UNION COUNTY, NJ — Corey James, founder of Painting Pictures — a nonprofit organization that helps at-risk teens — recently released his new book, just weeks after National Youth Violence Prevention Week.
Titled after James’ organization, the book — “Painting Pictures: Reframing the World of Inner City Youth” — shares the story of James’ work with at-risk teens, inspired after attending repeated teen funerals in his neighborhood and spending months inside a hospital ward with a young man who had been shot and paralyzed.
The organization, which James started approximately a year ago, connects young men and women in Union and Essex counties with qualified, caring adults in their communities who provide mentorship, life skills training, recreational opportunities, and academic assistance. In addition, Painting Pictures partners with businesses to provide teens jobs with employment opportunities.
James, who serves as program coordinator for Rutgers Future Scholars in Newark, and who once worked in the juvenile justice system, said that he looks for the potential in at-risk youth, many of whom have been given up on by society. “Over the past decade, I’ve had the opportunity to play a meaningful role in the lives of urban youth, both in my various personal connections with them and in the administrative positions I’ve held,” said James.
“My experience advocating for these youth have allowed me to develop a better understanding of their circumstances and of the conditions within their environment that enforce those circumstances. What I have found is that the unwritten rules and expectations of those raised by the streets profoundly limit their perception of themselves and what they can accomplish,” he said.
James maintains that although there are many programs that provide mentorship and life skills for at-risk youth, exposure to environments that offer real possibilities and a new world-view didn’t really exist. “Many youth programs provide great tools for young people, yet many never see these tools utilized, so our preaching to them seems unrealistic,” said James. “Painting Pictures provides mentorship to urban youth, which models behavioral and structural development, but it also creates a tangible awareness for young people. You can only aspire to the level of your awareness and exposure. Therefore, the vision of Painting Pictures is to help allow young people to dream and attain beyond their environmental boundaries.
Unfortunately, many of our youth are in bad predicaments due to the missing ingredient of responsible adults who care enough not to allow generational cycles to continue.”
Mark Spivey, of the Union County prosecutor’s office, said that the county is invested in addressing some of the serious issues that face urban youth. “The largest unit in the Union County Prosecutor’s Office exists to address some of these very issues,” said Spivey, citing gangs, gun violence and drug abuse. “From 2011 through 2015, the Guns, Gangs, Drugs, and Violent Crimes Task Force managed hundreds of investigations. In addition, the task force regularly manages large-scale, long-term investigations targeting gangs operating in Union County.”
James believes that the biggest challenge today’s youth face is growing up in a violent or dysfunctional environment without the nurturing care of a responsible, loving adult. “The biggest challenge is that our young people are surrounded by violence, drugs and family dysfunction — an environment that doesn’t provide nurture and opportunities for a positive future orientation,” said James. “We need people to step up and impact the lives of our young people, to do away with the judging and misconceptions. Many people believe that these young kids don’t want help. My philosophy stems from a quote I once heard — ‘The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving ways.’ It is a misconception that disadvantaged youth won’t gravitate to a more positive lifestyle if it were offered to them,” said James.
James explains that his organization exposes troubled youth to a world driven by optimism, confidence, and new experiences, yet founded in hard work and practical solutions. “We create opportunities for young people to experience the luxury of fine dining, the arts, college campuses, thriving communities, and even international exposure resulting in a reframing of their world,” said James. “Additionally, the vision of Painting Pictures is to expose young people to successful people to further provide real life examples of their possibilities.”
James cites a life-changing incident as one of the reasons he started his organization: “2014 in particular was a difficult year for my mission,” said James. “Young people close to my heart, only days apart, were stabbed, shot and killed. I spent the beginning of that year attending funerals for lives taken from us far too soon and the next seven months in a children’s hospital supporting one of my young people who was a victim of gun violence which paralyzed him. It was a rough time, a time of unbearable grief.”
The young victim James refers to is Khalil Taliaferro, 18, who first met James when Taliaferro ended up in the criminal justice system. Taliaferro said that he was ordered to report to James regularly, a directive that was not easy. “At the very beginning, I didn’t like him,” said Taliaferro. “He was really strict and didn’t let me get away with anything.”
Taliaferro, who was shot in the neck two years ago and paralyzed from the waist down, said that his relationship with James strengthened when James stood by him throughout his ordeal. “Corey was always there for me,” said Taliaferro of James. “We stood together. I don’t even call him a mentor anymore. I call him an older brother.”
James said that there was a time that he thought of giving up his life’s work. “I considered giving up this type of work due to the emotional stress,” James said. “Others also suggested I do something different because they saw the pain I was experiencing. I couldn’t detach myself from this mission, though. Honestly, the tragedies pushed me to do more. It created a greater mission for me to do my absolute best in offering our young people an alternative to incarceration and death,” said James.
James explains that he came up with the name “Painting Pictures” because it is, in fact, the mission of his organization. “So many of our young people have seen negative images and pictures and negative activities that confront them on a daily basis,” said James. “They have replicated what they see — high school dropout, homicide, incarceration, and poverty. It is the philosophy of Painting Pictures that young students in impoverished communities need to be exposed to more than just the negatives that are present in the communities. They need to be aware and embrace alternative images and opportunities that are available to them. They need to have new pictures painted for them through exposure and new opportunities.”
His goal in writing the book, James said, was to expose readers to the trauma that urban youth often experience. “All too often these young people are looked upon as bad without assessing the factors that dictate their actions,” said James. “My goal is to enlighten the reader on the causes that produce the effect. I want readers to gain an understanding that all hope is not lost for these young people. And while it seems irreversible, with the right intervention, significant change can occur in the life of the young person,” he said.
Taliaferro is a perfect example. He now helps mentor other teens and joins James in spreading the message of hope and resilience. Taliaferro recently accompanied James to Jersey City’s St. Peter’s University, where he gave a speech and performed an inspirational rap. “It showed me that even though I’m in a wheelchair, I can still be great and do great things,” said Taliaferro.
Taliaferro, now a senior in high school, plans on attending college next year and hopes to become a biomedical engineer. “I want to help people get up out of these wheelchairs,” said Taliaferro.
For more information on Painting Pictures, visit www.paintingpicturesinc.org.