Felisha Reyes-Morton describes the early years of her life as “forced into maturity,” having to take on a series of big responsibilities she wasn’t prepared for.
Born to parents who moved from Puerto Rico to North Camden in the 1960s, she was raised most of her life by a single mother after the drug-related torture slaying of her father when she was a year old. Her mother wanted to distance Reyes-Morton and her two younger siblings from their “local roots” in North Camden by moving the family to the Parkside neighborhood, which she understood was less affected by poverty, crime, drugs and incarceration.
Then, she remembers the bittersweet moment when her mother, allowed leave from a five-year federal prison sentence for Reyes-Morton’s Sweet Sixteen celebration, had to depart, transforming it to a farewell party. While her grandmother took custody of Reyes-Morton and her younger siblings, the teen acted as the head of her household.
These days, Reyes-Morton, 30, the youngest member of Camden City Council (the second-youngest to serve in its history) sees her role in local leadership as holding herself accountable to a community that helped her understand the cultural roots she was sometimes denied as a child.
She is the founder (with her husband Bryan Morton) of the Community Building Corporation and the North Camden Little League, and has served as the vice president of nonprofit Concerned Citizens of North Camden and a member of the Camden County Democratic Committee.
Between 2011 and 2018, as a board member of Camden City School District, she launched a gifted and talented pilot program, partnering with private donors to build new STEM labs in its schools, and brought in more than $250 million in investments for new school buildings.
In February 2019, she was elected to fill the seat on Camden City Council vacated by Luis López. And this month, she started a three-year term, becoming the first Latina to represent the 4th Ward since redistricting. Reyes-Morton lives in North Camden with her husband and their three daughters, ages 11, 5, and 3.
My mother currently lives in Puerto Rico. She is very proud of the life that I have created for myself and that part of it is dedicated to working toward healing Camden, as she always encourages me to follow my heart when it comes to giving back to the city that has given so much to me through my life.
You know, when I was growing up I was that girl who would always wear Jordan sneakers and sweatpants to go everywhere, the one who needed to take care of her siblings, administrate my family’s finances, do food shopping, buy school supplies, translate for a grandmother with diabetes living on Social Security with a language barrier. We understand [North Camden residents] because we know … what it’s like to struggle for stability, because we are them and they are us. Now, we bring that perspective — and give back to the community — by connecting our people with local government and showing our people how to proceed into the next phase of their lives without losing their sense of community.
Unpacking the experience of women who come from island identities, the generational customs and cultural concepts of our families, and how they have been tainted in this city’s perception has been the greatest challenge. To demonstrate that we can be educated, that we can drive this city and region to growth and success ... that our women can give hugs and kisses, raise kids, lead men and be powerful is a strong message and responsibility when I, myself, feel like I’ve been forced into maturity. I see these [local government] opportunities as ways to avoid future generations — and my own children — from having to mature before time because of their circumstances.
We’ve learned that there are different leadership styles and approaches, when it comes to being present and really impact people’s lives when severely affected by crime and poverty. I strongly believe that trauma has helped me build skills needed to work through the cultural dynamics, to take ownership for people’s rights. Sharing with the people at the front porch steps is always a win-win, as our people learn how to advocate for themselves while we learn better on how to carry the message that this city — and its people — need to be respected.