Tawanda Green Jones is one of TODAY’s Women of the Year, a recognition of women across the country who have made a significant impact. The annual program is a continuation Women of the Century, a 2020 project dedicated to the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. Meet this year’s winners womenoftheyear.usatoday.com.
Tavanda Green Jones has four children.
But she has hundreds of children.
So she calls boys and girls – many of them now adults and parents themselves – who for the past 30 years was part of Camden Sophisticated SistersDistinguished Brothers of CSS for Boys and Almighty Percussion Sound Drumline.
In Camden, one of New Jersey’s poorest cities – nearly a third of its population is under 18 and 36 percent of the population lives in poverty – Green Jones has given thousands of Camden’s children a safe, fun and educational way out. His program, based on the performing arts, fosters discipline, teamwork and dedication, and requires its members to average C and 200 hours of community service per year.
CSS was shown at the Cherry Hill Courier-Post, part of the USA TODAY network; in Essence and People magazines; on NBC News, The Steve Harvey Show, CNN and Good Morning America. In 2013, the troupe performed at the “Dancing with the Stars».
She also runs True Blue, a company that helps the homeless with clothing, food and connectivity to social services. And she runs the Masked Melanin Market, a weekly showcase of small business owned by blacks.
Green Jones, who is 49 years old and is known throughout her hometown of Camden as “Wawa”, is a laureate of the “Woman of the Year” award in New Jersey.
We recently spoke with her at Michael J.’s fieldhouse. Doyle in the Waterfront South neighborhood of Camden. She is preparing to resume personal dancing and drumming sessions after a long break in the pandemic to protect the children she calls her “precious cargo”.
After her own skirmish with COVID – the one that nearly led to a ventilator she feared would “never come back” – Green Jones decided to keep CSS.
“I just wanted to be smart,” she said. “Even though the whole world was opening up, I just felt like everything was moving too fast, and it was God’s way of saying, ‘I don’t care who you are, everyone slow down, and let’s just regroup.’ “
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
They are amazing. Electrifying. Any adjective you can think of. These children. If you know their individual stories, you want to follow them even more. And if they trust you, it’s even harder.
It started as a step team and then evolved into a variation of different dance styles. Bringing them into the organization, children love to dance, love the sound of music. It was interesting for them to entice them. If you have them, it’s important to nurture them, make every experience an educational experience and just have this recipe for love.
Here’s what’s important. You don’t know what the situation is in their home. This is no ordinary dance studio. It’s more like a family. I have been told many times, “Miss Wawa, you are just too inquisitive.” But it’s my job to watch how they are outside the organization because that’s how they will grow and develop here, and how they will grow and develop when they get out of here.
It’s nice to see kids who haven’t gone beyond Camden visit places like Hollywood. It is monumental. It’s thrilling when you see their faces, you’ll learn they’re on a plane for the first time. … You are a mother, a counselor, a doctor. You are constantly reminded of how you inspire people, but in fact the opposite is true – they inspire me and I learn a lot more about myself by working with different children from all over.
I’ve been doing health checks with the kids, whether it’s a phone call or a call to Zoom, and for some sick babies I’ve been doing small COVID care packages with natural herbs, things like that. You have some parents just going through hard times, whether it’s finances or, Lord, let’s not even mention virtual learning, ugh! So it was important to stay in touch with these babies and let them know that there is another way out, and sometimes just give mom and dad a break from what they are going through.
My grandfather taught me to love people really much, even those who don’t want to be loved. (My grandfather) said, “You know when you do God’s work because you will upset a lot of people. He also told me not to be afraid to go beyond the norm or the traditional way of doing things. You’ll find out later.
My grandmother taught me self-control. I used to have these little tantrums, and she made me write 5,000 times over the summer, “I need to have self-control.” So when I’m going through some tough times, I have to sit down and count to 10 behind, but what they’ve been saying is constantly ringing in my ears.
My mother was there, but my mother gave birth to me at a young age, and my grandmother was firmly firmly firmly firmly determined: “You will not let this child on the street do something; we will keep her at home and take care of her. ”
When the kids from Camden went to “Dancing with the Stars,” it was great. Another moment of pride is taking the kids to college. Sometimes parents let me leave them freshman or those babies who have a career, doctors or anything else, they still want to go back and continue that olive branch to another young man. I feel like we did something right, you planted that seed of love for each other, creating that bond, that sisterhood, that brotherhood, and they haven’t forgotten that.
It’s the courage to just wake up and get out of the house and start your day (laughs). It’s courage to just maintain momentum and keep going. How do you keep going? You must have a prayer life. I hate to sound repetitive, but if He is not there before my life, then I am nothing without Him. He is my courage.
Whatever you do in life, you have to look for a teacher. And I’ve had a few over the years and I’ve never stopped contacting them because I don’t know anything. I don’t think any of us do; I even learn from children.
Make sure your cup is full to give to others. Don’t try to give to others if you have an empty cup. It is very important for me to replenish.
Oh yes. Simple: pay attention. Learn more. Be obedient. Learn to have patience. Full speed ahead? I’d rather get to the prize at a slower pace than not reach the goal at all.
You can’t tell me I didn’t give birth to all these kids (laughs). Also, to wear it as a token of honor when I am called “Ma-Wa” or “Wawa”, I will do nothing for these children.
Phaedra Tretan has been a reporter and editor in South Jersey since 2007 and has covered Camden and surrounding areas since 2015, focusing on quality of life and social justice issues for the Courier-Post, Burlington County Times and The Daily Journal. Since 1971, it has been called home to South Jersey. Contact her for reviews, news tips or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @By_Phaedra or by phone 856.486-2417. Help support local journalism with digital subscriptions.