Waging Peace in Downtown Newark with Diplomacy-Minded Superheroes

First-year students getting to know animodule dragons before transforming them into digital superheroes.

Rebecca George ventured on foot into downtown Newark for the first time last Friday, stopping briefly at a pop-up museum on Halsey St. before proceeding to Military Park with 39 other freshmen tapped to contribute an unquantifiable, but highly valued resource – their imaginations – on NJIT’s annual First-Year Day of Service.

A volunteer that day for the Barat Foundation, a Newark educational organization focused on the arts, her task was to create an origins story for an eight-foot-tall wooden sculpture known as “The Graduate” that will be reborn as a digital superhero in a computer game and mobile app the group is developing for use by kids everywhere.

The peace symbol-bearing character, arrayed in all-white graduation garb, is one of Barat’s growing tribe of 65 “Animodules”– brightly painted, intricately carved structures designed by Newark children of various ages working alongside local artists. As dragonflies, sea lions, cougars and cowboys that pop up in neighborhoods across the city, the decorative creatures take a non-violent, conflict-resolving approach to justice as compared to their retribution-minded counterparts on the big screen. As such, they have been named “Newark’s Peace Ambassadors” by the Office of the Mayor.

“As I saw it, the people around the animodule helped it become a superhero, which in turn will help them. It works both ways,” said George, a biology major from Hillsborough, who said she loved penning fiction, but described app-writing as entirely new.

“When we read these over the weekend, we were flabbergasted. The students came up with fabulous, very creative ideas both for the animodule stories and the app designs,” noted Chandri Barat, executive director of the foundation, who said she took part in the university’s service day as a way of “harnessing the tremendous intellectual capital Newark’s thousands of college students bring to the city.”

Naira Abou-Ghali, a biology major from Parlin, N.J., said the Graduate animodule, created by students at one of Newark’s alternative high schools for at-risk youth, had given her hope and insight. “What it taught me is that anyone from any background can make something great given the right circumstances. This was inspiring to me, too.”

Abou-Ghali and George (right),  were two of the more than 1,100 first-year students to join a service project that day in schools, food banks, parks and gardens throughout the city, where they weeded, planted, painted, fed the hungry and readied classrooms.  Vivian Lanzot, director of community and public service for NJIT, said the program has grown by leaps and bounds since it was started in 2013 as a way to “prepare our students not only to be professionals, but to be citizens.”

“This was the largest group ever of incoming freshmen to participate. We cancelled the morning pep talk this year, because students told us that they wanted to jump right into projects and spend more time there,” said Lanzot, who noted that NJIT students contributed 52,000 hours of service to the community last year and look on track to smash that record.

Each of the groups of volunteers were led by one to two peer leaders who are upperclassman, most of whom participated in Service Day as freshmen in previous years, said Leo D. Pedraza, assistant director of NJIT’s New Student Orientation program, which organizes the day each year with Career Development Services.

"We organize many icebreakers for the students during New Student Orientation to help them transition into NJIT, but there is no greater team-builder than participating in the Service Day projects with fellow classmates,” Pedraza said.

Elsewhere in the city, Andrew Tetteh (far left), a biomedical engineering student from Sayreville, was weeding garden beds and plucking basil seeds from plants to start a new crop at the Garden of Hope, a community garden that sprouted in an abandoned lot at the intersection of Fairmont and Central Avenues. While Tetteh has worked in urban gardens before – during a summer stint in New Haven at Yale University – he did learn something new. “I’d never seen or heard of mugwort, an herb used in medicines,” he said of the charmingly named, slightly bitter-tasting green.

“I like giving life to something and helping it grow – and being part of something bigger than myself,” he added, while also acknowledging that with his “jam-packed schedule, it’s pretty great to take a break from it all.”

 And at the Barringer Academy of Steam on Parker St., an NJIT crew worked in the front office and prepared classrooms for high school students due to arrive in just a few days. Andrew Skorupski (below, right), a mechanical engineering major from Glen Ridge, was putting English and history textbooks on shelves.

“It was a little weird to be in a school with no students there, but it was really interesting to see all of the set-up that takes place before they arrive,” he said, adding, “Everybody at the school was so appreciative. We were thanked so many times.”

Indeed, Christopher Abbaleo, the vice principal, described the students as “a tremendous help,” especially with one of the elevators out of service as of the day before.

“We would have been here until 8 o’clock,” he said. “With their help with registration, putting together personalized folders for the first day and organizing classrooms, they also allowed us to focus more on in-depth, strategic planning.”

George described her first trip downtown as something of revelation, unleashing the imagination but also offering an unexpected dose of reality.  Knowing little of Newark other than the NJIT campus, she expected it to feel unfamiliar, maybe even scary.

“It was a beautiful day with a breeze blowing and we were free to think. Out in this big park with lots of people all around, I felt like I was in New York City,” she said.

Abou-Ghali said it also revealed a lot about her peers.

“I got to interact with other students I’d never met and get a sense of them – who is expressive, who is analytical,” she recounted. “The day before we heard a presentation by a motivational speaker who talked about diversity, but also diversity in thought, and how everyone has strengths and weaknesses. And if you bring them together in a group, you can accomplish a lot. I feel like I got to begin applying that.”

Tracey Regan