Thursday, July 31, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

A call to action at Rutgers-Camden commencement

CAMDEN Drawing on his experience working to improve health-care delivery in Camden, Jeffrey Brenner called on Rutgers-Camden's graduating students to take leadership roles in revitalizing the city and improving the region.

Brenner, a primary care physician who received a 2013 MacArthur "genius" grant for his work as the founder of the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers, spoke Wednesday afternoon to hundreds of graduating students and their families in the Susquehanna Bank Center.

"You've received the gift of an education, and with that gift comes important civic responsibilities," Brenner said, going on to describe how he had grown up in a segregated South Jersey that used property deeds and legal tricks to separate people by race and class.

Brenner returned to the region after completing his medical residency in Seattle, joining the Cooper University Hospital medical system in 1998.

"As I looked at the abandoned homes and the broken streets, it felt like I'd walked into a family kitchen where a terrible fight had happened, with smashed dishes lying everywhere, but no one was talking about what had really happened," Brenner said.

"How could such a beautiful, wealthy city, that made phonographs, ships, records, radios, televisions, and soup, become such a basket case?" he said. "It felt like a family feud had happened, as ethnic groups retreated angrily to their own enclaves: Italians moved to Bellmawr, the Irish to Runnemede, the Jews to Cherry Hill, and African Americans to Lawnside and Sicklerville."

The city had been torn down, Brenner said, by "a failure of leadership and a failure of imagination. . . . Leaders in our region didn't rise to the challenge of race and class, and the region broke apart."

The graduates of Rutgers-Camden, Brenner said, should play a role in revitalizing the city and, thus, the region.

"So your generation has a chance to write the new story for our region. You will have many choices to make in your personal life and your professional life: You can run for office, you can serve on boards, and you can use your voice for a new vision for our region. We can work together to tell the stories of what really happened before that generation dies off," Brenner said.

Brian Everett, 21, a junior from Cherry Hill studying Spanish and urban studies, said Brenner's talk was a perfect fit for Rutgers-Camden, a campus that has emphasized civic engagement and service learning.

"That type of call to action almost is absolutely what this campus has become. It's not just a place where the suburban kids come and get their college degrees anymore, it's a place where students really are expected to make change," Everett said. - Jonathan Lai

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