Zain Jacobs was always older in her soul than physically. She began reading at three. At seven, she was writing about serious topics. Inspired by a 15-year-old cousin that was given LSD and jumped to her death, Zain focused on the impact of drugs on the community. She also wanted to donate her eyes to Stevie Wonder, believing that if he could write such beautiful music while he could not see, what might he do if she could give him sight?
Her maternal grandmother was named Zain also. There was no time in memory when she wasn’t taking in children in need of a place to stay. She led several of her church ministries and was always feeding or housing people.
Both her parents were activists in addition to their respective careers. Zain’s living room contained photos of various historical figures, Leontyne Price and Andrew Young to name a couple. There was a book with a signed inscription to her parents from Coretta Scott King. Her mother and father were founding members of the Circle of Friends which gave one of the first large donations to fund the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolence in Atlanta, GA.
Their church, First African Baptist Church in Savannah was once a stop on the Underground Railway. The pews were built by slaves and contain markings in their native African languages. Holes in the floor are shaped in the form of a Congolese Cosmogram representing birth, life, death, and rebirth. There is a subfloor beneath the lower auditorium floor that slaves traveled through before heading North. Perhaps these physical ties to slaves and Africans have led to the current connection that Zain feels to the land of her ancestors?
After high school, Zain matriculated to Savannah State University and studied business. She planned to head her dream Fashion House as both Executive and Designer. With the proceeds, she would finance her passion to write independently about issues concerning her people, to give them a voice. She continued her writing for the school newspaper and was reminded of the power her words could have. She was responsible for the focus on and ultimate resignation of a tenured Professor, known for his racist attitudes. She changed her major to Journalism and English, still writing about drugs along with alcohol abuse and civil rights issues. She served others indirectly but felt the pull of her lineage to get more directly involved.
After graduation, she returned to her childhood home of New York, pursuing interests in law, history, and politics. She’d given up her dream of the Fashion House after she graduated from SSU. In what is an apparent fixation with what appears on her tombstone. She decided she didn’t want it to say, “Here Lies Zain, She Designed a Hell of a Skirt.” Her life working for corporations also left her wanting. She imagined, “Here lies Zain… Employee.”
Living in Queens, Zain took the city bus and subway to and from Manhattan. She witnessed something that changed her perspective. She saw a group of teenage girls describing a fight during which they kicked and beat a pregnant girl. They saw nothing wrong with their actions and attitudes. Nobody on the bus challenged them to do better… to be better. She decided at that moment that she would take on the mission of helping girls who needed a different path.
She went to a local private school and said, “I’ll clean toilets if you give me one class to teach!” After reviewing her credentials, they decided cleaning toilets were unnecessary. She was given a job at the school that allowed her to teach that class. It was a busy time during which she became certified as a teacher and met her husband and future father of her two children.
Teaching the class soon wasn’t enough for Zain. Over a period of time, Zain presented the concept of a “Rites of Passage” program for girls to some of the educational giants she had come to know in New York. Writer and historian Yosef Ben-Jochannan, activist Dr. John Henrik Clarke, Professor Clinton Crawford at Medgar Evers College.She proposed her concept in hopes they would direct her to someone else to lead it. They laughed and said, “If you identify the problem, you have an obligation to be the solution,” adding, “Get to work!” She began the program in the first public middle school she taught at.
The “Blooming Lotuses Rites of Passage Group,” was based on an African model of teaching values. They met three times daily to accommodate conflicting student schedules with some attending one, others all three. They met during her planning period, lunch hour and after school. When Zain arrived home, she had to do the planning she didn’t get done during the allocated time. There was seemingly never enough time to get everything done that was needed but she found this period of her life empowering as opposed to draining. She said, “I needed them as much as they needed me!” Zain is still in touch with many of her early students. Many took Advanced Placement (AP) classes. Almost all went on to college with some getting advanced degrees. Not one of her girls had a child out of wedlock.
After a time, she moved to another School District in Long Island. She not only brought the Blooming Lotuses Program with her, Zain began conducting parenting classes so that she could begin to affect whole families. She began the Rites of Passage – Literary Program. Most rewarding to her was when the early participants of the first programs, returned to give back and reinvest in the community that supported them.
Photo: Tim Alexander
She furthered her own education, getting dual Masters of Science Degrees in Child Youth and Family Services and Youth Development & Human Services Administration. Zain was laying the foundation to be able to administer the recently launched P.I.L.L.A.R.S. 4 Success, LLC. The acronym stands for, Power In Life Learning And Resilience Strategies. Pillars offers organizational support, community education such as G.E.D./Post Secondary Prep, parenting support and mentoring. She provides workshops on Cultural Competence. Zain works with trafficked youth, addicted youth, many on probation or otherwise involved with the justice system.
Her clients often find her through word of mouth. They got help and tell someone else who needs it. She gets referrals from groups and families. All of five foot two and a half (she was adamant about the half), she goes alone into neighborhoods where her potential clients live and work, day or night. She literally meets them where they are.
Zain is a reluctant Shadow Warrior. She shuns the personal spotlight and wants to focus on her charges whose circumstances are “nobody’s business.” She said, “I never heard my grandmother repeat to another person how she helped someone.” There is no sense of aggrandizement. “I like where I am in my humility.” It gets tough sometimes, her empathy both blessing and curse. “Sometimes I can’t allow myself to feel the pain of those I serve in order to keep going. Other times I can’t serve without absorbing their pain to process my approach in serving them!”
Zain Jacobs was recently honored by the Black Charlotte Business Coalition as, “Servant Leader of the Year.” For now, she wants her epitaph to read, “She was Zain… one who found optimism in service and service in optimism.”
Tolitha Henry was one of the last of her New York Lotuses. When asked for a comment about Zain she responded with a book. Among the things she said:
“Mama Zain helped me form my identity as a Black woman. Prior to meeting her, I battled with low self-esteem, depression and not understanding my purpose on this earth. She suggested I participate in a writing competition; the requirement was to write what I thought was my purpose. I wrote that it was to give back to my community. I would not have known that I would receive, a nurturing, first-hand experience on what my purpose looked like from my ninth grade English teacher. She took me under her wings, she fed me what it means to be a black woman, how my dark skin translated to beauty, that I descended from a lineage of tenacious people, and how to self- love. She invited me to join Rites Of Passage and from that, I learned about sisterhood and simultaneously what motherhood looked like outside my familial roots. Furthermore, when ever someone asks me now who influenced you, who helped you to become the woman you are now I always, always go back to Mama Zain. I am a proud black woman, who celebrates other black women and loves my community because of the love and chance she took in investing in me. For that, I am absolutely grateful.”
What Zain does is not quantifiable in statistics. She measures her success in the progress and productive lives of her former mentees. She worries about them as she does her own children. “Have I prepared them for every situation possible? She wonders if anything were to happen would it be because of something she failed to impart? Fear not Zain for you have prepared them all well. Even those who experience negativity have been trained how to get back up and try again. That is a success… and why you’re a Shadow Warrior.
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