Educator, activist and entrepreneur Jamila T. Davis, Ph.D. was named Community Practitioner in Residence by the Center for Community Research and Engagement at Seton Hall University.
Commonly referred to as "CCRE," the Center for Community Research and Engagement has been marshalling the University's resources to "develop creative solutions to community problems" for nearly 25 years. One of its founding directors, Professor Roseanne Mirabella, first started the work as a Seton Hall undergraduate student in the early 1970s, completing an internship with Unified Vailsburg Services Organization under the direction of Dr. Emma Quartaro – an internship that sprung, along with many other community service initiatives at the University, from then-President Monsignor Fahy's call for service and "relevance" from members of the Seton Hall community.
All Seton Hall undergraduate students are required to contribute 10 hours of community service, though many chose more; a great portion of that service, as well as additional student and faculty service work, is coordinated through CCRE working with community partners in the neighboring cities of Newark, Irvington, East Orange, West Orange, Orange, South Orange and Maplewood.
"CCRE was founded on Seton Hall's recognition of our responsibility to our neighboring communities and its obligation to prepare its students for leadership positions within the community," said Mirabella, who formerly served as Special Assistant to the Commissioner of New York State Social Services before coming back to Seton Hall to teach in the Department of Political Science and Public Affairs in 1995. "We are deeply honored to welcome Dr. Davis to the Center for Community Research and Engagement and believe her stature, her experience and her commitment to racial healing and social justice will reap untold dividends for our surrounding communities as well as our students."
Social Work Professor Juan Rios along with Practioner in Residence Jamila T. Davis and Angelo Pinto, Esq. teaching Introduction to Social Work
"I'm truly honored and extremely proud to be a part of the Center for Community Research and Engagement," said Davis. "And I look forward to practicing the scholarship of engagement that I know, from experience, has the power to make real changes in lives, learning and circumstances."
Currently working with Principal Investigator Ijeoma Opara of the Yale School of Public Health on "The Dreamer Girls Project," a prevention intervention study for young Black girls in Paterson, New Jersey funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, Davis uses her real-life experience and story of redemption to create a platform to connect with and empower others.
Among other community-based initiatives, at Seton Hall Davis will be spearheading a Social Justice certificate program along with Until Freedom's Angelo Pinto, Esq.; Seton Hall Professors Juan Rios and Kelly Harris; Professor Bahiyyah Muhammed of Howard University; LaKeesha Eure, director of the Office of Violence Prevention and Trauma Recovery in Newark, New Jersey and the South Orange Community Care & Justice program.
The Social Justice certificate program will run for eight weeks and will bring members of the surrounding communities together with police officers and credible messengers from these communities to learn from each other and a curriculum that historicizes the context of the Black and urban experience in America. The certificate program, which is later expected to be offered to Seton Hall students as a credit-bearing course, will also seek to empower its participants as stakeholders and changemakers in search of social justice and equity.
"We as a society must tear down the gates of racial oppression," said Mirabella. "They have laid to waste generation upon generation of talent, spirit and the literal lives of Black and Brown people in America. We have no intellectual capital to waste in this country. And if we don't stop acting as though we do, I fear for the reprisal of the voiceless and the souls of those who could have and should have done more. This Social Justice certificate program is just a start – there is real work to be done and at Seton Hall we have the power, the will and the means to do it. I thank Jamila T. Davis in joining with us and using her deeply lived experience to help us take this next step."
Dean Georita M. Frierson of the College of Arts and Sciences added, "As a clinical health psychologist, I can tell you the research on these topics is quite strong. Whether we're talking about the effect of race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status on any number of chronic illnesses, health disparities and the psychological distress that accompanies systemic biases takes its toll on the lives and bodies of Black men and women in America. I had the pleasure of watching Dr. Davis give a guest lecture for an Intro to Social Work class. As she spoke, I watched the class in rapt attention as she told her story. They were moved, and I got the sense that they had received a perspective, in human terms, that they might not have otherwise received. That's an important thing in education – and who knows, maybe the beginning of a bridge was built."
