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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Finding a Way

Please check out the comments for a good discussion of this post. I was called to task and modified some of my points. But for the first commenter, I have no answer. If all we are doing is throwing cups of water on the huge fire, then where is hose and how do we use it?

There was a story in the CP this week about school children who marched for Peace from the Molina Elementary school in North Camden to the Whitman Arts Center in Cooper Grant. They were honoring one of the students at the school who had died at the hand of street violence. Today there are 2 more to march for - the city's 9th and 10th homicides occurred this weekend. Marching for Peace is not the answer. Peace is not the opposite of violence - ending violence as an option is the opposite of violence. Peace may then result. It is this step of ending violence as an option that seems elusive.

In the article about the kids, the writer noted that once the kids went from N.Camden under the bridge to Rutgers, the landscape made a remarkable change. Indeed the chaos and disorder of North Camden is replaced by the landscaped, streetscaped, and orderly environment of Cooper Grant and the Rutgers Campus. It is a stark transition and represents what white middle class people think the urban core should look like. But when it is compared to neighboring suburbs, most middle class people would find it somewhat unacceptable - too close to the dangerous neighborhoods, too few conveniences such as grocery and other stores, and there is no guarantee it won't turn into just another Camden neighborhood, swallowed by violence and blight.

Well, I can be certain of this - if people continue to believe and behave the way they do, then the results we get will be exactly the same and it will be the outcome we choose. Whether we want to admit it or not, the current urban conditions are exactly what we want. What other explanation can there be? In a city of incredible crime, we have a police force that is barely visible. Yet in my neighborhood, I have a security patrol, a state police patrol, a port authority patrol, and the city police. Why isn't there this kind of presence throughout Camden? Because people aren't demanding it. Because city hall does not feel pressured to do it. Because no one believes that it would happen even if they asked for it, and the powers that be don't believe it would make a difference. That is the crux of it. People who make decisions don't believe anything will change. So we get the results we do want - murders, street violence, fear, drugs sales, and a brutal police response when they do respond. This is not to say that we actually want these horrible things. But at some level, the powers that be, the suburbanites, and others draw some benefit from this status quo. Think on that a while.

Four years ago I changed my life. I decided the only way to change results was to be part of the solution. I joined an urban core community and lived there - became a part of the community and began to tell the story to others that the neighborhood was human and caring and interesting. Yes there was violence, yes there was crime, yes there were problems, but it could be approached. I believed in the value of that community. I learned that many of the residents believed the same thing. It put everything into sharp focus instead of the prejudged view of the dangerous urban core that is portrayed on the 6 o'clock news.

What will you do to be part of the solution? Write a check or mentor a student in the local schools? Be glad you don't live here or support a neighborhood or community organization? Continue to throw verbal stones at Camden or find out about the reality of this city by living here? Demand that Camden be attended to or continue to wrap yourself in your assurances that you know that Camden is a place that can't be salvaged? Choose wisely because eventually your future will depend on it.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Race, Violence, Justice on Camden Streets

Police/Arestee violence. This is not new in Urban America. What is new is the i-report capability of the public. This incident in Camden was caught on tape, but the tape was taken by the police. Given that the incident recorded was of violence toward a person in custody, it is not surprising that someone might give up the vid if asked.

But the subject of my interest is the above video - a reporter's interview with a woman in the neighborhood who watched the man in custody get beaten. Her concern is why the police would beat and kick a person who is ALREADY IN HANDCUFFS? But the clincher question is at the end of the interview. The reporter asks if she has ever seen police violence before. She laughs in a knowing way as if to say - you did not just ask me that Mr. white reporter. He sheepishly says, I guess that is a yes. She says they do it all the time.

Now this woman was not in an excited state or overcome with emotion. She was calm and recounting what she saw. She reflected on what is reality as she sees it in her neighborhood.

I would like to see the video confiscated by the police and hope it does not disappear and in fact is shown to the press. Police officers are on admin leave as the death of this man is reviewed. And the official explanation is that when confronted, the man put a bag in his mouth and then probably choked on it. That is just lame, on so many levels, but maybe it went down that way. The tape might tell us.

