Camden has been called the most dangerous place in the nation, the murder capital of the country and a city in ruin. A recent Rolling Stone article dubbed it America's "most desperate town."
Last week, 20 teenagers who call Camden home gave poetic accounts of what it is like to grow up in the city at the first Youth for Truth Spoken Word Event, a poetry slam organized by Camden Churches Organized for People in conjunction with the Camden County Cultural and Heritage Commission.
The audience of about 200 listened to the rarely heard from demographic group that knows, perhaps better than anyone else, what goes on in their city.
"Did you ever walk to school and see needles on the ground?" Jyiana Acrey, 14, asked the audience.
"Have you ever tried to sleep but the silence kept you woke
or went to school and came out, and all you smell was weed smoke?
Have you ever turned on the news to find that someone you love was gone so soon
or prayed upon the moon
that your friend would get off the corner soon?"
CCOP sent invitations to area high schools, community groups, and churches to attend the two-hour competition at Rutgers' Gordon Theater. Twenty students recited original poems for the crowd and four judges. Three winners were selected in three age groups. All participants received $25 gift cards and first, second and third place winners received $100, $50, and $25 gift cards.
CCOP hopes to hold the event annually and continue programming throughout the year, including mentoring and offering music and spoken-word recording opportunities to students.
"We know students are getting in touch with violence in the community. We understand they're dealing with it. But how are they dealing with it? How can we reach out to them and give them a platform to express that?" said Dave Watkins, music coordinator at Creative Arts High School. Watkins helped organize the event and led a jazz band that performed between poets.
Most poets lamented the problems in the city, but threaded throughout were themes of staying true to themselves and shunning the violent culture around them.
"Dear Woman in the heartless city," Armani Walker, 17, said into a microphone, reading from an iPad:
"I apologize on my behalf
to all women young or old
for every tear drop that has left your cheek
and painted your pillow with the memories of a man that has hurt you.
Know that this was not our intent
but men are brainwashed soldiers
whose words are like bullets that pierce women's hearts like nails."
Walker, who received third place and a $25 gift card for his poem in the 15- 17-year-old category, said he was inspired by a poem by Joshua Bennett titled, "Ten things I want to say to a black woman."
"Women nowadays choose to go with men that treat them like crap instead of who honor who they are," Walker said. "It was kind of a tribute to them." Walker, who will graduate from LEAP Academy High School this spring, and hopes to attend Fairleigh Dickinson University in the fall to study nursing.
The crowd supported the poets through tough moments - one 14-year-old contestant spoke to his estranged father in his poem, describing a tattoo the father received with his name and incorrect birth date. "You're just a person to me now that I'm forced to call dad," he said at the end of the piece.
One girl was brought to tears on stage while recalling news of a shooting in her neighborhood.
Zaire Cooley, 17, a senior at LEAP, brought some humor to the night with his poem "How to Survive in Camden." He described a day he took a shortcut home through the backstreets "thinking (he) was tough" and encountered an armed drug dealer. "I was sure it was the end of my life and I still had to do the dishes," he said.
Cooley ended his poem, which was peppered with lyrics from modern pop and rap songs, with a statement many of the participants could relate to.
"Camden is really not all that bad.
I walk around in Camden every day
And I still last."
Deja Peterson and Zaire Cooley recite their winning entries at the Camden Poetry Slam.