Jacque Howard grew up in a remote country village known as Ewing Township.
Don’t laugh, a couple decades ago, Ewing was considered the country, especially the area around Eggerts Crossing, where Howard, the youngest of seven, grew up only a few doors away from his great aunt and grandmother. It was as much a village upbringing as central New Jersey could offer, and it made quite an impact on Howard’s perspective as he grew up.
“I never wanted to work just 9 to 5 and that’s it,” he says. “I wanted to do more, something for my community.”
Howard eventually became the founder of Trenton 365, a community building program that encourages private citizens, nonprofit groups, and businesses in the greater Trenton area to become more civic minded, and is the voice behind the radio show of the same name on WIMG. That show, by the way, reaches a lot farther than Trenton. For the moment, let’s just say that the show reaches so far that it gets translated into Igbo.
Howard will speak on the importance of civic engagement at the Princeton Chamber’s Business Before Business breakfast on Wednesday, September 16, at 7:30 a.m. at the Nassau Club of Princeton. Cost: $40. Visit www.princetonchamber.org.
Howard grew up in part at the postal facility where his mother worked. Both his parents worked for the U.S. Postal Service, but he never had a strong relationship with his father. Howard calls him “a typical male of the time,” a World War II veteran who served in the Battle of the Bulge and was a good provider, but not one who shared his feelings much. This clashed with his mother’s more open personality and eventually led to the disintegration of the marriage and buoyed the divide Howard felt with his father.
But that relationship, paired with the large, otherwise attentive family that was his whole world growing up, set Howard’s course for being more engaged with the world beyond his home. “I’m on a quest to let people know how I feel,” he says. “To help make the community better.”
And not just the community in Trenton. When news of contaminated water or poor conditions or tragedy from any corner of the world reaches him, Howard takes it personally. “I should give a damn,” he says. “I should care about clean water, wherever it is.”
Howard had no idea until he went to college that not everyone grew up the way he did. He earned an associate’s degree in fashion marketing from the Art Institute of Philadelphia in 1990, where he met a close friend who was, as he came to learn, the only other person at school who grew up similar to how he grew up himself.
After college, Howard took his penchant for men’s fashion to Jones of New York, where he spent 14 years as a design assistant and was involved in most avenues of the fashion industry. He was also a partner in a family-owned Exxon in Ewing in the mid-2000s, before becoming a manager at Bank of America Merrill Lynch for two years. He became executive director of Urban Mission Cabinet Inc. in 2011 before starting a radio program known as Trenton 365, about the importance of getting things moving in a positive direction in Trenton.
The original moniker of the radio show refers to what Howard saw as the critical mass of doers Trenton needed to actually get something going in a good direction. By September of 2014, the idea behind his radio show had sparked enough interest from those people who do care about Trenton and see its potential to become a company built to foster civic engagement. It was renamed Trenton 365 to have broader appeal and reference the year-round commitment that a thing like fixing a broken capital city requires.
Now about that Igbo translation. The thing about Trenton is that it is an extremely diverse city. Immigrant families from Central and South America, Southeast and Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa call Trenton home, and this fact has greatly upped Trenton 365’s cachet around the world. The program is translated into several languages, including Spanish, Filipino, and Igbo, which is a language in Ghana and East Africa. The show’s message of community involvement — the village approach — appeals across the panoply of cultures, Howard says, and that appeal is building the show’s reputation, as well as the for-profit company that sponsors (and pays for) it.
“We don’t realize what we have,” Howard says of Trenton and its residents. “Our country was built on the streets of Trenton. That’s pretty profound.”
The problem is, as with most historically rich areas, the residents are used to it. It’s the people from other places around the country who understand the importance of Trenton in the shaping of the United States. Unfortunately, Howard says, there is little effort to lure people to the city’s deep Revolutionary Era roots. Tourism, in other words, should be a major enterprise in the city.
With this comes that broad, legitimately global mix of cultures, all situated directly between New York and Philadelphia, and a couple hour’s drive from the Atlantic Ocean. “People who come from so many different places are here because they want to be in Trenton,” he says. “It’s bikeable, it’s walkable. We just don’t know what we have.”
That’s because Trenton needs better communication, Howard says. It also needs for the power players in the city to remove their heads from the sand. Trenton is the heart of one of the wealthiest counties in New Jersey and the capital of one of the wealthiest states in the union. So why is it in such bad shape? Why do young people leave the first chance they get and never come back?
It’s not because people don’t care, Howard says. It’s got a lot to do with entrenched thinking, by people who want to reclaim the city’s once-impressive industrial might. But that’s not going to happen, Howard says. Trenton was a major industrial port once. Once. Ago. So let it go. Stop trying to turn the city back into something it used to be. Start focusing on what it could and should be.
Trenton should be a cultural epicenter, Howard says. An arts community. An historic destination. A microcosm for how to view the world. There are so many talented artists, so many people interested in getting through to more people in the world than just their own kind, Howard says, that it’s beyond foolish to not tap into the potential the city has to offer.
Getting there, Howard says, will take the ability to understand two things — that you can’t please everyone with what you do, and that we have to ask the people of Trenton what they want for their city, rather than just telling them what will happen. These two things are not as mutually exclusive as they sound. We have to know what people want and expect, he says, but we also need to be aware that there is no one answer that fits everyone.
These efforts don’t necessarily need to be huge and global. In many cases, some general communication about what it means to live in America can help. Take snow, for example. A lot of Trenton’s residents come from places where snow isn’t a thing. They don’t think about shoveling it because it’s not in their field of experience. Are these people evil or stupid? Of course no. They just don’t know that shoveling snow is a community activity, one that makes it easier for the neighbors to navigate the streets.
Simple communication, Howard says, can get through to people “these little things that seem so obvious to those of us born and raised in places like Trenton.” It’s just a matter of getting the word out, and a radio show with global appeal is certainly a start.
But Howard isn’t just a businessman with a worldwide audience. He’s deeply involved in his Presbyterian church and in numerous community activities in Trenton, from ArtWorks to Isles to I Am Trenton. His efforts are grassroots and he spends a lot of time meeting people, talking, and, most importantly, listening.
Will his efforts pay off? Howard certainly hopes so. But even if they don’t, he says, he knows he has to give it a shot.
“I would really like to make a major impact on civilization,” he says. “Or at least I want people some day to look back and say `That guy Jacque was onto something.’ And the only way to achieve that is to meet a ton of people, so that’s what I’m doing.”