Reporter: white
Witness: black
victim/man in custody: latino
Cop: unknown

Friday, April 17, 2009

Camden Politics

I posted an article from the Inquirer about the Police and Fire Union personnel who are protesting the Camden COO's leadership. Judge Davis is a convenient target for whatever people don't like. He has all the authority and power, so why not blame him? The Unions feel they have a responsibility to stand for their members and protest changes they don't like. My union does the same thing. I don't always agree, but see the value of collective action.

But the problems of Camden are not the result of Judge Davis. He is just the foil in this tragedy. It is laughable that council reps complain about his dictatorial rule. They do nothing but hold press conferences. Our current mayor is practically a parody of the problems in this city government. The Judge has final say over every decision and dollar spent in the city. So what does the Mayor actually do? I also understand there is a business manager for the city - something akin to a city manager. I can only imagine what this person does as there is never anything reported about his or her activity.

One thing is for certain...people think the services in the city are poor, the condition of the city is poor, and there are no explanations for why things don't get done. Is it bad management? Is it poor employees? Is it a lack of accountability? I think the pols here feel that they are secure in their positions and don't have to answer to anyone. As long as the public accepts this, there will be no change. I suppose the community is beat down from the long siege of poverty, unemployment, crime, and other maladies. But Camden has a spirit and it rises every so often. Maybe it will rise to make the city better. I hope so.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

RFK Journalism award

Check out this award winning photo essay (click on title above) that chronicles gun violence in Chicago and Philadelphia. Now that you have awareness, what will we do to end these tragedies?
(thanks to Dafiq Rasheed for the link).

Monday, April 13, 2009

Dumping on Camden, and trash too

In the righthand sidebar, I posted a link to a Courier Post article on trash dumping in Camden. The article is ok and looks at a number of different issues to explain why trash piles up, what's being done, what the law is, etc. Bottom line is that there is a lot of illegal dumping of trash in Camden. This is a common tale in urban neighborhoods, so Camden is not alone. Also common and seemingly true in Camden is that a lot of that trash is dumped in the city by people who live outside the city or are in the city and have contractor waste to get rid of. People don't want to pay for dumpsters or pay the dump fee. So they find a vacant lot or a closed business and drop off their garbarge. The city is left to foot the bill of cleanup and in Camden, there is no money to spare. Every $ spent on dumped trash is $ not spent on police, infrastructure improvement, and other vital services.

While the issue is difficult and the article points out the various ways the city copes with the problem, the real meat of the story is in the reader's posted comments. The comments are a microcosm of the south Jersey attitudes toward Camden - quick to judge, quick to condem, and quick to blame race and poverty as inevitable predictors of the trash that is Camden. A sad commentary. Some commenters point out that at least some of the illegally dumped trash comes from outside the city. But their voice is small compared to the vitriol spewed by others.

It is a sad commentary on the level of race relations in this area (which is similar to other urban areas). Blaming the victim is an easy shot to take. Do people who live in Camden drop trash? Sure they do. Are people in Camden responsible for all the trash that is out there? No, of course not. But depending on your point of view, you will condem, condone, and scapegoat the good residents of Camden with the same broad brush to neatly make your worldview the explanation of what you think you see on the ground.

The most interesting thing is that the people who condem Camden for its own misfortune are not likely to ever see that they are part of the problem. Their hateful view of this city and its residents only continues the viscious cycle of trashing Camden. If you can say these things, then why not dump your trash in the city - it's a pit anyway, right? Instead of being constructive on how their fully taxed services in their community might be shared with Camden, they would just rather point a finger and assign blame. How many methadone clinics are in the suburbs? How many industrial properties that are falling down are in the suburbs? How many unemployed people with very little education are in the suburbs? How many suburbanites come to Camden to buy drugs or engage in other illegal activities? Yeah. I thought so.