Jamila T. Davis, Back Story
A self-made multi-millionaire at the age of 25, Davis purchased, rehabbed and sold distressed properties in the exclusive and, at the time, overwhelmingly white enclave of Alpine, New Jersey. Her clients included celebrities, rappers and a number of NBA and NFL players.
Sentenced to 12 ½ years in prison for mortgage and bank fraud in the era of "no doc" and "low doc" loans, Davis was "made an example of." A federal judge pointedly asking her at sentencing: "Why didn't you stay in your own neighborhoods?"
Admittedly cutting corners, Davis saw the fruits of her labor vanish, and was left behind bars to live with the lessons of her rapid rise to riches – and even quicker fall to ruin.
"It was beyond hard," said Davis. "When I was rolling in money, I had more friends than I could begin to count. When I was incarcerated all I really had was my family – and Sister Tesa Fitzgerald of Hour Children, a program designed by this Catholic nun to keep incarcerated women and their children together. I believed in her and what she was doing so when I had money I donated a fairly large chunk of it to her and her program. I gave money to a lot of people and organizations when I had it, but when I was down it was pretty much just her who was still there." She continued, "She never gave up on me and encouraged me to push through – and to do something positive with my pain and my loss. I did. And in many ways, everything I do these days is just trying to be for others what Sister Tesa was for me. And now," she added, "Being able to do that with one of the country's great Catholic universities? It's nothing short of a dream come true and a testament to the power of love, faith and God almighty."
While in prison, with the help of Sister Tesa, Davis embarked on an intense journey of inner healing and restoration. Fortunately, she took notes. And from her discoveries and self-realizations, she developed a self-help curriculum designed to enable incarcerated women to heal, recognize their potential and "recapture their dreams." That curriculum was adapted by a number of prison systems throughout the United States.
Her book, Built to Outlast the Storm, also rose from that experience and has itself become the basis for a number of healing, trauma recovery and social and emotional learning platforms. These transformational workshops include the Shani Baraka Women's Resource Center, an initiative of Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and the Office of Violence Prevention and Trauma Recovery; and through her VIP Online Academy, as part of the East Orange, New Jersey Stand Strong Against COVID program, its Summer Work Experience Program and the East Orange School District's summer and after school enrichment program for high school students.
The VIP Online Academy uses an "earn-to-learn" model where students are paid for their participation upon successful completion of the program. Using credible messengers, celebrities and accomplished professionals, the VIP Online Academy teaches social, emotional, vocational and entrepreneurial specific learning as well as social justice and civic engagement. In East Orange, with the help of Seton Hall the program recently wrapped up its second successful year, having introduced "Mental Health Peer Coaching" as a means of empowering students to help their classmates with the rigors of adjusting to a return to classes amidst the pandemic.
In addition to stressing job-related and entrepreneurial skills, the program also included regular lessons on civic engagement and social justice. In the first year, the students took those lessons and incorporated them in organizing a student-led peaceful protest demanding justice and the release of unedited video in the case of Maurice Gordon, an unarmed black man who was killed by a New Jersey State Police officer on the Garden State Parkway. The protest was featured in media outlets throughout the United States including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Houston Chronicle, NJ.com and the San Francisco Chronicle, and internationally in Yahoo UK, the Taiwan News and Nigeria Trending.
"There is a world of difference between someone who believes that they have a voice in this society and someone who does not," said Davis. "And that difference – along with education – is everything."
While incarcerated, Ms. Davis received an Associate Degree in Psychology, a Bachelor's degree in Christian Education, and a Master's degree in African American Ministry. Since her release she has earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy with a specialization in Christian Life Coaching from the Newburgh Theological Seminary & College of the Bible.
Davis has been Featured on the hit shows "Love and Hip Hop" and VH1's "My True Crime Story," the CBS series "Pink Collar," BET's "Sister Circle," Black Enterprise, "The Breakfast Club" with Charlamagne tha God, as well as The New York Times, USA Today, Forbes, and a myriad other print, digital and broadcast media.
Her tenure as Community Practitioner in Residence began on September 13, 2021.