A few weeks ago, I watched a video on Facebook posted by a community activist and educator highlighting the scene at the Seventh and Clinton Street Park in Camden. What she saw was alarming: drug paraphernalia and drug use happening alongside children playing, at daytime, and in the full view of police.
This activist rightly called out that such a scene isn’t tolerated in the suburbs, and rightly asked: Why is it tolerated in Camden? She declared at that moment, as others had as well, “not in my park.”
She and others have turned a moment into a movement, starting with a community day at the Seventh and Clinton Street Park on Aug. 7 to make that park, and others, the safe havens for children they were designed to be — by encouraging local kids to take ownership in the parks and having open conversations with drug users about safety in those spaces. These organizers have partnered with organizations such as Volunteers of America to encourage rehabilitation, not punishment.
While this initiative has the backing of various stakeholders in the city, including government, law enforcement, and social service organizations, this initiative was created and is led by members of the community, public servants such as educators, retired residents, and leaders of community organizations — individuals I am proud to say that I’ve gone to school with and worked with.
This isn’t the only community-led initiative in Camden. Yet, it’s a story about the city that doesn’t often get told.
Residents are currently organizing to combat a safety problem happening in senior housing throughout the city. Residents also sparked the movement against the illegal dumping of waste that poses a health hazard to the community.
Yet the narrative surrounding Camden residents, since I was a child, was that residents don’t care; that the crime and poverty that cloud the circumstances of Camden residents is because of their own actions, as opposed to policy decisions or neglect.
I remember a former white colleague at work telling me that she and her husband would drive their children through Camden to show them what a lack of hard work will yield them. Corporate executives whose companies received millions in tax breaks — due to policy decisions from city and state officials — have said similar things.
These comments reflect a common stereotype — one that demeans the people of Camden and flat-out ignores the activism of residents tackling issues from park and senior citizen safety to environmental hazards.
It reminds me of when Black folk call out racism, including in policing, and get asked: What about “Black on Black crime”? Beyond referencing a myth that wrongly assigns a broad trend — most murder victims are killed by someone of their own race — to Black communities, the question ignores how often Black folk call out the violence in our neighborhoods and organize to combat it. While others may give up on the education of Black and brown students, Black and brown folk organize to both support and supplement student learning in schools.
Whether it is violence, environmental racism, or the struggles of addiction, Black and brown people are the ones organizing and advocating on behalf of our communities.
Because the truth is that the noise we hear from others about fighting racism, poverty, or inequity of any sort is because they heard the noise of Black and brown folk first.
Change is happening in Camden because the residents care. They care about parks being safe for children. They care about how city functions are carried out and how their children are educated.
Camden residents care about their own — and they care about those from the outside who find themselves in our city. The question is, who outside of Camden and among those tasked with “serving” it really cares about Camden residents?
Rann Miller is an educator and freelance writer based in South Jersey. His “Urban Education Mixtape” blog at urbanedmixtape.com supports urban educators and parents of children attending urban schools. @UrbanEdDJ