“[Rebuilding Camden] also requires Camden residents to participate in the public discourse and community meetings when we have them and the work sessions to rebuild the great city of Camden,” Mayor Dana Redd, who is up for re-election this Tuesday, explained at a recent mayoral debate.
Youth from the North Camden Little League warm up between innings at Pyne Poynt Park. Photo credit: Brian Gregg.
This comment took me by surprise – partially because it seemed to be a jab at the very people whose vote she seeks, and partially because I have never seen her at community or resident-planned events in North Camden, Whitman Park, or Downtown. Yet, the question often comes to mind – why don’t residents show up for such meetings? Why don’t residents participate? Why is voter turnout perpetually low?
As a staff member of the North Camden Schools Partnership at Rutgers University-Camden, I have seen the breakdown of democratic engagement and community involvement first-hand. At back-to-school nights less than thirty percent of parents attend; planning meetings for a revitalized North Camden waterfront consist of mostly stakeholders speaking on behalf of neighborhood residents; and in the lounge of the Rutgers-Camden Student Center, a city polling station, poll-workers have told me they have become accustomed to low voter turnout. Low resident participation often leads to the labeling of Camdenites as people who just don’t care.
“People always ask me why I don’t go to (school) board meetings,” one Camden resident and parent said as we chatted in her East Camden home, “I am not going to waste my time or breath to tell people something when they don’t care and won’t do anything about it.”
In a city where the politics have been a pawn of a political machine, the public schools have been taken over by the state, and the city police department has been replaced with a county force that only patrols Camden city, it is not a surprise that residents feel disenfranchised and powerless.
At the same time, I have spent Saturdays with students and parents at North Camden Little League games in Pyne Poynt Park, and not seen one person from the organization planning the park’s redevelopment. I have enjoyed street festivals and parades, ones that travel the length of three neighborhoods, yet the crowds thin when they pass through the Rutgers-Camden campus. I have spoken to a city-council candidate whose grassroots campaign has exposed the not-so-surprising truth that the last time most people had a candidate knock on their door was more than a decade ago. Many community leaders and organizations don’t acknowledge that they themselves are not showing up when and where Camden residents do show up.
The trust between city decision makers and the people of Camden is broken. It needs repair. In order for residents to begin to believe their best interest is at heart, their leaders, city planners, and institutions must take the first step: showing up.
Showing up means stepping out of the nine-to-five mold and engaging with people on their level and in their neighborhoods. It means spending a Saturday afternoon in the summer at Pyne Poynt Park, taking in the baseball games, seeing kids running around and swimming in the park’s pool. It also means observing the individuals doing drugs on the outskirts of the park. If we do not show up to see how parks are used, nor are we connected to the people who use them, how can we effectively plan their future design? How can we create a future space that will not be utilized by drug users if we do not know of their constant presence in the current space? If we are unable to reach out in this manner it will continue to be a struggle to get residents involved in community meetings, city elections, and “work sessions.” Why would residents show-up when they know those asking for their attendance have not done their homework and made the necessary connections?
We must also look at the accessibility of these meetings. For instance, I have attended a mayoral debate and community planning meeting at noon, which is inconvenient to the very residents we wish to be involved. In addition, meetings at city locations, such as on the Rutgers Campus, are not easily accessible nor open to most residents. We must shift the focus of convenience away from ourselves and towards the residents. When we overlook these important factors, we send a message that we have no intention to hear real community input.
In the same mayoral debate, Mayor Redd responded to a question regarding the possibility of disagreeing with residents with these words: “I choose to tell folks what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.” The assumption that what she has to say is correct and more important than those who disagree leads me to what is quite easily the most important aspect of re-engaging residents in their city: listening.
“I don’t like when people talk down to me — just because they have more education or a better job, what I say doesn’t matter,” continued the East Camden parent who has been disempowered by the disenfranchisement. In order to get folks out to vote, out for back-to-school nights, involved in neighborhood planning meetings, and present at council and school board meetings, we must ensure them that what they have to say matters. We do this by listening: listening without judgment, without minimizing concerns, and without pushing our own agenda.
In my experience, these steps have helped me make positive strides with my students, made way for awesome and real conversations with my hardest-to-reach parents, and have helped get more families to come out to neighborhood and Rutgers-sponsored events.
In order to increase democratic engagement and community involvement that will lead to inclusive and dynamic decision making in the city of Camden, we, as leaders, planners, organizations, and institutions, must change the way we interact with our communities.
Post by Brian Gregg.