The Benefits of Civic Engagement in Camden

By: Philip Parmiter

As the tide of Camden’s economy and education take a turn in the same direction, it has left many residents of the city in a situation of struggle. Families struggle to obtain a career, violence incites a paranoia that outreaches even beyond the city itself and inadequate educational institutions are not successful in raising children to a higher standard. This leaves Camden with two potential solutions; increased governmental intervention or a growing community wide interest in improving the city overall. As of now, the government is gaining more political advantage as the problems befalling Camden seem irreversible. The use of Martial Law by the state, overwhelming crack down on drugs and increased surveillance contribute to the states solution of reducing crime. However, the growing collaboration of community interests stems from civic engagement; the activation of the people in the community to work together for a common cause. Besides the community organizations that have a presence in Camden, there are a wealth of active students attending Rutgers Camden that accept the job as a community benefactor. Rutgers University in Camden provides opportunity for its student body to become involved in community organizations that are based in the institution itself. With the large collection of community organizations within Camden and Rutgers, all with different and focused missions, do the residents of Camden contribute enough to Camden in order to reverse the cities declining status?
The population of Camden is roughly 74,000 people, 37 percent of Camden’s population is under 18 and almost 40 percent of Camden residents speak a language other than English at home (Spanish being the primary language). What you have here is a large democraphic of younger people who are brought up not knowing how to speak English in an area where collegiate aspirations have nearly vanished. The organizations are targeting the correct facets of change that are required for any type of success in America (assuming most residents want to leave Camden), but the “majority” of people are now becoming the people who are most in need of assistance and continue to pull down the very structure that leads to this kind of success. This relates solely to the unavoidable problem of poverty, where a distinct lower class has more control and influence over which a middle or upper class can be established. When we discussed the contributions that these community organizations have, they seemed extremely impressive and still they remain extremely impressive. However, you can see that community organization help is just a small portion of the overall contribution that Camden needs to actually fuel the revitalization that is envisioned by most activists.
Optional Civic Engagement programs offered by Rutgers University in Camden are classified into education, economic development and law and public policy. These specific problems are being addressed by the university primarily due to rising concerns of poor financing, high crime rates and failing schools. The Office of Civic Engagement is the first point of contact for the community organizations, government agencies, schools and partnerships for Camden which quickly connects its world-renowned research capabilities and vast amount of student population to a city in need of civic enthusiasm. All of the civic engagement clubs and organizations founded by Rutgers Camden affiliates are designed specifically to confront the issues of the host city, which provides for a very integrated and increasingly interactive opportunity for students and staff alike. The Camden Campaign for Children’s Literacy (CCCL) aims to begin educating children in the early stages of their lives, where their parents may be unable to provide them with the basics required for intellectual development. Vital to economic growth, the NJ Small Business Development Center (NJSBDC) is a comprehensive consulting service that utilizes its statewide network to educate potential small business owners throughout the state of New Jersey. The Senator Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs (WRI) exercises the diverse expertise of staff to utilize and engage the public, government, non-profit and community stakeholders in addressing regional challenges. The staff of WRI has addressed problems such as affordable housing, Camden School District evaluations, Opportunity Reconnect, Juvenile offenders in jail and has joint locations for organizational effectiveness.
Camden is such a special case, even when compared with cities such as Newark. Rutgers has another campus located in Newark that is also focused on civic aid for the city. Although Newark holds a medium sized population under 300,000 people, the city struggles with similar problems to Camden. Open space, accommodations, food, unemployment rating and safety are just a few similarities that both cities stuggle. The difference between the two cities is obviously the size of the two cities in general as well as Newark being an overall safer place to live. Camden’s crime and poverty rates are well above, even double the average in New Jersey and continue to climb. Community organizations are doing all they can to create a safety net of hope for thousands of these residents.
We deem institutions successful when they can achieve above and beyond not just for the students that are enrolled, but for the city and state as well. Take John Hopkins University in Baltimore as an example of this successful entity that has had a profound and prosperous effect on its city and statewide inhabitants. Analyzing background information of John Hopkins in relation to Rutgers Camden is important because there is such a clear divide in what makes an institution a failure or a success. John Hopkins has four main campuses in and around the Baltimore area while Rutgers Camden has one compact campus. Both schools are research univerities which means they aquire grant money from the state for conducting a certain amount of research per year. John Hopkins has been able to create and expand their medical programs which has lead to a large increase in student enrollment rate and a growing university in general. Rutgers Camden decided to build a Law School instead of a medical school, having had Cooper Hospital as a partner and supporter, which has acquired widespread attention and increased enrollment. Neither of these institutions, regardless of size, lacks the maturity required to carry the burden of the city in which they reside. Rutgers Camden will be offering civic engagement as a minor in its upcoming years and has clearly defined what it believes to be the most important steps in revitilizing the city of Camden. Notice how Rutgers Camden is not just pooling money into governmental assistence programs, infrastructure or businesses, but utilizing the work force they have as a guide to positive development.
