Photo by Gerri Fernandez

Annie B. Jones Civic Arts Center (ABJ) has made the most of its changes in recent years. Founded in 1993 by Dr. Vivian R. Jones, ABJ is a youth-focused organization that provides community arts and leadership training programs for people between the ages of fourteen and thirty-five. The organization, a branch of Annie B. Jones Community Services, Inc., was located in South Shore for twenty-two years until it moved in August of 2021 to Douglas. ABJ has been headed by Pastor Victoria Carol Brady since her mother, Dr. Jones, retired in 2013.

Known by many titles, such as Pastor Brady, Big Mama, or simply Pastor V, Brady is a self-described “work mutt,” a motivating characteristic reflected in her notable achievements and continued success leading the organization handed down by her mother. 

We caught up with Brady to discuss the rise of ABJ, its continued transformation, and plans for the future. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What does your organization do and who is it for? 

ABJ, as in ABJ Civic Arts Center, stands for Annie Bell Jones. Annie Bell Jones was my grandmother. We use civic arts to help develop youths into stronger citizens and/or leaders, whether as artists or non-artists. We want young people at their best, and we want to help them get to that best. Our programs center around inner healing, peace building, leadership development, and what it means to have true grit. A lot of our work is born out of my desire to meet them on that last stop before they become adults. 

How did ABJ’s journey begin? 

Annie B. Jones Community Services Inc. was the vision of my mother, Dr. Vivian Rose Jones. I think the journey stems from my mother’s experience of being a teen mother, pregnant with me at the age of fifteen. [Eventually] she worked in the child welfare system, and I remember my mom being very frustrated, at times, about the policies and stipulations that were in place. She began to talk about this whole notion of a one-stop shop, so to speak, where the physical, social, and emotional needs of youths and adults could be met. That was the original mission statement. At that time, [the Department of Children and Family Services] had a mentoring program where they were bringing in small and/or new nonprofit organizations to contract with them. ABJ was brought in through the mentoring program. The operation began, and I was there the day it started. 

Is the work you do a challenge at times, especially in today’s current climate?

It’s hard work, but it is absolutely worthwhile because that’s my anointing. We do things that other people would not dare do. When I say hard work, I see it as hard work now because so much has changed, and a lot of my work centers around unity and unifying our people. That is very, very difficult but not impossible. 

Have you been involved with ABJ since it first started? 

When ABJ opened, I was working with youths for the Chicago Park District. I was barely out of college myself. I couldn’t wait for her to get [ABJ] open. I kept asking, “Is it ready? Is it open?” I didn’t even really know what it was, but eventually she did get it open and running. We started first with foster care programming and got a chance to do a lot of great work. We had over a thousand families. You can just imagine the workload. We just grew in leaps and bounds almost overnight. 

You mentioned that when ABJ first started, it was heavily focused on social service initiatives such as foster care. From ABJ’s early beginnings until now, has that focus changed at all? If so, why? 

The spirit and heart of ABJ is absolutely the same. We still want a stronger, healthier community, but my mother retired in 2013. She was more of a social service provider. I am a singer, actress, and artist. So, I was like, I can’t keep doing these programs. This doesn’t work too well for me. But even then, we were doing arts and culture; arts and culture was always a part of the menu of services that we provided. When I took on the responsibility of ABJ, I did begin to close down those [social service] programs. The first one was foster care. 

What about the original vision has remained the same? 

The desire to reach people in a deep place, the deep part of themselves, the root and essence of who they are, and then help bring out the best of that. We still do that work! 

What age range are most of your youth and young adult programs geared toward? 

We primarily service youths (and young adults) between the ages of fourteen to twenty-four years old. Our ABJ Millennial Tribe tends to be twenty-five to thirty years old, but the tribe members are like alumni of ABJ. They help raise funds, mentor, and provide leadership, almost like an advisory board. 

In your opinion, why is the work that you do at ABJ important for our young people today? 

Unfortunately, many schools are not really equipping our young people for the real world. There’s no real smooth bridge from high school to either college, post-secondary school, or a career. Or, even a family-owned mega business. We don’t typically have that. 

Does ABJ offer specific programs or training to help youths bridge that gap between high school and beyond? 

