Editor’s note: This piece is part of Parishes of New Jersey, a new series designed to highlight, showcase and cover communities created by major media organizations such as. to be undersupplied NJ.com.
Firefighting is a dangerous job.
But Bentrice Jusu says it’s one of the safest things she’s ever done.
The rookie Trenton Fire Department understands the irony, but she doesn’t talk about stepping into burning buildings. She’s talking about the fixed paycheck, as she puts it, a retirement job.
“For me, art is riskier than fighting fires,” she said recently at Engine Co. 3, where it has been in use since January.
Art is fickle. It depends in a lot of ways on integrating creativity into a world that is always trying to get the next job or grant to pay the bills or fund the next project, she says.
The 30-year-old lived this life for over a decade. She is known in the capital as a poet, photographer, painter and activist artist or prefers “Artivism”. She has performed at the Art All Night Festival and has launched an art mentoring program for teenagers called Both Hands.
“Fighting fires,” she says, “makes my life a little easier.”
Trenton firefighter and “artivist” (activist / artist) Bentrice Jusu checks in at 7am at the start of a 24-hour shift at Engine 3 on South Broad Street. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Jusu, left, cleans a fire truck at Engine 3 on South Broad Street with colleague Heather Angelini, right. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Jusu is not your typical firefighter in many ways.
She had an atypical route to the entrance exam for a demographically male-dominated profession. And she plans to continue her artistry while working for her hometown.
The public service is, in their opinion, another form of activism.
Fire brigade and art, not words that you often hear together, can and will coexist, says Jusu.
First, Jusu wants to be clear. Despite the stability of a career, firefighting isn’t just a job – or a paycheck. She’s been on the job for less than a year and is a quick follower of the profession.
“Firefighting is a service I am honored to do; for me it is something that I was actually called and chosen to – I would say that too, ”she said.
The workout is different from anything she’s experienced and it never ends. She is impressed with the executives at her company.
“I can say with confidence that I wish I had joined sooner.”
Even so, she was a little worried that some might view her new urban career as a mitigation of her artivism.
But Jusu believes that they will strengthen each other.
“Art is something I choose. I choose the gifts that I love, the gifts that saved my life, the gifts that changed and saved quite a number of my students, ”she said.
“I use art to start the necessary dialogue in this city about what is happening, what can happen and how art can be a catalyst to drive these conversations forward – about change.”
Jusu in her art / photography studio at ArtWorks, where she is working on her latest project, The Potential Project, which “uses storytelling, visual arts, photography and digital media to remember victims of violence in our community”. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
For example, Jusu is currently leading a project, the Potential Project, with a handful of other artists who will tell the stories of victims of violence in the city.
She pulls out her cell phone and shows one thing: It starts with the face of a 16-year-old, Jahday Twisdale, who was murdered in 2016. His face is painted on buildings near places that are important to him. Scanning the painting with your cell phone unlocks a code that plays a video of the teenager telling his story.
Twisdale was one of Jusu’s art students at Both Hands.
“That’s why my artivism exists for projects like this. It’s taking shape now, ”she said.
Fireman and Artivist – “I can be absolutely both. And I see them both as servants. “
So is Iana Dikidjieva, Director of Scholarships and Development at the Trenton Health Team, who has been involved in the city’s art scene for years.
She has worked with Jusu on numerous projects, including working with the I Am Trenton Foundation. Dikidjieva rattles with joy about Jusu’s previous work.
A few years ago she watched in amazement as Jusu’s students from Both Hands debuted their video projects one night in Mill Hill Park. Jusu took many of them, some as young as 15 years old, through films dealing with LGBTQ issues, bullying, pregnancy, trauma and suicide.
“They were absolutely amazing,” she said.
And Jusu has a great eye that she explores through photography. She just has this incredible way of photographing people when her story comes out, said Dikidjieva.
Whatever Jusu comes to mind, fire fighting or art, it will shine, Dikidjieva believes. “We always celebrate her and we wish her luck with everything.”
Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora knew Jusu as an artist, “a woman in town,” he said before joining the department. Little did he know she was a recruit until he saw the swearing he was presiding over.
“I think it’s part of the city’s mosaic,” he said.
He knows the Potential Project and sees her as a double lifesaver.
“I think she is a dynamic person as she can take on a dual role, saving lives through firefighters and also through her fine arts,” said the mayor.