Good Friday In North Camden

The diversity that is Camden is reflected in this Latino/a portrayal of the Good Friday.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Me or the Message?

I have had an interesting series of conversations over the last few years with my best friend. We have some definite views on the world and want to act on those views. We know that one person cannot do it all alone, but a hundred people or a thousand, or a 100,000 can do a lot more. Scale is sometimes an important dimension of planning and acting.

I teach maybe 40-100 college students a year, depending on what I teach and how many students I am in contact with. I've been teaching for enough years to have had an impact on maybe 2000 students or less. A lifetime, and I have reached a couple thousand. Of those, maybe 20-30% are actually motivated to take up what I have challenged them to do. So if 200 people are motivated and they motivate another 200, then in 20 years we might motivate 40,000. It's almost a whack-a-mole game. You knock one down and 3 more pop up. You motivate a few, but the time horizon to have a significant impact is so long that your efforts get eroded to the point of obscurity.

I am frustrated because I see how little has changed during my life in the issues that I care so deeply about. For all the millions of dollars spent on urban redevelopment and poverty, for the countless man hours by legions of people spent on community development, and the tens of thousands of houses and neighborhoods built for affordable and decent shelter - there is little to show in terms of change. We barely make a dent. It's a whack-a-mole.

I've been in and out of too many neighborhoods in too many cities hearing the same thing - good things are happening and change is coming. I said it myself in my last post. I can see a better day coming. I always tell myself it is optimism. Today, I'm thinking it is just a form of denial. Houses get boarded up, kids don't learn in school, drugs and turf wars drop lives in their prime, families fall apart, businesses fail, people get sick and die for lack of care, and hope is discarded like yesterday's news. Churches and schools say we have to save one life and teach one person at a time. Keep going and keep your eyes on the prize. It's a whack-a-mole.

The game needs to change. The message is valid, but it is not being heard. The deck is stacked against the message and won't be heard or acted upon at a sufficient level to make a difference. We have to stop playing whack-a-mole.

Question for me at this moment is, what is the new game?

Friday, April 10, 2009

Camden's Future

This has been an amazing couple of weeks for me. I am seeing transformation occur before my eyes and it is very encouraging. I feel very upbeat about possibilities here in Camden at the moment.

Rutgers-Camden just picked its new campus chancellor, Dr. Wendell Pritchett. He is a young, energetic, enthusiastic leader with a background in Law and Urban History with extensive experience in local politics, urban issues, housing, and the Obama campaign. I can't wait to see what he will bring to our campus! He also is the first African-American leader of this campus and probably the first leader of color here. I think it is vitally important that in a city where the population is nearly exclusively people of color, that the local university leadership be able to make connections. While white campus leaders can reach out, it is not the same. I think Dr. Pritchett is going to have a very big impact on Camden by demonstrating that RU-C is accessible and that we want to be a part of Camden - not apart from it.

I met this week with several students from Camden Community College who are eager to start using blogging as a tool to tell their stories, discuss issues, and get a community dialogue going. This is great, because it will give the students in Mr. Wake's class some more people to bounce off of and interact with online. I don't always have time to write every week, let alone every day and I know they are trying to be actively engaged. I list their blogs on my blogroll, but some of them have not been keeping current either. That's ok, because blogging is about your voice and what you want to say. Sometimes we don't have anything to say. But sometimes we have to stop and let things percolate. We get so busy, distracted, doing a million things, and we don't take the time to process what is going on around us. So I hope a few more blogger voices will help all of us get some inspiration and incentive to think!

Today on campus a student group organized a Community Organizing session to have some speakers talk about their experiences as organizers in Camden and elsewhere. It was a great conversation. I was one of the speakers because long ago I was an organizer and have made that topic part of my research careeer as a professor. I really believe in the power of the people to get done what they think needs doing. I believe that through empowerment, conversation, and ideas that transformation and change are possible - even in Camden.

