Fetching More Than Water: Jack and Jill of America

"An organization for elite black kids and teenagers. They go to museums,
trips abroad . . . sometimes the teenagers have coming out cotillions."
— Taylor

In Lydia R. Diamond's play Stick Fly, she references Jack Jill of America, Inc., one of the oldest and largest black service and philanthropy organizations in the United States that is dedicated to improving the lives and opportunities of all children.

Conception

On a trip to Brooklyn in the late 1930s, Philadelphia mother Louise Truitt Jackson Dench heard a story from a friend about African-American locals who, despite having moved to different boroughs or cities, would return to Brooklyn each Christmas season to host a holiday party. Dench felt that Philadelphia could use a similar social function to help the African-American community ease the burden of the economic depression and racial tension that beset the country. However, Dench felt that the program should exist year-round to have a greater impact.

Marion Stubbs Thomas and 20 other Philadelphia mothers fulfilled Dench's dream, organizing the first chapter of Jack and Jill of America on June 24, 1938. Finally, African-American children had a place to enjoy social and cultural activities without feeling the pressures of being a minority. Today, JJOA has 187 chapters all over the country and a membership of more than 30,000 families.

National Programs

In the 1940s and 1950s, Jack and Jill chiefly supported children by funding medical research and institutions for childrenís health. But with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, the organization shifted its focus to social issues. Now, Jack and Jill of America seeks to prepare children to become future leaders. Each chapter programs events related to community service, legislative advocacy, and philanthropic giving, such as fundraisers and conventions. The Jack and Jill Foundation specifically funds organizations that cultivate leadership development in children. The major national programs of JJOA include:

  • The National Leadership Project: JJOA partners with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America to implement leadership training of community youth.

  • National Day of Service: Each chapter carries out volunteer activities on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.

  • Read Across America: JJOA chapters design and implement a reading project, such as a book drive or young-adult reading program.

  • The Thompson Family Fund: Every chapter donates $50 to assist D.C. native and African-American Jacqueline Thompson in raising her quintuplets to adulthood. When her children were born, in 1997, philanthropic organizations such as JJOA rushed to help Thompson, who is now a single mother.

  • Dismantling the Cradle to Prison Pipeline: Individual chapters run programs to keep youth, primarily young black men, out of the prison system.

  • Youth Service Recognition: Youth who have done more than 25 hours of service per year are rewarded for their contributions to the community.

  • Teen Leadership and Development Initiative: A new program that cultivates leadership skills and promotes values such as public speaking and goal setting.

 

Criticism

Jack and Jill hosts a variety of programs to engage youth and help communities of all kinds, but the organization itself has been criticized as a type of country club comparable to Oak Bluffs where upper class African-Americans can network with each other. The high-end social activities and privileges of JJOA members set them apart from the rest of the community, because they get to attend exclusive ski trips, holiday soirees, pool parties, conferences, and cotillions.

The majority of members are affluent women (often mothers) in medicine, law, and business who bring their children into JJOA. Membership is by invitation only; if someone wants to join, they must be sponsored by a family who already belongs. Children of alumni, known as "legacies," can join automatically. Despite this exclusivity, Jack and Jill deserves credit for providing opportunities for all and for being a haven for the young, black elite.

- David Dower


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