NKwanda Jah, a 69-year-old East Gainesville resident, grew up in the rural, unincorporated community of Grandin, Florida. With nothing to do, Jah spent a vast amount of time outside, where she slowly grew into a “proud tree hugger.”
“I just didn't know that I was gaining a love and appreciation for it,” Jah said. “There was enough food outside on the trees, so you didn't have to run home because you got hungry and wanted a snack.”
Jah never obtained a degree or had Black female role models throughout the majority of her life. Yet today, she leads the non-profit organization Cultural Arts Coalition, which serves disadvantaged Gainesville residents' needs through summer employment, cultural enrichment programs and after-school programs.
In the summer of 1979, Jah and a group of activists started a festival to ignite an extensive discussion about the gentrification of Northwest Gainesville, using the visual arts, music and dance to bring people together.
The festival was successful, and in 1983 Jah founded the Cultural Arts Coalition to continue its influence. The 5th Avenue Arts Festival, which celebrated its 43rd year in April, showcases choirs, singers, poets, artists and dancers of all ages.
The work’s success rewarded her long-term, Jah said.
“I have been lucky,” Jah said, “I’m an executive director. I created my position and put myself in it back when nobody was interested in it because it didn't come with any money.”
Marihelen Wheeler, Alachua County Commissioner, previously worked with Jah in the 5th Avenue Arts Festival.
The arts are one of the best ways to introduce a culture to a community, Wheeler said.
“What NKwanda was doing,” Wheeler said, “was finding another avenue into making sure that the inequities of our community were being addressed, but in a way that was palatable and acceptable and understandable by everybody, which is the arts.”
For Wheeler, Jah’s knowledge, enthusiasm and passion for her community work make people gravitate to helping her reach her goals.
Naima Brown, SFC Vice President of Student Affairs, met Jah in the mid-1990s during a walk Jah organized to bring awareness to the HIV epidemic. At the time, Brown was still obtaining her master’s.
Jah left a profound impression on her, Brown said.
“I loved her,” Brown said. “She’s down to Earth and about moving the community.”
One of Jah’s mottos, “No participation, no right to observation,” encompasses her dedication to educating and helping the community.
When Jah noticed the growing achievement gap between West Gainesville and East Gainesville schools in subjects like math, science and English, she created a science club and started a science bus intending to introduce STEM in elementary school so kids can gain an appreciation and knowledge of the topic at an early age.
Brown believes providing an early foundation with a STEM curriculum is critical for more children to enter the high-paying field.
“I was afraid of science,” Brown said.
She went into sociology, but she thought she might have tried science if she had been introduced earlier to the field, she said.
The science bus has different stations, like physics, biology and entomology, and has microscopes where children can look at other specimens.
The bus travels outside of Gainesville to rural communities and municipalities to have a broader reach. It also assists the volunteers who generally need help transporting to rural areas.
In addition to the science club, Cultural Arts Coalition has an environmental ambassadors program that began in 1990 when Gainesville asked the nonprofit to help promote recycling in the city and in Alachua County.
While recycling was doing well in West Gainesville, East Gainesville needed to catch up, Jah said.
“I saw DJs using the bins to put their albums in when they went to different events…they will use the bins for everything but recycling,” Jah said.
The nonprofit used music, dance and rap to put together an award winning video to educate the community on recycling.
During the production, the ambassadors went to a landfill and discussed how to reduce waste entering the system, a tradition that has since grown.
More recently, ambassadors in the program visited waterways, food sources and energy sources.
The group looks at springs, creeks and lakes to see how they can clean the sweet water before it enters the basin in Paynes Prairie, Jah said.
“We go to the springs, and last year, we actually went to three different springs in one day,” Jah said.
The group also tours organic cattle farms whose ownership has been handed down through multiple generations, allowing kids to receive a mini-history lesson on food sources and the difference in food accessibility in West Gainesville compared to East Gainesville.
As for energy, the environmental ambassadors have previously toured coal and gas plants but will tour the biomass plant this year.
The Environmental Ambassador Program provides summer employment for teenagers and the opportunity to learn career and leadership skills.
People shouldn’t pursue money or positions, Jah said.
“I want people to pursue their passion,” she said “I don't have a degree of any kind. I've learned from life. I've learned from the experiences. I've chosen the route that I'm on because it excites me.”
Contact Gabriel at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @gvelasquezn.
Gabriel Velasquez Neira is a second-year Journalism major, and the Audio Editor and Metro GA Reporter. In his free time, he enjoys sleeping, taking photos and playing guitar.