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Monday, August 23, 2010

Opportunity Knocks in Camden and KC...Will They Answer?

As I sit here in Camden, I'm reading stories about a 14 year old girl who is sentenced to 20 years in prison for a torture killing and the fact that the Camden City library system may merge with the County to keep at least one branch open. A poor city is fiddling while it's foundations burn to ashes. The mayor issued a press statement this week to reassure the community that she is working to keep the place afloat, but that the budget is completely underwater. It has been for years, but the Democratic governor and legislature kept propping it up so as to maintain some semblance of viability. The current mayor got stuck holding the bag when a Republican governor took over.

But those are just the superficial features of a city that is deeply damaged. Unfortunately, city leaders would much prefer to play superficial politics than to actually address the foundational problems of this city.

Next week I begin teaching a Community Development class in the new Ph.D. program of the same name at Rutgers-Camden. My goal is to provide an incubator for the most cutting-edge thinking we can generate on creating sustainable community development - that is sustainable economically, socially, environmentally, and politically, and provides reality-connected policy options for social justice, social enterprise, and citizen empowerment/capacity building.

I see other cities actually undertaking these issues - Detroit, Cleveland, Syracuse - the other poster cities for rustbelt decline. Camden can join those cities and succeed in a new economy. But it must engage its people and stop trying to deliver them.

I spent a good bit of my summer working on a campaign in Kansas City called Opportunity Knocks. The goal, which is being met, is to knock on all the household doors in the KCMO School District and have a transformative conversation with residents. A transformative conversation talks about what is possible, what is working, and why clinging to a negative conversation about the district is not getting us anywhere. A transformative conversation opens possibilities, empowers people to make a difference, and creates a collective path for engagement. Opportunity Knocks offered a half-dozen ways that people could be involved with the scholars, the district, their local school as a means to embrace that engagement. So far, nearly 1500 people have signed up as we brought that conversation to their doorstep. Many said they had never been personally contacted or asked. Many said they wanted to support the district, but didn't know how. Many said they understand the importance of having a functioning, quality school district but have felt it is beyond hope to make this district actually succeed.

Kansas City has experienced an extraordinary process this summer. Opportunity Knocks is an amazing success and it has another full week and weekend to go. It will succeed in hitting every area, neighborhood, and nearly every door in the district. But that is just the window dressing. The real issue is that people have been engaged, touched, moved, and inspired to consider a completely different conversation and aspiration for the school district. This will have an effect on the scholars. Imagine you attend school in a district where the news and all public commentary tells you constantly that your district sucks and it is a failure. How well will you learn? Now, imagine you attend school in a district where the news and public commentary tells you they want to do whatever it takes to ensure the district succeeds. Your learning potential may actually increase.

What goes on inside the classroom is primarily about teachers and students. But the baggage they bring to the classroom is an enormous barrier to learning or is an exceptional supplement to learning. There is a choice.

Camden has such a choice too. It can continue to live into a conversation that says it is a crime infested, broke-a$$ city that will always be losing, or it can create a conversation of renaissance. So far, the city leadership does not seem to understand these options. But I have a strong sense of expectation that if the conversation of renaissance were carried to the residents, it would resonate and transformation would occur. We forget how powerful we can be just by how we conduct ourselves. Waiting for someone to give us power is like waiting for a bus that never comes. Opportunity is Knocking, Camden...Will You Answer?