By Naeisha Rose
A Better Jamaica, a non-profit organization created to strengthen the southeast Queens region, celebrated its 10th year anniversary on Jan. 31. Greg Mays, 55, founded the organization to improve the bond between residents in the area.
A decade ago, Mays attended a screening of “Wizard of Oz” at Richmond Hill’s Forest Park and immediately knew what his town was lacking.
“Why do I have to leave my neighborhood to have this great community building experience?” said Mays. “So I started a Better Jamaica and we started by showing some movies in the [St. Albans] park.”
At the time, when he first started the organization, he ran into trouble with the Parks Department for not having everything he needed for the screenings and for attempting to screen one movie a week there.
Thanks to a grant from then City Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) and a scaled-back approach, Mays was able to screen “Happy Feet” and “Pride” for A Better Jamaica’s inaugural week.
“It was just like I envisioned,” he said.
What started as a small seed of an idea with the support of six youths from the Summer Youth Employment Program and $5,000 has now blossomed into a fruitful community organization with 13 seasonal programs with funding from every branch of government, including federal money through the National Endowment of the Arts.
ABJ has a new program, is developing a second and is currently focusing on literacy in a program called Jamaica Reads.
“Me and seven senior citizens help first-graders struggling with reading skills,” Mays said.
The AirTrain Jazz Festival, which started in 2014 with help from the Sutphin Blvd. Business Improvement District, features 28 live jazz shows on Thursdays from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Jamaica AirTrain.
A project in development — Art to the People — will debut in September.
“We are looking to take over six light-boxes that exist at the Jamaica Center train station and use those light-boxes to present fine art photography,” Mays said.
Although the installation will debut in the fall, there will also be a precursor to that event — a photography apprenticeship that will start in the summer and take in teens from 14 to 16. Mays’ hope for the installation is that it will gain enough traction for four exhibits in the coming years.
Mays’ ride to A Better Jamaica was a long process with a lot of bumps along the way.
Born at Jamaica Hospital on Oct. 10, 1962, Mays was the fourth of five sons to a mother who was a college administrator at Medgar Evers and a father who was a social studies teacher-turned assistant principal at IS 72 in Jamaica.
With all that knowledge behind him, Mays went from seventh grade and skipped straight ahead to ninth while attending IS 59. Around 1976, he was bused to Bayside High School.
“It was not the most hospitable place in the world, but nonetheless…I had a strong academic career there,” he recalled.
Growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s he listened to the underground music that would soon become hip-hop.
“Being there for the birth of hip-hop was amazing. “Rapper’s Delight” was the beginning of it all in terms of hip-hop.”
After graduating from high school, Mays attended Medgar Evers for a year and then transferred to Howard University as an accounting major. Later he received a CPA and worked at Coopers and Lybrand (now Pricewaterhouse and Coopers) accounting firm.
In another two years he would have his graduate studies at Harvard Business School.
Soon, Mays became the advertising director for Black Enterprise Magazine.
After falling in love with the arts, especially film, Mays took continuing education classes in the subject at NYU.
“That prepared me for a job at Columbia Pictures.”
At the film studio he worked in international video distribution, became a special assistant to the chief financial officer and then worked in domestic theatrical distribution. Despite his success, he “felt stuck” in distribution and left Los Angeles for San Francisco to work at his friend’s Internet startup, Net Noir, which received sponsorship by AOL.
“I am a results-oriented, roll-up-my-sleeves person that can dive in, I’m not a middle management person,” said Mays. “I got the entrepreneurial start-up bug. It bit me, it bit me hard.”
Despite helping many startups get off the ground, he became “completely burnt out” and took some time off to work with Operation Crossroads Africa, a non-profit organization that sponsors young graduates who want to go to different regions in the continent for a cross-cultural exchange.
After leaving Ghana in Africa, he started his own non-profit and took up work as a free-lance business consultant helping companies “stay afloat,” and then came the 2008 stock market crash, which led him to fully focus on A Better Jamaica and become a stay-at-home uncle to one of his nephews.
“His parents were victims to the crack era, so I became a surrogate father,” he said. . After babysitting his seven other nieces and nephews, he felt that he had great practice in becoming a full-time dad.
In 2013, he ran for City Council against Daneek Miller, Clyde Vanel, Sandra Hope and two others. Even though he lost, he became good friends with his opponents, some of whom have helped to sponsor ABJ, including Miller, but he also realized what he was best at.
“I ran to support non-profits. I’m an action-oriented person, but I am much more of a creative person.”
Despite not wanting to get involved in politics again, Mays is very concerned with what the new Trump administration will do with the arts.
“I’m a little afraid the NEA could go away if our current president and the Republicans decide they don’t want to fund the arts. That will be tragic on all fronts. That funding is for every art institution up and down the food chain that you can imagine. The grant we get from them is $10,000,” he said. “I hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. It will be a nightmare if the NEA is defunded.”
In the meantime, the art aficionado is on the board of the Center of Music and Drama at Lincoln Center as a representative for City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, he is on the board of the Chronicle Theater of Harlem and he is hands-on with ABJ making sure that it continues to grow.
“Philanthropy should begin at home. There are a lot of great things happening here. We build programs based on the needs of the community and everything we started we continue to do. “