Yes. We have the ABJ Civic Arts Circle Training, which is basically a culmination of all of my work over the years and the work of our team. You can really consider it as a rite of passage program. It’s that last stop before you’re supposed to be at the age where you have figured out some things.

We received a [Healing Illinois] grant from the Chicago Community Trust [and the Illinois Department of Human Services] under the Changemakers Network; our Circle Training is what I wrote to do the grant on. We were funded, and from that we did our first cohort. 

What were some of the outcomes of earning the [Healing Illinois] grant and starting the Circle Training program? What are you most proud of? 

I’m so happy to say that we have a young lady who started a business, one who went through a highly specialized entrepreneurial program, graduated, and got certification. Another very bright young lady is a chef, and we were her first client. She cooked the food for the eighteen-week training and was able to scale up her business. I also love that the participants have to come up with their own community service projects, such as the Zoom-A-Thon that raised funds for an eight-year-old girl who contracted COVID last year and as a result needed a kidney transplant. 

How can a young person join ABJ? Is the application process pretty tough?

In partnership with After School Matters, we’re provided with a database of names of young people who have applied for our program, and they go through an interview process. It’s not likely that I’ll turn anyone away. The biggest thing is to complete the application and follow up on the interview. 

What about older adults? What programs do you offer that are geared toward them?

We’re really big on intergenerational programming. It’s an absolute must for ABJ. The youth are the primary focus, at all times, but we have multiple projects, such as plays, that are intergenerational. We have a very nice program now called ABJ Blocks of Beauty where teenagers interview block club leaders, they learn what block clubs are and all of the positive things happening on the block. Then, the young people take those interviews and turn them into works of art such as drawings, poems, or songs. 

Speaking of intergenerational, can we talk about the Big Mama Movement? You’ve been referred to as one yourself. Tell us more. 

Big Mama Movement Chicago was born out of the work that a group of us was doing to follow up on things like reparations, self-determination, gun violence, and a whole slew of things that could truly bring change to our community. A group of us had gone to a press conference in July of 2021, and although it looked like we had made some traction, it wasn’t working. Cecile Johnson (a Big Mama) and I were standing outside of City Hall saying that we need to do something different. I believe she said, “We’re gonna have to get Big Mama.” From that conversation the notion came that we would start the Big Mama Movement. We wanted something that would hold us to the task and give us that grit! You know everything is gonna be all right when Big Mama’s on the scene, and we wanted to use our voice to unite the Black family. Our role is to be that authoritative voice that gives you comfort, and if anybody can help reunite us as a people, if anyone on this planet can do it, it’s Big Mama.

As the founder of ABJ, how did your mother feel about you changing the name? Is she still involved with the organization? 

I got my mom’s blessing on that. She’s totally on board with everything we’re doing. She’s still the president emeritus and probably one of my biggest fans. She loves what we’re doing and continues to give me advice from time to time. She is truly a champion of ABJ: all that it is and all that it has ever been. 

After twenty-two years, was it difficult moving to a new location? 

It was very traumatic especially in the midst of even going through COVID. It was probably one of my biggest challenges without my mother, but I am so happy where we are. 

Where is ABJ’s new home, and how do you feel about it now? 

We were blessed to be able to move to Trinity Episcopal Church on 125 East 26th Street, right across the street from Mercy Hospital. We are where we’re supposed to be for now. 

How can someone learn more about ABJ and its vast offerings? 

They can reach out to us through our website, www.abjchicago.org. There’s a “Contact Us” page, and I’m crazy enough to take people’s phone calls. On the website, we have the Big Mama page, and they can [also] contact us through that. 

What’s next for ABJ? 

We have quite a bit coming up over the next six months, and everything will be on our website. Next month, we’re kicking it off. We’re launching everything in February. We’re offering a free dance class for youths in the community, Zumba on Tuesdays and Thursdays online, and a hip-hop opera. We have a play coming up, and the Civic Arts Circle is restarting mid-February. We left our old location under Exodus, and we’re launching our new programming under Genesis. I’m just so excited.

For more information about Annie B. Jones (ABJ) Civic Arts Center, visit abjchicago.org or call (773) 209-4586.

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Dierdre Robinson is a writer and accounting manager in Chicago. She has a BA in Journalism from Michigan State University. This is Robinson’s first piece for the Weekly.

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