A more broad collection of community activists can be found in the community organizations established within the city of Camden itself. The Camden Churches Organized for People (CCOP), lead by Reverend Willie Anderson, is a covenant among congregations that unify to take collective action against one of the prevalent concerns of the urban community: family stability. Honing their efforts into specific problems effecting families in Camden leaves the CCOP tackling and addressing problems such as rising unemployment rates, inadequate and affordable housing, healthcare and the unmet needs of the youth and senior citizens. News coverage by media organizations such as the Inquirer and the Courier Post has helped this Judeo-Christian based community organization to exert astounding amounts of contributions specifically to the City of Camden. To list a few, the CCOP has proclaimed a Vision for the Recovery of Camden that eventually led to the passage of the Camden Recovery Act in the New Jersey legislature bringing more than $200 million in new resources, along with new structures of leadership to put Camden on the road to recovery. They have created new $8 million Camden Home Improvement Program (CHIP) that is providing grants to approximately 300 Camden homeowners to upgrade their properties. The CCOP has developed multiple parks, sealed 2,000 vacant buildings and demolished over 750 hazardous units all across the city where drugs and crime had had a prevalent foothold and addressed environmental problems such as serious air pollution problems in South Camden and water contamination concerns in Cramer Hill. Camden became an immense industrial hub on the east coast during the early 1900s and stayed that way until 1969-1970. Some of the large factories and companies included Campbell’s soup, RCA, Philco and New York Shipbuilding Corporation, all of which contributed to Camden’s industrial importance in the 1900s. Along with the rising employment in the industrial era of Camden came widespread pollution and a blatant disregard for the future of the city. Initiating citywide cleanups, local school and public safety stabilization policies and committing to the development of athletic programs for the youth has become the forefront of the CCOP’s attention.
The influence of past government corruption, a deteriorating infrastructure and lack of economic resources has lead many organizations to focus primarily on the problems of the present. However, there are community organizations such as Hopeworks that focus on bettering what will be the future hope for Camden prosperity. Training the youth in current computer applications has led to 180 local, national and international small businesses and non-profit organizations to invest in the weave of opportunity that Hopeworks has created throughout Camden.Founded collaboratively from the pastoral teams of three Camden churches, two Lutheran and one Catholic, the first trainees were accepted in March 2000. The accomplishments of this growing organization include nearly 1,000 youth from the target population of Camden getting jobs, attending college and earning GED’s as well as developing lasting partnerships with six different organizations (governmental, commercial, and faith-based).
It has become fact that there has been a level of academic underachievement in Camden; having 8,000 young people dropping out of high school, the high school drop out rate at the two public high schools in Camden is nearly 80%, an alarming 34% of the city’s youth is unemployed and nearly 50% of the city’s young people live in poverty. Under these conditions, Dynamic, Realizable Efforts to Attain and Maintain Success are severely hampered, and for this reason one may sympathize easier with the efforts of such community organizations. That is why Hopeworks has developed this vision of D.R.E.A.M, to instill in these youth hope and opportunity to enhance their lives in inner-city Camden. What Hopeworks strives to create are the realistic role models that are increasingly hard to come by given the statistics that have become status quo for the city of Camden.
Community organizations have a specifically strong commitment to the city of Camden and aim to improve the lives of people in every stage of their life. The Camden Campaign for Children’s Literacy (CCCL) develops the literary skills for infants, Hopeworks educates adolescents on aquiring jobs, developing positive connections and goals, and The Camden Churches Organized for People along with the New Jersey Small Business Development Center act as guidance, security and faith for the adults involved in the struggles that accompany Camden’s decline. These outlets have been created for virtually every demographic and continue to produce promising results as they expand their partnerships, donors and aspirations in helping the city of Camden. At first glance, one acknowledges that the thousands of peoples, both young and old, are being safely allocated into a realm of stability in such an unstable world such as Camden, however the problems of the world will always catch up to those who are stable. Many aspire to leave the city and escape the poverty as opposed to contributing to a search for a solution. Can you blame these people for rising to the potential that they are born with and leaving an area that for so long was a constant battle for them? To put this situation into a realitic perspective, perhaps a second glance, reveals more startling statistics.
The median family income in the City of Camden is $24,612 compared with its neighbor New Jersey whose average family income is $65,370. In addition, 22 percent of Camden’s families earn less than $10,000 per year. Putting that percent into perspective of the cities population, you have more than 16,000 people earning a rediculously low salary, if a salary at all and a $40,758 gap between the average earnings of Camden’s own neighbor. Thinking optimistically, the community organization’s I had listed have probably amounted to directly effecting the everyday lives of less than 16,000 people. This statistic should still take nothing from what comes along with civic engagement, involving those who are only looking to benefit the city and emmersing them into the population can be life changing for so many of the cities citizens and families.
You do not have to have any preconceived notions about Camden being poverty stuck to notice that it actual is struggling with poverty, although the preconceived notions build a reputation for Camden that furthers any chance of lowered unemployment rates. My conclusion rests in the bitter hands of poverty, which is so simply explainable, yet does no justice for the situation that these people are in. Community organizations may delay the inevitable failure of the city, but it is practically impossible to surmount a full forced come back with these citizens in particular. The characteristics of failing states before the likelihood of civil war is almost exactly synonymous with that of a failing city. Poverty, rule by corupt government, poor democratic involvement, low population pressure, large number of underemployed youth, cultural and demographic stress and growing criminal activity. The results are disheartening, Simply because Camden is a city is no reason why it should be so grossly overlooked. New Jersey, the state, is responsible for its cities and will be judged accordingly.

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One Response to The Benefits of Civic Engagement in Camden

  1. Works Cited
    “Camden After the Fall” by Howard Gillette, Jr. 2006.

    Civic Engagement Programs. 2012. Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. 25th, November 2012.

    Camden Churches Organized for People. PICO National Network. Rutgers Camden. 2012. 25th November 2012.

    Hopeworks in Camden. Hopeworks Organization. 2000. 25th November 2012.

    John Hopkins University. 2012. 25th November 2012.

    New Jersey Small Business Development Center. SEMGeeks, Websignia. 2002. 25th November 2012.

    Rutgers Office of Economic Development, Camden. Rutgers, Gregory Gamble. Rutgers Camden. 25th, November 2012.

    The Camden Campaign for Children’s Literacy. 2005. Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. 25th, November.
    The Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs. Rutgers Camden. 25th November 2012.

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