Editor’s note: This piece is part of Communities of New Jersey, a new series meant to highlight, showcase and cover communities underserved by large media organizations like NJ.com.
Firefighting is a dangerous profession.
But, Bentrice Jusu says it’s one of the safest things she’s ever done.
The Trenton Fire Department rookie understands the irony, but she’s not talking about entering burning buildings. She’s talking about the steady paycheck of, as she puts it, a pension job.
“Art, to me, is more risky than firefighting,” she said recently at Engine Co. 3, where she’s been assigned since January.
Art is fickle. It’s dependent, in many ways, on fitting creativity into a world of always trying to land the next job, or grant, that will pay the bills or fund the next project, she says.
The 30-year-old lived that life for over a decade. She’s well known in the capital city as a poet, photographer, painter and activist artist, or she prefers, “artivism.” She’s performed at the Art All Night festival, and created an art mentoring program for teens, called Both Hands.
“Firefighting,” she says, “makes my life a little easier.”
Trenton firefighter and “artivist” (activist/artist) Bentrice Jusu checks in at 7am at the beginning of a 24-hour shift at Engine 3 on South Broad Street. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Jusu, left, cleans a firetruck with colleague Heather Angelini, right, at Engine 3 on South Broad Street. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Jusu, in many ways, is not your typical firefighter.
She had an atypical journey to the entrance exam of a profession that is demographically dominated by males. And she plans to continue her artivism while working for her hometown.
Public service, she believes, is another form of activism.
Firefighting and art, not words you hear together a lot, can and will coexist, Jusu says.
First, Jusu wants to be clear. Despite the stability of a career, firefighting is not just a job – or a paycheck. She has been on the job under a year and is a quick devotee to the profession.
“Firefighting is a service I am honored to do; it is something to me that I was actually called to do, and chosen to do – I would say that too,” she said.
The training is unlike anything she’s experienced, and it never ends. She is awed by the senior members of her company.
“I can confidently say I wish I’d joined earlier.”
With that said, she was concerned a bit that some might see her new municipal career as diminishing her artivism.
But, Jusu believes they will strengthen each other.
“Art is something I am choosing to do. I am choosing the gifts that I love, the gifts that saved my life, the gifts that changed and saved a whole bunch of my students,” she said.
“I am using art to start the necessary dialogue in this town about what happens, and what can happen, and how art can be a catalyst to drive those conversations – about change.”
Jusu in her art/photography studio in ArtWorks where she is set up working on her latest project “The Potential Project” which “uses storytelling, visual art, photography and digital media to remember those lost to violence in our community.” Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
For example, Jusu is currently the lead on a project, the Potential Project, with a handful of other artists that will tell the stories of those lost to violence in the city.
She pulls out her phone and shows one: it starts with the face of a 16-year-old murdered in 2016, Jahday Twisdale. His face will be painted at the spot where he was killed. If one scans the painting with their phone, it unlocks a code that plays a video of the teen, which tells their story.
Twisdale was one of Jusu’s art students at Both Hands.
“This is why my artivism exists, for projects like this. It’s taking shape now,” she said.
Firefighter and artivist – “I can absolutely be both. And I see them both as serving.”
So does Iana Dikidjieva, the director of grants and development at the Trenton Health Team, and who’s been involved in the city’s art community for years.
She’s worked with Jusu on numerous projects, including on work with the I Am Trenton foundation. Dikidjieva rattles off Jusu’s past work with delight.
A few years ago, she watched in amazement as Jusu’s students at Both Hands debuted their video projects one night in Mill Hill Park. Jusu guided many of them, some just 15 years old, on films that explored LGBTQ issues, bullying, pregnancy, trauma and suicide.
“They were absolutely amazing,” she said.
And Jusu has a great eye, which she explores through photography. She just has this incredible way of photographing people that their story comes out, Dikidjieva said.
Whatever Jusu puts her mind to, firefighting or art, it will shine, Dikidjieva believes. “We’re always celebrating her, and we wish her luck in everything.”
Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora knew Jusu as an artist, “a woman about town,” he said, before she joined the department. He had no idea she was a recruit until he saw at the swearing in over which he presided.
“I think she’s part of the mosaic of the city,” he said.
He’s familiar with the Potential Project, and sees her as a double lifesaver.
“I think she is a dynamic individual in that she can have dual roles, saving lives through firefighting and also through her visual arts,” the mayor said.
