley grew up in the 70s and 80s, a time he said in which he caught the last of the village in Newark.

We always had a sense of community growing up, says Billingsley. “People in the neighborhood would watch out for you and if you got into some trouble they’d chastise you and then your parents would chastise you.

Reared by his mother and grandmother on Chadwick Avenue, he recalls a time where he and friends created ad hoc playgrounds in the street. Flipping on mattresses and running balls games on vacant lots, they satisfied early wanderlust inspecting and running through abandoned buildings that dotted the city landscape.

It wasn’t the derelict scenes often portrayed in movies or blared in news; it was a childhood he fondly remembers. The freedom to explore and play, even in concrete jungles, he found sanctuary.

Billingsley never denies his exposure to the harsh realities of inner city life during that time: such as the crack cocaine epidemic and the car jacking surge in Newark; however, he wraps that around his most salient sentimental memory ― witnessing and participating in the birth of hip-hop.

I grew up in the golden era. Me and my generation were part of something that we felt we owned and fiend for ― from the clothes, the shoes, the music, the hats, the graffiti ― it was ours.

Living and going to school with people who eventually would be involved in the music industry , Billingsley’s involvement into entertainment was inevitable. His entrée was through hip-hop; however he always loved music ― a genetic disposition because his father, a music aficionado, amassed an impressive collection.

As a young man, Billingsley began to host and promote parties which led to managing artists and planning events then turned into a second full-time career that complimented his work with youth.

Becoming Cobblestone

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A collector of music himself, Billingsley opened a music store in Union, New Jersey upon the suggestion of his the high school-aged daughter. The only music store in town at the time, his small business positioned him to broker stronger relationships in the music business while opening his world to access in full, the entertainment industry. Within five years, music distribution and sales dramatically shifted when online peer-to-peer sharing became a pipeline for bootlegged media.

When the industry began to change in warp-speed rhythms, Billingsley saw a need for studio spaces that catered to commercial and independent artists. Hence, Cobblestone Records, the precursor the Cobblestone Multimedia was birthed.

I had a friend [Marcel Green], who owned a dry cleaners. His business dried up after September 11 [2001]. People lost airport jobs that required uniforms because screenings got tighter … We turned the cleaners into a studio because we were tired of renting other studios and needing access at all times at night when our creativity would peak.

Using the name Cobblestone derives from Newark’s initial infrastructure. We didn’t want to name the company using Brick City because that was played out, explains Billingsley. We were in the street, and underneath all of these roads is Newark’s original road, made of cobblestone, so we chose that.

Initially, the studio served as a site for music production, but became a venue offering wraparound artist development. He educated artists on being savvy businesspersons and trained them in music production so they in turn could work on the various projects he received from the various re-entry, vocational and media projects he oversaw.

Billingsley cites seeing the beginning of Power 105.1, the JaRule and 50 Cent Beef and being the numerous industry events and stories that connect him to both major and independent music companies.

He even recalls the first time an artist had to use a bullet-proof car for extra security because he and his partners had to do so in the early 200s for 50 Cent performance in Newark. His management requested that Fiddy’s safety so they leased an armored truck from a New York jewelry who then turned that idea into a business.

From Music to Multimedia

Billingsley saw the rise of hip-hop and was part of its decline, and still maneuvered through the changes because the core of his work was assisting formerly incarcerated juveniles enter back into society and setting up effective vocational apprenticeships.

He switched his focus on solely music to incorporating film, TV, and digital. Already overseeing production shots of video and TV during the early stages of hip-hop, the expansion was natural. In turn, Cobblestone Music became Cobblestone Multimedia.

In 2007, asked to do a marketing campaign for Several Sources Shelter, a non-profit offering services to pregnant and homeless young women, Billingsley proposed to create a series of educational PSAs as part of a curriculum to be placed in schools. The project evolved into a short film shot in Newark and in the Lakota Tribe in South Dakota called Confusion Burning. Managing the Newark shoot and the score of the film, Confusion Burning won awards at film festivals.

Confusing Burning buffered more support for Billingsley to build a comprehensive program teaching film to students in-and-around-Newark.

Later Billingsley teamed with another Newark filmmaker and educator, LeRon Lee for the production of , Ugly, a short coming-of-age film (filmed in Newark) in 2015 that has been winning awards throughout the film festival circuit and will be released on HBO in 2017. Billingsley was also a part of the production team.

The work in music then other facets of media catapulted Billingsley in his current role to assist others in creating and sustaining ventures and projects via entrepreneurship. His ability to re-invent himself in times of extreme change is a key factor; that and his insistence for people to learn how to make their product and services move throughout the globe.

Your work must travel outside of this city, this state, and even this country, advises the entrepreneurial sage as hurriedly gathers his sunglasses and cell phone to make a 12 o’clock meeting.

Email Jeff: cobblestonemultimedia@gmail.com

*Billingsley attended the following Newark institutions: Clinton Avenue Elementary; Avon Middle School; Malcolm X High School; Essex County College and Rutgers University)

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