By Maryanne Christiano-Mistretta
|The African American community in Trenton has some heavy-duty celebrating on Juneteenth, a holiday that commemorates the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States. Credit for Trenton’s Juneteenth Weekend in Mill Hill Park on June 18th, 19th, and 20th, is due in part to an incredible lady who got the ball rolling 10 years ago. That is when Latarsha Burke made the decision to devote her time to work with youth and family.|
Burke is the CEO/Executive Director of The African American Cultural Collaborative of Mercer County, which improves the quality of life for the African American community through arts, education, and culture. TAACC provides opportunities for diverse families to come together in a positive, safe, environment to build communities through collaboration across cultures.
|Because Burke’s mother couldn’t afford to send her to camp, she became passionate about exposure for young people—to have the opportunities she didn’t. Born in Newark, Burke moved with her mom, dad, and siblings, to North Carolina, where her parents were originally from. However, due to being a victim of domestic violence, Burke’s mother moved the children from North Carolina to Jersey City. Burke was still in elementary school—a straight A student, but shy and withdrawn. However, she embraced athletics and the activities that took place on her block but her mom pushed her to focus on going to college. “It was all about academics,” Burke said. “She was a militant person when it came to our grades. I look up to my mother. I’ve never seen my mother not work. She’s always been a provider, always made sure we were fed. I had a good role model for a woman who made her way out of nothing. That’s where the strength comes from in me.”|
Burke went to Trenton State College on scholarship. During her senior year, she met her husband and they’ve been together ever since.
Passionate about young people, Burke seeks to expose them to better opportunities, to encourage them, and let them know the world is theirs.
“Whatever they want to do is possible,” she expressed. “The word ‘no’ is not an option.”
In 2011 she became employed by Trenton African American Pride. She worked two days per week with youth and families within the city of Trenton. “They weren’t leaving four blocks of their area,” Burke revealed. “They didn’t have the type of exposure the affluent or middle class would have. I wanted to bring art and culture to them. Anyone who attended Trenton African Pride—a full day of art, culture, African dance and drumming, and activities for the entire family—would leave knowing something about their culture, fueling pride and who they are.”
The first event, with one main stage, attracted 5,000 people. The next year, it grew to 8,000 and by 2013, there were three stages and it continued to grow. That year, the founder of the Pride festival, L.A. Parker resigned.
“His job was to plant a seed,” Burke explained. “He felt he planted a seed and wanted to move on. I didn’t want an amazing event to end. He said, ‘Latarsha, I’m going to nominate you to be the executive.’ I had no experience fundraising to support an event of this magnitude.”
|With no knowledge of fundraising or negotiating entertainers, Burke had her mind made up—she was going to do what had to be done. In 2014 she changed the name of the festival to Trenton African American Cultural Festival. “It was a business. Checks had to be written. I needed this to be my baby,” she expressed.|
And what a baby it was! By 2015, they had up to 15,000 attendees. Burke and her executive board added a youth sports expo that featured golf, tennis, Lacrosse, baseball, and basketball. “A day of healthy activities, not only youth, but for their parents,” she voiced. Attendees of the event were also able to go into the Trenton City Museum/Ellarslie Museum to view Black art and Burke ended up serving on the board of the Ellarslie Museum.
“The festival grew and grew to a point where it become overwhelming,” Burke said. So, after the 2015 event, she took a step back. She added, “It was a business and we needed to make sure the organization was sustainable.”
|In 2016, TAACF pursued its nonprofit status. “Based on the type of work we were doing, it would benefit to be a nonprofit,” Burke conveyed and on June 19, 2017, they officially became a nonprofit.|
The following year, the name was changed to The African American Cultural Collaborative of Mercer County, to offer what they do to both Trenton and Mercer County. The event was moved to downtown Trenton.
“We wanted to energize the life of what was going on downtown,” Burke conveyed. “It was like a ghost town.”
First Fridays on Front Street were soon made possible, thanks in part to Maurice Hallett from 1911 Smokehouse BBQ. “He was in full support,” said Burke. The street was blocked off so people could eat, drink, and listen to live entertainment. There were also DJs, vendors, and children’s activities. It all went on up until the pandemic reared its ugly head in 2020.
Also, prior to Covid, The African American Cultural Collaborative of Mercer County organized a poetry café series, as well as a spin-off called Story and Verse, which was in partnership with The Arts Council of Princeton. It was originally indoors and went virtual during the pandemic. Now it’s held in the Princeton Pettoranello Gardens amphitheater, Princeton.
“Those are just some of our main events, our mission and aim is to educate,” voiced Burke. “We also hold an African American History Bowl, which is a Jeopardy competition based on African American history. We had our first visual art competition, ‘Black to the Future’. We had youth submit their vision for tomorrow. We’ve also had a video competition for African American youth, ‘You Are the Dream of Your Ancestors’. We’ve partnered with multiple organizations throughout the county. I have an amazing team of people I work with. A lot have been part of the planning. All volunteers. No one gets paid.”
In addition to Latarsha Burke as CEO/Executive Director, the Executive Board is made up of: Shirl Thomas, Executive Assistant; Helen Jones Walker, Public Relations Chair; Regina M. Jackson, Volunteer Chair; Patrick Hall, Outreach Coordinator; Aziz Bey, Logistics Coordinator; Sheila Garvin-Glover, Treasurer; Lenienne Robinson, Events Chair; and Todd Evan, Poetry Café Series.
The African American Cultural Collaborative of Mercer County has been a nonprofit for the past four years. “It’s been an experience, learning the nonprofit world,” said Burke. “But we’re here”.
At this year’s Juneteenth event, you can be assured safety is a priority. Burke expressed, “With implementing Covid-19 protocols, we have an amazing team of consultants from the State of N.J. Mercer County Parks Commission, City of Trenton, Trenton Fire Department, and Trenton Emergency medical services. Covid-19 has been intertwined with logistics planning. There are agencies committed to the donation of PPE and sanitization supplies. All marketing materials state, ‘masks are mandatory’ and ‘this is a social distancing event.’”
Burke’s future goals include collaborating to have an impact throughout Mercer County. She expressed, “In 2019 I attempted to do a parade that didn’t happen. It’s been on my agenda to bring the African American community and the Latino community together, to bring together people of color. My goal is to make sure that it does. I hope that in 2022, in addition to Juneteenth Weekend, we’ll have a parade to go with it.”