Inspired by the curiosity, compassion, and ambition I see in my own children and young people in my hometown of Camden, I pay close attention to how the city is always trying to be better. Young people must be proud of where they are from, despite the negative reputation we have as the region’s most dangerous and poorest city. Constant headlines about murder or political corruption are an incomplete snapshot of a fuller, more complex picture.
The ongoing tussle between the New Jersey governor and local political leaders over job-creation policies and corporate welfare is familiar drama for Camden. It’s also a nasty distraction from ground-level work that must continue: building more affordable homes in neighborhoods, creating better access to higher education and job-readiness programs, and ensuring every young person has a safe place to study or play. This is the perfect time for continuing meaningful, sustainable, and citywide change that is focused on the most vulnerable residents.
The June primary is guaranteed to put at least two new people on City Council, presenting another opportunity for fresh voices in city politics — voices that are sorely needed.
Starting with the white flight of the 1960s, Camden was South Jersey’s local epicenter of redlining and then foreclosures — where thousands of minorities were denied mortgages despite qualifications or were approved for unnecessary expensive sub-prime loans that lead to the financial crisis 11 years ago.
Thirty years ago, large corporations like Campbell Soup’s manufacturing plant and RCA closed, stripping thousands of residents’ jobs that were never replaced. Camden became the regional hub for drugs, welcoming thousands from wealthy suburban neighborhoods to come for Percocet/Oxys, cocaine, and heroin. They returned home to the comfort of communities with quality public schools supported by high local property taxes, ignorant or apathetic of the murder and deterioration on the neglected blocks they just left. As this happened, too many political leaders from the state and city were some combination of corrupt, complicit, or mediocre in addressing critical issues.
Now, due to an awakened spirit of activism and resistance, lessons learned from failures, and a new generation of start-up nonprofits and businesses — those days are becoming history. The most transformative and innovative activities in Camden transcend the political power shifts and feuds. There are dozens of local grassroots organizations that support young people and work to make communities better, safer, and cleaner.
You can get your children off the tablet so they can learn to dance at Dare Academy on Kaighn Avenue, one of a few affordable gathering spaces in the community. There children practice jazz, ballet, or modern dance, and soon a gymnastics program will open.
Understanding that there ain’t no love in the rough streets of the city, organizations like Community Youth Leadership Advisory Board (CYLAB) are addressing justice reform to decrease juvenile arrests. This happens with extensive collaborations with other community organizations. That’s why CYLAB is pronounced cuh-lab (like collaborate). They teach youth leadership, business, law, and community-building skills, while providing opportunities for self-improvement, like connecting and preparing youth for summer employment offered by the city.
From criminal defense lawyers to the formerly incarcerated, the message these professionals deliver is clear for those who need it — being in gangs and slinging a gun is goofy. As I’ve witnessed and heard, more teens are listening and shifting away from the allure of being gangsters.
Parents participate with their children’s education in after-school programs like LUCY Outreach, which supports self-directed learning and college access. Education Over Everything Foundation, led by parent Rashaan Hornsby, helps youth become entrepreneurs by supporting their starting their own businesses. You Go Girl, directed by Apollonia Williams, encourages young woman to be their best selves with workshops and events. At times this work is supported by Campbell Soup, Subaru, American Water, and other local corporations.
I am cautiously optimistic about the future. Camden is certainly rising — but not at the same level and speed everywhere. We need to raise more money for effective organizations that support self-empowerment. These organizations need more capacity to reform ineffective systems in the government and nonprofit sectors. We need to collectively address the physical, emotional, and sexual trauma that so many of us suffer from.
As a community, we should let our common struggles unite us, rejecting the temptation to participate with only people whose political views are the exact same as ours. We must elect talented, informed, professional, decent, community-oriented, independent-thinking people who already have experience making transformative community improvements outside of government. Improvement is a process, one that has already started with Camden residents — and our leadership should reflect that.