The Trenton Department of Fire & Emergency Services in January announced the graduation of 11 recruits from the Fire Training Academy in a ceremony held in the City Hall Council Chambers. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
How it Started
Jusu, a native of Hermitage Avenue in Trenton’s west side, was not athletic growing up, nor ever dreamed of public service. She ran some cross country in middle school, and tried playing basketball.
“I quit the basketball team to become a poet,” she joked. “Skateboards and bikes, that was my thing.”
After college, she started Both Hands, a mentorship program that used art to empower young people in underserved communities. Simply put, Jusu wanted to give teens an outlet she did not have at their age.
She was good at it, raising $1,000 the first year, and then $10,000. From 2011 to 2018, she taught and reached over 500 students.
In May 2016, during a trip to Texas to visit her sister, she stepped off a plane and got a call asking about her father’s wellbeing. Why? Jusu asked. “Your house is on fire.”
Her father was not home, and they overcame it and suffered some financial setbacks. But the incident never led her to thoughts of becoming a firefighter.
The inspiration came in 2018, interestingly, from a student, Corey Rowell, who Jusu thought was asking if he should join the department. It was the opposite.
Curious, she took a look at the application for the entrance exam while at Starbucks in downtown Trenton and an old high school friend, Ray Delgado, happened by. He was a Trenton firefighter already.
“Oh Beni,” she recalls him saying, “you’d be a great asset to the fire department.”
Delgado remembers it well. He said that’s how the conversation went, but Jusu left out a dramatic part: it was the last day to file the application for the test.
“The timing was wild,” Delgado said. He’s so happy she passed the test, and academy.
Jusu, left, fist bumps colleage Kenneth Ninaltowski at 7am at the start of her 24-hour shift at Engine 3 on South Broad Street. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Delgado said he’s always willing to help someone, but he sensed different something about Jusu. “I know how she is with the community, how she always loved art – she’s been like that as long as I can remember,” he said.
“I just right away thought she’d be a good representation of the city, a good role model and she has great qualities that I thought little kids would see her and say, ‘I want to be like her,’” Delgado said.
“She always going to be a better part of the community, what better way to have a career in it too?” he said.
Jusu was sold on the idea.
She did well on the test and was hired in late 2019. But she still had to pass the academy.
From that moment, “There it was never a doubt in my mind that I could do it,” she said. “I was committed to it.”
She laughs to this day how “crazy hard” the fire academy was. She trained with people fresh from the military and other athletic pursuits. It was intense, and the job continues to challenge her, she said.
“I’ve had some amazing instructors,” she said. And she had choice words for her direct supervisor, at Engine 3, Capt. Andres Ortiz, who she called an “amazing leader.”
How It’s Going
Jusu washing a firetruck at Engine 3 on South Broad Street. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Firefighting, especially in busy urban departments, is not just flames like decades past, but performing EMS and being dispatched to an assortment of other rescues, from vehicle crashes to work accidents.
On one of her first days on the job, she helped force open a door to a home on an EMS call and found a dead body. A few days later, she saw a man’s arm dangling in a crash. She’s had to perform CPR on family members of her former art students.
Fire department work, Jusu says, while tragic at times, “is actually a way to be out there, in the city, making a difference.”
As she grows as a firefighter, she sees more roles, as well. She is a minority in the fire service, as a woman, and of color.
Nationally, among career firefighters, 4% are women, and 82% are white. The number of women rises to 11% among volunteer firefighters.
“I think representation matters,” Jusu said. Women have already been inboxing and DMing her with message like, “Is that something I could do?”
Her stock answer is, “Um yeah, take the test!”
“I get those all the time, and I enjoy it, not in an attention mongering type of deal, but access matters,” she explains. “When you see more women in a male dominated career, that’s powerful.”
She is currently one of six women in the Trenton Fire Department, which she says makes her “absolutely empowered and honored.”
But it’s not much of an issue in Trenton, and she’s never been questioned in the department about her gender. Everyone gets the same training.
“I know how to fight fires, I can hold my own, and that’s powerful to me,” she said.
Artivism, firefighting, helping people, serving the city, Jusu says, “It’s all part of taking care of your home.”
“Trenton is my home.”
Firefighters Bentrice Jusu and Kevin Jimenez, left, stand during their graduation ceremony in January. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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