Tag Archives: McKenna Samson

Tamara Torres: From Homelessness to Artistic Activist

By McKenna Samson

Tamara Torres sat on a stool in her Artworks Trenton studio, wearing her “La Feminista” collection T-shirt and some paint-speckled jeans, her curls tucked away in a headwrap, sitting on the edge of her seat waiting to tell her story and explain how a photograph of herself took her all the way across the world from her home city of Trenton to Italy.

The Mercer County native’s story begins in the city of Trenton. At age 11, she and her brother turned to the streets when things were rocky at home. It was on the city streets where Torres met an older friend, John*, who offered to buy her a camera and film in exchange for portraits of himself. Upon taking on this task, Torres realized her passion for photography. Her new 35mm Pentax film camera helped her to see the world in a whole new lens.

“The second I saw through the lens, it was like I saw everything different. It was like a square of things that weren’t realistic, but were, and that could be changed,” Torres remarked.

She explained that she was almost too eager for her own good.

“I took so many pictures that he [John*] was like ‘okay, film is expensive so, now I’m just going to break the camera. If you fix it, then I’ll give you more film.’ Now, you’re talking to someone that has nothing else to do, education-wise. So, I fixed the camera, boom. And he got me more film. I like to say that was the beginning of something.”

Torres’ interest in photography eventually grew into collage art. Her pieces focus on social-political issues; many of which Torres has experienced within her own community. Her piece entitled Freedom has a unique backstory that took her from Trenton to a show for UNICEF in Milan, Italy.

On her art piece, Freedom, Torres explained that she “created it for these two women that I met that were saving money to get their daughters back because they were from a different culture and when you get divorced in that culture, you lose everything, including family,” Torres explained. She shifted in her seat and nervously smiled as she continued.

She immediately went into the planning and execution of her first art piece, inspired.

“So, I remember going home and putting tape over my mouth and doing this picture. I gave them the photograph and I said ,‘I hope your daughters see a big world and I hope you can find their voice.’ They encouraged me to put it into shows and I was like ‘no way, that’s not gonna happen’ and it did.”

Freedom addresses the intersectionality of being an immigrant in America, especially those of color entering America for the very first time. “It was really cool because a lot of immigrants look at it and that’s how they feel being here with this big dream, but they can’t vote, they can’t say certain things, they have to be careful. That was the beginning of my social- political art,” Torres summarized.

Torres’ acknowledgement of her accomplishments was something that she had a tougher time grasping from her very first international experience. The realization that she had made it as an artist hit her when she was in an unlikely place for an art show: Edinburgh, Scotland.

As she leaned forward in her chair to describe the moment that her life changed, her eyes seemed to glimmer with excitement.

“I was walking to the museums and saw some art and I came out and sat down and I saw the … Scottish people just walking and I just started to cry. It had just hit me like ‘holy s**t.’ You were from the streets of Trenton with food stamps, roaches, no heat, seeing people get beat up and people being verbally abused and sexually abused at a young age, myself. You are now sitting under some stone in Scotland, like, Edinburgh looking at people walking by because of your art.”

She felt as though she had actually made it. There were endless possibilities for Torres, with her art as her guide.

As a Latinx woman navigating the art world, Torres found herself standing in her truth, among some of the international elite. The art field, often occupied by those hailing from privileged backgrounds, can be intimidating for those who have alternative origins. There is often a sense of pride one can feel as they enter such a technical and critical community. Torres seemed to feel a certain intensity as she thought to herself and reflected on this.

“There’s been exhibits that I’ve been a part of that people have been like ‘..where did you get your MA or your BA or CA or whatever,’ and like, I didn’t and it bothers them so much, mainly white artists, that I’m in their world of high standards where they are and I have nothing. Like, I came from nothing to this. It was just my work and my art that brought me there.”

Higher education, while it may have brought some people into the elite art world, did not serve Torres. The ability and passion, that she put into her art pieces allows for her to reach the same exhibits and clientele as artists that have been classically trained through higher education. Her ability to adapt and present her raw talent in these spaces is something that she knew she did not need classical training for. When Torres presented Freedom to the public in Italy for the first time ever, the art community there welcomed her genius with open arms. For her, it was an experience like no other.

For those who may feel as though they are struggling to find their way or would like to fit into elite spaces, Torres has a message: “If someone comes from a broken home, like I did, it’s really important that they understand that that is not their final destination. I have to say that you have to find something that you love and push on that.”

*The name ‘John’ has been used to protect the identity of the individual who provided Torres’ camera.

Beyond Anyone’s Expectations

By McKenna Samson

Designed with the purpose of assisting all students across the state, especially those who have grown up in and aged out of the foster care system, Beyond Expectations is a New Jersey community multimedia organization for these students. The group’s goal is to teach students marketable skills in film, media, and science–through hands-on film projects–which will enable them to use such skills to obtain a career.

For youth aging out of the foster care system, the possibility of continuing onto a secondary education or finding a profitable career is slim. Children in the foster care system do not always have a stable education or living environment. In fact, “40-63% [of youth in foster care] did not finish high school,” according to Children’s Rights.

