Camden's Young Community Leaders Fight Tenaciously for the City's Future
Tara Nurin of Flykite
"Where others see disrepair, some see vision."
If it weren't for this spirit of optimism -- articulated here by Camden, New Jersey activist Andrew Adams -- Philadelphia's neighbor to the east might have been abandoned by leadership not long after industry did the same in the mid-to-late twentieth century. Yet despite Camden's status as one of the nation's poorest and most violent cities per capita, there are those who stay and fight for safer streets, better schools, an expanded tax base, equal access to healthcare and increased diversity.
These four young, passionate crusaders have chosen Camden. With their talent, education and experience, opportunities are available far beyond the shadow of the Ben Franklin Bridge. They can envision a bright future for this city, with its spectacular views, charming architecture and rich history. By tackling the structural underpinnings of a modern city -- development, education, healthcare and community organization -- they are pointing the way forward.
Nyeema Watson grew up as one of 11 children in East Camden. Her father was a custodian and her mom stayed at home, ceaselessly supplementing her brood by fostering handfuls of other kids. Out of all of these children, Watson was one of two to attend post-secondary school, thanks to a teacher who mentored her through her pre-college years.
After graduating from Rutgers-Camden (RUC), Watson obtained a master's degree in education from the University of Pennsylvania. Then she returned to Camden, where she's pursuing a PhD in Childhood Studies and leading two of RUC's most transformative community programs as Director of Public School Partnerships.
One program involves establishing after-school offerings in North Camden, but it's the Rutgers Future Scholars Program, established in 2007, that really grips Watson's heart.
The program provides full scholarships and fees to students from Camden high schools who graduate and get accepted to Rutgers. To qualify, they also have to participate in a five-year mentorship in which university students and faculty offer tutoring and life guidance. The first cohort is set to graduate from high school this year.
"You wait for the acceptances and it's very stressful," she says. "You're like a second mom."
Over the years, Watson truly has become like a parent to some of these teens, going so far as to spend weekends taking them to the movies, bringing them to cultural and historical institutions in Philadelphia, and opening a personal bank account to pay for their trips and other expenses. She says keeping connected and becoming part of students' non-academic lives is part of the job for her and the seven employees she supervises.
"I can tell you their birthdays, parents' jobs, hopes and dreams, heartbreaks," she says. "In order to be successful … we have to steer them toward resources and advocate for students who are failing a class, whose houses have caught on fire, whose relatives have passed away."
Her dedication has not gone unnoticed. Then-acting Gov. Richard Codey named her as the first representative from RUC to sit on Camden's school board. Then, a year ago, she was appointed to the board of Camden's non-profit Center for Family Services. In 2012, she was one of 15 national recipients of the inaugural White-Riley-Peterson Policy Fellowship to study and implement best practices in after-school and expanded learning programs.
"The hope with the work I'm doing is that it's going to provide children and youth the opportunities I've had," she says. "I certainly wouldn't have imagined I'd be sitting in this seat."
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