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Jill Scott Takes Care of Philly.

November 16, 2011

Text by Niesha Miller. Portraits by Gomillion & Leupold.

With a financially imperiled school district and funding for after-school programs being cut, finding a learning sanctuary for a young Philadelphia student can be difficult.

Jill Scott, the Grammy Award-winning artist who has starred in movies and on television shows, knows how difficult it can be.

She grew up here, surrounded by the poverty and drug dealing of North Philadelphia. She went to school in the city, graduating from Girl’s High School, and thrived because of the support that she found along the way.

When she found out that her former sanctuary, the Cecil B. Moore Recreation Center at 22nd and Lehigh, was slated to close, she stepped in.

“It’s where I played safely,” Scott remembers. “It’s where I learned to swim and not drown, where I did my first fashion show and my first talent show.”

She lip-synced “Kiss,” the classic track by Prince while sporting a pink shirt and pink paisley jeans.

“I played the air guitar and I tore the house down,” Scott recalls.

But by the mid-2000s, not long after Scott’s debut album went double platinum, the building needed a new roof. The basketball court and the pool needed to be repaired.

Rather than fix the problems, the city was going to shutter the center.

So Scott donated money, saving the facility from being shut down. She became active again with the place that nurtured her in her youth.

“While I was there I met some kids who were in school but were struggling to do the little things,” she says.

She launched Blues Babe Foundation for them, the young people with brains and talent but not the money to afford the little things. Founded in 2002, Blues Babe aims to provide tools and financial support for students in their pursuit of higher education.

They bring music to schools, run college prep workshops, provide scholarships, do neighborhood cleanups and hold an annual camp for North Philly kids, where they meet musicians and artists and experience positive energy.

“The ‘hood is sincere with some struggles,” Scott says. “I was one of those kids that was able to find fun in the midst of drugs and drug dealers and shootouts and things of that nature. I wanted to be able to supply that for other kids so they can see that there’s more to life than just bad. They have options.”

The foundation is housed across the street from the famous Uptown Theatre, located on Broad Street near Susquehanna, in a renovated three-story brown and white building. Inside, they develop programming to change how young people work and think about their education.

One of their main programs is “Music in the Classroom,” where North Philly elementary school students receive instruction and hands-on experience from talented and knowledgeable musicians.

“It came out of the fact that in Philadelphia, a number of music programs that had been in the schools for years are now being taken out,” explains Aisha Winfield, executive director of Blues Babe. “It was a way for us to bring back some of the music but also let students know how it corresponds with what they’re learning in other subjects like science, math and world culture.”

Thomas Pierce Elementary, Scott’s former school, was the first school involved. One workshop featured master percussionist Leonard “Doc” Gibbs, who brought in 10 instruments for the kids to experiment with.

The program’s partner is Bridging a Sound Future, an organization run by drummer Detrick Lowman, a University City High School grad who tours with Scott. With his help, music companies donate instruments and equipment to schools.

“The goal is for it to be at a number of elementary schools in North Philadelphia,” Winfield says.

For one week every summer, more than 60 children escape Philly’s cracked pavements and dangerous streets, thanks to Jill Scott.

Blues Babe Foundation hosts Camp Jill Scott, a summer camp for boys and girls, ages 9-14, at Cherokee Day Camp in Bensalem. Through self-expression, team building and conflict resolution, they work to acquire skills to become strong leaders.

“The goals and expectations are to develop a stronger sense of critical thinking,” explains Sakina Ibrahim, the camp coordinator. “It’s about letting them know there are options outside of where they live.”

Here, students get lessons in health and fitness, nutrition and well-being, financial literacy and hip-hop literacy. They swim and rock climb, and they’ve met with artists like Rah Crawford and Carol Riddick. But the most popular day of the camp is when Jill Scott arrives and participates in activities with the kids.

“I met her!” states Quadire Davis, 13. “We wrote her a song and she liked it. She gave us gifts and CDs.”

“I’m amazed they can put together such an amazing show in a week,” Scott says. “They are so animated and so well put together and so creative and so appreciative. My goodness. It makes me feel great. I just feel great. All I can say again and again is, ‘Wow.’ It just reaffirms why we’re doing this, why the camp is important.”

She blends in so well – sporting jean shorts and a black T-shirt – many of the campers barely notice she’s there.

“Last year was my first year, so the kids knew Jill before I did,” Ibrahim says with a laugh. “I don’t even think I knew that she was in the room. They were doing some visual arts and I didn’t realize that she was in the room with the kids.”

College workshops teach students about pursuing a college education, and leaders talk about what students need to do once they are in college.

“A lot of times, students don’t have family members that have gone to college or they don’t have the proper foundation to get there,” explains Winfield. “They don’t know how to get help. When we started our scholarship program, we had students who withdrew from college. We had a lot of students that just weren’t ready to be away from home.”

The college workshops and scholarship program were created with the understanding that not every person has the finances and information to attend and complete college.

“Sometimes when you go to college, you can get a scholarship or you can get financial aid that will help you pay for the tuition,” says Scott. “But you still have to get to school and you still have to buy books and you still have to eat.”

Scott worked at a City Blues clothing store and an ice cream parlor to make ends meet while studying education at Temple University. She wanted to be a teacher. But she quit college during her junior year because she did not have the financial means to finish.

“I just didn’t have it in me to study and work two jobs that way,” Scott recalls. “I was thinking there’s gotta be something else because I’m miserable. Something just peeved me off because I’m getting financial aid, I’m getting loans, I’m working this hard to owe you money?”

She auditioned for a part in the musical Rent, and launched her career. Last summer, she released her fourth studio album, The Light of the Sun. The album features the hit “Shame,” with fellow Philly native Eve.

Many people think because Scott is in movies, on TV shows and she’s won three Grammys, creating and running a foundation for inner-city kids is easy. Fundraisers and grants are what keep the camp and other Blues Babe programs free or at low cost for local students. Good help is also hard to find.

“Finding some folks who really cared about what I cared about was a challenge,” says Scott. “I finally found Aisha Winfield and she has been a huge blessing to the foundation because she actually cares. She’s very thorough and she makes things happen for the kids.”

In the next few years, Scott and Winfield hope to expand Blues Babe Foundation programming so that more students have an opportunity to participate. Scott wants more children to appreciate that they have options, and that education is their ticket to success.

She feels like this is something she has to do.

“It’s a part of what you’re supposed to do regardless of who you are,” says Scott. “We walk away from our ‘hoods or our ghettos or whatever and we say we made it out. Yeah, you’re one of the lucky ones, one of the blessed ones. So you have to go back and bless somebody else. Give them an opportunity.”

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