By Peter D’Auria nj.com
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Gillian Sarjeant-Allen is a force of nature. She has launched several groundbreaking initiatives, all with the goal of harnessing collective action to combat inequality.
Around 2009, Gillian Sarjeant-Allen had an epiphany about food. The activist was living on Randolph Avenue in Jersey City, working with the Randolph Avenue Block Association to combat drug dealing in the area, when she realized that the injustices she was fighting extended even to food.
“Something just hit me," she said. “That quality of food available on the south side of the city was not comparable to that of the downtown area.”
Sarjeant-Allen had an idea: she wanted to create a food co-operative. She envisioned a system based on the Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn, in which members contributed labor in exchange for reduced-price groceries. But she didn’t have the business know-how to start it on her own. After seeing an ad in the newspaper for the Community Business Academy, a business training program run by the nonprofit Rising Tide Capital, she decided to enroll.
Now, a decade later, Sarjeant-Allen has returned to Rising Tide Capital -- this time, as its first executive director.
Sarjeant-Allen had come to activism when she had moved to Jersey City in 2001. After quitting her job at American Express to take care of her children, she got involved in her neighborhood, working to “resurrect” the dormant Randolph Avenue Block Association.
“Our neighbors were incredible, incredible human beings (that) felt just unseen and disconnected from the prosperity that was occurring downtown," she said.
Alongside the Jersey City Police Department and local elected officials, the neighborhood group pushed dealers from the street corner, where they’d sold drugs for decades.
“It was a collective effort that we saw yield great rewards,” she said.
At RTC’s Community Business Academy, students pay tuition on a sliding scale to attend two-hour sessions to learn business fundamentals like finance and marketing. According to the organization, graduates’ businesses have an 80 percent survival rate after five years -- about 30 percent more than the national average. Most of the students are women and minorities.
“I was able to dig deep into the building-out of the potential project,” she said. “They carried me and guided me and directed me to the end goal of actually launching the business."
In 2010, after graduating, Sarjeant-Allen launched the Jersey City Food Cooperative. Operating out of St. Paul’s church at 440 Hoboken Ave., the co-op eventually grew to 100 members, who, following the co-operative model, contributed “sweat equity" to get discounted food.
Since then, she has gone on to other initiatives, all with the goal of harnessing collective action to combat inequality. After founding the co-op, Sarjeant-Allen stepped away from its day-to-day management to work for the city’s Health and Human Services Department as the city’s healthy food access coordinator, working with local nonprofits to improve nutrition education in underserved neighborhoods.
She is the driving force behind Black Wall Street Jersey City, a networking organization for black entrepreneurs. And she also served as the community development manager at Garden State Episcopal Community Development Corporation, where she secured millions in state funding to improve access to affordable housing in Jersey City.
“The work is so needed,” she said. “Working class residents in the city of Jersey City, who are our postal workers, our daycare providers, our teachers, they’re not able to live in the city that they serve.”
The Jersey City Food Co-op lasted five years, boasting 150 members at its peak. Many of the group’s former employees are currently engaged in "an effort to re-imagine” the organization, she said.
Last December, she returned to Rising Tide, where she oversees all of the nonprofit’s programs, including the Community Business Academy.
Alfa Demmellash, Rising Tide Capital’s founder, said that she’d been trying to get Sarjeant-Allen on board for a long time. “We’ve been very connected with her over the years,” she said. “It has felt like a very natural fulfillment of a vision."
For Sarjeant-Allen, being the executive director means helping people like her -- people who want to get involved and give back to their community. “I’ve seen what the work is capable of doing in individuals’ lives because it actually happened to me," she said. ___ Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.