The city of Camden has weathered turbulence: an eight-year-long battle against the state, which took over its finances, then its struggling schools. The city’s police force replaced in its entirety by a county force. This month residents start the process of electing new leadership, including a new mayor. To get some insight into what Camden’s facing now Briana Vannozzi sat down with Camden community activist and political strategist Sean Brown.
Vannozzi: Sean, you and I had an opportunity to meet recently at NJTV’s In Your Neighborhood Camden forum where you told me about a group you run, called Young Urban Leaders. What do you do in this group and why, from your vantage point, are young adults in Camden unable to succeed?
Brown: So, there are over 10,000 young adults in the city of Camden between the ages of 18 to 30, according to the Census. And this is a group that is out of high school, approaching a career and sometimes young people are in school, sometimes they went to school and dropped out, they are looking for employment and opportunities. And what I noticed in my community, is that just like if you want to be a good cook it’s good to take a lesson to cook better, if you want to be a good leader it’s also good to be in a formal setting where leadership development is taught and practiced. We are able to do that with trips, conferences, guest speakers and give young adults an opportunity to aspire to their dreams.
Vannozzi: What is it that’s preventing these young adults from succeeding in Camden?
Brown: There are a lot of things, from institutional racism that exists in our country on a national scale, the reputation of Camden and urban cities being negative and people when they are doing hiring not wanting to hire people that are from the city. There is also issues of generational poverty, of education attainment being difficult especially if you aren’t sure which career pathway you want.
Vannozzi: So you have been a pretty outspoken critic of Mayor Dana Redd. In fact, you’re the political strategist for Ray Lamboy who is a candidate running for her seat. How do you see the city of Camden under her leadership?
Brown: I think that Mayor Redd has great poise. She represents the city well when she travels and she’s always on message. But I think when it comes to issues like I addressed earlier related to institutional racism, having neighborhoods develop and thrive, when it comes to having city services be things that residents and the city can be happy with from a municipal court to the quality and cleanliness of streets and parks, there are still opportunities for improvement. And, more importantly, Camden is one of the unique cities where you have the chairman of hospitals that has more power than the elected person in office. And speaking of elections, Mayor Redd wouldn’t give opportunities to, has not allowed the community to vote. For example; we are the only school district in New Jersey where we can’t vote for our school board and our school board is under a state takeover, which was supported by our mayor.
Vannozzi: Well, but you were actually one of the first people Mayor Redd appointed in 2010 to be on that board and then now most recently you have been sort of ushering in this change to make this an elected board. Why?
Brown: I was appointed and I was glad to be appointed and I was proud to be appointed. I think the mayor made a good choice, and I was able to get some good things done in three years working with the team of people, including Ray Lamboy. But the law they gave her gave her the power to appoint me to the board, which is a revised law when Jon Corzine’s last month of office also gave her that power for four years. And after that term of four years, it was supposed to go back to the people to vote for their school board as almost every other school district in New Jersey. It’s important that democracy matters in the republic that we live in and it’s important that we have a chance to choose the people that sit in our school or especially if their city is under a state takeover, and especially when we have so many challenges with public education, from our district schools to renaissance and charter schools.
Vannozzi: OK, but a judge last summer ruled in favor of the board staying appointed because it’s still under state jurisdiction. I mean, how would an elected board change the outcome for these some 12,000 kids as opposed to what’s in place now?
Brown: So, our community is more awake that its ever been when it comes to public education. Fifty-five percent of families have their children go to charter or renaissance schools. Twelve thousand students, as you said, still go to schools in the district. The community voice matters. It matters who’s on the school board, how they get there but most importantly who are their allegiances is to. And is it an allegiance to a political structure that’s controlled by people that live in the suburbs, or is it controlled by people in our own communities where we are allowed to see what our own self determination is in terms of public education? Real quick, an easy example is as there are discussions underway to demolish and rebuild Camden High Schools, the conversation has been limited to what that school will look like as opposed to what is going to actually happen in terms of quality education inside of the school. How do we make sure that our children are learning 21st Century skills, especially skills that prepare them for jobs at 76ers or Subaru, some of the large, tax incentive receiving corporations that typically hire people that need bachelor’s degrees or higher.
Vannozzi: OK, but is there a problem at the grass roots level? You’ve got a city of 77,000 people and only 20 percent turnout when it comes time to vote.
Brown: There is a problem that I think it’s a problem that people that are second or third generation living in this city have not seen a government that they believe represents them and I think that too many people have made the choice to stay home on Election Day instead of seeing an election as an opportunity to pick people that do represent them. This is an election in 2017 for mayor and city council where we actually have super qualified and super community oriented people running for office and it’s up to candidates, whoever they are, to make sure they’re knocking on doors, connecting with voters and making sure that voters understand what the power of local government is and how that local government can influence their daily lives and make that experience better.
Vannozzi: You touched on it very briefly about some of these tax incentives that have gone to bring in these companies. They have been concentrated in certain areas throughout the city, but do you see an opportunity here for current residents and potential new residents to connect because of the money, the jobs, the potential that’s being brought there?
Brown: The largest corporations that are in Camden mostly hire people with bachelor’s degrees or higher and that is certainly within their business model for what they do. For a lot of people that live in Camden, once they get degrees and they make a certain amount of money, they move to the suburbs, whether its Sicklerville, Pennsauken, Cherry Hill, Merchantville, the suburbs that are right on the outskirts of Camden. So, the opportunity comes in: how do we connect these corporations, which are receiving a collective of over $1.4 billion in tax cuts, how do we connect them to the community in the greatest needs whether that’s through mentorships, apprenticeships, scholarships, summer jobs? And how do we do this on a large scale so it’s not here a little, there a little but something that is massive, that is organized and something where city government, including the mayor and city council, and the corporations in the community are able to come together to forge community benefits agreements.
Vannozzi: And that’s where obviously your group comes in. Sean Brown, thanks so much for sitting down to speak with us.
Brown: Your welcome, have a good day.