This lack of a steady education can hinder the ability of youth to obtain a steady job and income. It is believed that between 25-55% of youth that have aged out of foster care are unemployed, according to Children’s Rights, and those who have found employment have average earnings below the poverty level. Due to circumstances beyond their control, at-risk adolescents in and aging out of foster care are set on a path for disadvantagement.

Leontyne Anglin, the executive director of Beyond Expectations, started as a parent volunteer at the birth of the organization. Seeing the lack of college preparation resources at her teenage daughter’s school events, in 1999, she gathered a group of parents and set out to make opportunities for middle and high school students.

“50 people showing up to the event would make it a big deal. 200 people showed,” Anglin reminisces. As the organization continued, Anglin began to realize that teaching students skills to properly market themselves in professional and secondary education settings would best benefit them.

“One of my favorite aspects of the program is the amount of engagement with the students. The skills they’re taught are hands-on. The staff lets the students make all of the decisions in their projects and fully produce them,” Anglin told The Streetlight.

While Beyond Expectations in open to all students in Burlington and Mercer Counties, foster students are able to find a support system within the organization.

“Foster students are an invisible group,” Anglin explained.

One of the first projects produced by Beyond Expectations, 18 and Out, highlights the stories of youth aging out of foster care. Anglin cites this film as one that has resonated with her for years, even convincing her to take a media approach for students in Beyond Expectations. Even ten years after the short film was made, Anglin references it when providing examples for newer films.

Beyond Expectations is working to reach students all over the Garden State. The organization currently has two office locations–one in Bordentown and one in Trenton. The program works to support students emotionally, socially, and educationally. Beyond Expectations has five key areas for students to explore; media production, service leadership, entrepreneurship, financial literacy, and sports media. These areas allow students to diversify their options and find their key area of expertise. Students are encouraged and guided to create their own film projects, edit, and screen at film festivals.

The success of this media-oriented program can been seen in its results, according to Beyond Expectations, with students from the program being accepted to over two dozen colleges and universities. The organization’s Young Professionals Leadership Initiative helps to build resumes for students, teaching them about job opportunities and ways to market themselves for careers.


Soup Kitchen Expansion: TASK’s Latest Task

By McKenna Samson & Engy Shaaban

The Trenton Area Soup Kitchen on Escher Street. Photos by Jared Kofsky/The Streetlight.

The Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK) has provided services to thousands of those in need for the past 35 years and has become one of the area’s leading nonprofit organizations in the process. In addition to meal services, the kitchen houses an Adult Education Program, an Arts Program, and Case Management Services. In the past five years, TASK has provided over 1.1 million meals and its program services have increased by 30 percent.

TASK relies on the help of volunteers to keep many of these programs running, and only receives three percent of its funding from the federal, county and state resources. The kitchen benefits from donations and the meals are served entirely by volunteers, so it remains largely a community-run effort.

To maximize their efforts, TASK has recently announced that it will be expanding its building and beginning renovations to update already-existing portions to better accommodate its patrons and staff. Executive Director Joyce Campbell spoke of the project’s timeline and explained that although there have been a few “starts
and stops”, the expansion is expected to be done in August and the renovations in September. She noted that TASK will continue to serve meals and provide services during all phases of the project.

The expansion is set to include additional rooms for partner organizations to offer on-site services. In addition to increasing capacity in the dining room, this will also provide a more private
setting for confidential conversations, more space for eye exams and blood pressure readings. A multipurpose room will be built to house TASK’s Adult Education and will also serve the arts programs, allowing them to operate year-round. Four additional computer stations will be added in a private testing and intake area for students. A walk-in refrigerator will be brought in to increase storage for perishable foods. On-site storage for TASK records will be established which will eliminate the cost of off-site storage and allow for these funds to be dedicated elsewhere. And finally, a space for administrative staff to work will be built which will free out office space for direct service staff working with patrons.

Building renovations will allow for an office for the Kitchen Manager to coordinate kitchen operations more effectively and efficiently. It will also move the Patron Services office and enlarge it to address privacy concerns; provide volunteers with space to store their personal items and to change for meal service; and double the space for the storage of personal hygiene and other basic needs supplies. This enlarged space is particularly important as it will accommodate the large number of holiday donations that TASK receives. The renovation will also include a reorganization of the patron computer lab; new, sturdy work surfaces; and proper storage for extra equipment.

The majority of the space will receive a new coating of paint and flooring. Campbell explained the importance of the latter and the impact that these changes will have on TASK employees: “Staff morale begets positive patron service and patron success.”

The expansion will provide 3,679 square feet of additional space dedicated to advancing TASK’s mission of feeding body, mind, and spirit. Campbell told The Streetlight that “the expansion will certainly impact the community very positively.”

“It will allow us to bring in more services. We will have designated spaces for these services and service providers so it will allow for more privacy and efficiency. It will also allow us to provide services during the evening and on weekends; and it will allow outside providers to run programs when the soup kitchen is closed and we are not there. This will all build on our community-centered approach to the work that we do,” Campbell explained.


Trenton Area Soup Kitchen
72 1/2 Escher Street Trenton, NJ
(609) 695-5456