The Trenton Department of Fire & Emergency Services announced the graduation of 11 Fire Training Academy recruits in a ceremony held in the City Hall Council Chambers in January. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
How it started
A native of Hermitage Avenue in west Trenton, Jusu never grew up athletic or dreamed of public service. In middle school, she ran cross country and tried to play basketball.
“I quit the basketball team to become a poet,” she joked. “Skateboards and bikes, that was my thing.”
After college, she launched Both Hands, a mentoring program that used arts to empower young people in underserved communities. Put simply, Jusu wanted to give teenagers an opportunity they didn’t have at their age.
She was good at it, raising $ 1,000 the first year and then $ 10,000. From 2011 to 2018 she taught and reached over 500 students.
In May 2016, while on a trip to Texas to visit her sister, she got off a plane and received a phone call asking about her father’s welfare. Why? asked Jusu. “Your house is on fire.”
Her father was not home and they overcame it and suffered some financial setbacks. But the incident never gave her the idea of becoming a firefighter.
Interestingly, the inspiration came in 2018 from a student, Corey Rowell, who Jusu thought he asked if he should join the department. It was the opposite.
She peeked curiously at the entrance exam application when she stopped by Starbucks in downtown Trenton and an old high school friend, Ray Delgado, stopped by. He was already a firefighter in Trenton.
“Oh Beni,” she remembers, “you would be a great asset to the fire department.”
Delgado remembers it well. He said the conversation went like this, but Jusu left out a dramatic part: It was the last day the application for the test was made.
“The timing was wild,” said Delgado. He is so happy that she passed the test and the academy.
Jusu, left, Fist Bumps College Kenneth Ninaltowski at 7 a.m. at the start of her 24-hour shift at Engine 3 on South Broad Street. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Delgado said he was always ready to help someone, but he sensed something else about Jusu. “I know how she deals with the community, how much she has always loved art – as long as I can remember it has been,” he said.
“I immediately thought she would represent the city well, be a good role model, and have great qualities that I thought young children would see and say, ‘I want to be like her,'” said Delgado.
“She will always be a better part of the community, what better way to make a career there too?” he said.
Jusu was convinced of the idea.
She did well on the exam and was hired at the end of 2019. However, the academy still had to pass.
From that moment on, “I never had a doubt that I could do it,” she said. “I campaigned for it.”
To this day she laughs at how “crazy tough” the fire brigade was. She trained with people fresh from the military and other sports activities. It was intense and the job continues to challenge her, she said.
“I had some great teachers,” she said. And she had fine words for her direct line manager at Engine 3, Capt. Andres Ortiz, whom she called an “amazing leader”.
How it is going
Jusu washes a fire truck at Engine 3 on South Broad Street. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Fighting fires, especially in busy urban departments, isn’t just about flames as it has been for decades, it’s about conducting rescue missions and being dispatched on a range of other rescue operations, from vehicle accidents to work-related accidents.
On one of her first days at work, she helped break a door to a house on an 911 call and found a body. A few days later she saw a man’s arm dangle with a crash. She had to perform CPR on family members of her former art students.
Working in the fire department, says Jusu, although sometimes tragic, “is actually a way of being out in the city and making a difference”.
As she grows as a firefighter, she also sees more roles. She is a minority in the fire service, as a woman and by color.
4% of professional firefighters nationwide are women and 82% are white. In the volunteer fire brigades, the proportion of women rises to 11%.
“I think representation is important,” said Jusu. Women have already written her an inbox and sent her a message like, “Could I do this?”
Her standard answer is, “Um yes, take the test!”
“I get them all the time, and I enjoy it, not in a sensational business, but in access issues,” she explains. “When you see more women in male-dominated careers, that’s powerful.”
She is currently one of six women on the Trenton Fire Department, which she believes makes her “utterly empowered and honored.”
But that’s not a big problem in Trenton, and she was never asked about her gender in the department. Everyone gets the same training.
“I know how to fight fires, I can assert myself, and that’s powerful for me,” she said.
Artivism, firefighting, helping people, serving the city, says Jusu: “That is all part of taking care of your home.”
“Trenton is my home.”
Firefighters Bentrice Jusu and Kevin Jimenez (left) stand during their graduation ceremony in January. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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