One of the most interesting things that came out of our discussion today was that people are quick to complain about the corrupt politicians and that the politicians in this area don't listen to the people. One of the speakers commented that the voters are getting exactly the results that they have designed their system to produce. In other words, if we don't vote, if we are apathetic, then we will get politicians in office who will act accordingly, producing results we may not like, but results we should not be surprised by. If you want something different, then start doing something different. In Camden, that means more civic conversation, more voting, and holding elected officials ACCOUNTABLE.

It was on this last point that organizing can be a really effective tool. So if people in Camden got mobilized and voted in some people, you can't stop there. You have to follow people into office and hold them accountable to produce the results you want. You have to be engaged. You have to be in conversation not only with your neighbors, but with people you don't know, and with people you don't like. You can't just "fight" the power. You have to BE the power. This is what organizing is about. Several students in attendance are active in Camden organizations and pay attention to politics. But even they are demomoralized that nothing changes here! Well, you can't just sit on the sidelines. You have to get on the court. Blogging is one way to do that, because it starts, grows, and encourages a network of conversation.

Attending events and learning is another way of being on the court. We are having an event on the RU campus from 9-12 with a networking hour from 12-1 on April 22. The event is called "Fielding New Strategies in Community Development." We are inviting the professional staff of local community organizations and city staff to attend and hear about some new green ideas for community development as well as how to develop new partnerships both locally and externally. You are invited to come. Even if you can only make the lunchtime networking hour, do so! You may meet some interesting people and you may get into some good conversation! Just leave me a comment here to let me know you will attend. We need to get a sense of how many people to expect. The event will be at the Campus Center - which is in the center of campus! It is the student cafeteria and central hub. Come join the conversation!

I know there are people in Camden who care about this city, want to see improvement, know it can be a better place to live, and care about the residents - their neighbors. I do too. But we have to do more than complain. We have to talk to each other, demand better, and make it happen.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


I just read a great post by Sean at Camden Free Press, I Found My Heart in Africa.
He had a great visit to the African continent and had a transformative experience. Even amidst the brutality and suffering of the country he visited, he found beauty, soul, and hope. I'm betting he brings that new resilience back to Camden.

I have a friend that is as tough as nails and recently went through a bit of a personal challenge. She is black and was challenged by a white person in a way that was both humiliating and dangerous. She figured out a way to come out the other side while being generous and leaving her challenger some dignity.

It strikes me that no matter how much I can empathize with these two people, there is no means by which I can walk in their shoes. Sometimes people talk about women's struggles for equality as a parallel experience for racial inequality. But it is not the same if you are a white woman. Race trumps gender. I may have some inkling, but it is no substitute for racial oppression.

I raise this issue not to suggest that my friends have it worse than I do. To the contrary, I think they each have experienced a liberation in their own way that I will never know. Sitting blithly in my white skin, I will never experience that liberation. I can only project what that transformative feeling of freedom from internalized oppression must feel like. I'm probably not even expressing this very well. Reading this, it sounds condescending that you have to be oppressed to be able to feel good. That is not what I am trying to say. I am expressing that racial oppression and liberation are not something I can adequately understand. And because of that, I am ill equipped to give any person of color advice or comment on this issue. I think I have always understood that, but I probably have crossed the line many times in my attempt to be a do-gooder and empathetic. No matter how much I want to be those things, I can't. I can only be supportive. I can't be the doer.

But I can speak to white people. And that is origianally why I started this blog. I used to live in a place that had a lot of white people in the city and a substantial population of color. Now I live in a city that has a population almost exclusively people of color. I think this has had more of an impact on me than I realized. I think because I have not had anywhere to retreat, I created a little bubble of self-righteousness and intellectualism. The great white educator with some new thinking for the downtrodden Camden. I think I am probably overstating all this for effect, but it strikes me that I have been in retreat because I have never lived in an all minority city. I started my career in an all minority workplace. I had the same reaction then as I have had here. But I am much more aware and equipped to be effective now than I was then.

So maybe now I can make peace with my landing here in Camden, which has been a strange and fitfull journey for me. Maybe this is my liberation.