Beyond Borders: Unveiling Deep Rooted Dynamics Between Camden City, Large Corporations, and Rutgers

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I saw a City Invincible 2003 mural by Cesar Viveros (photo from X/@cesarmural)

Story by Amaya Solar

In the heart of Camden City, lies an intersection often overlooked: Rutgers University and the
Camden community. This relationship, often marked by both collaboration and contention,
mirrors broader interactions between universities and the cities they inhabit. To unravel the
dynamic of this relationship, I sat down with three influential voices: Dr. Stephen Danley,
Director of the Center for Urban Research and Education (CURE) and associate professor of
public policy and administration; Ronsha Dickerson, an advocate and leader of community
empowerment serving as Chair of Camden, We Choose and National Organizer for The Journey for
Justice Alliance; and Asiyah Kurtz, the executive director of Camden FireWorks creating art for
social change.

With Dr. Stephen Danley’s expertise in urban studies, he offers an academic perspective into the
detailed relations between Rutgers University and the city of Camden. Danley, having resided in Camden
for 11 years, arrived with the belief that “If I want to be here, I have to live here,” to show that
he’s serious about being part of the community. He wanted to challenge the idea of just doing
research from a distance, which he calls “helicopter research”. Danley stresses the significance of
the individuals who supported him when he first arrived in Camden. He specifically mentions the
late Colandus ‘Kelly’ Francis, the former longtime head of the NAACP in Camden County.
Francis, a powerful activist, not only educated Danley about Camden’s history but also infused
hope into a time marked by despair for organized progressive movements. Danley describes his
work as, “relational, I made my life here, I became a part of the community here, I became a
part of the movements, I was interested in studying and my work has grown out of those
relationships.” He believes genuine change begins with building trust through understanding the
people and culture of Camden and being invited into spaces within the community. Further
efforts to foster connections with the Camden community are exemplified by Danley’s
collaboration with Joseph Russell. Inspired by Ray Lamboy’s concept, they initiated a project to
bus people from Rutgers University to Camden’s restaurants for lunch, ultimately establishing the Camden Supper Club. This initiative aimed to introduce students to Camden’s culinary scene, often
overshadowed by negative media coverage. To counteract biased reviews that portrayed Camden
as unsafe, Danley’s students wrote positive Yelp reviews, encouraging consumers to support
local restaurants. “There is so much Camden has to offer that is not visible if you’re not rooted in

CURE’s driving goals are to foster academic life with an education mission for students and
faculty, a traditional research mission that matters to the city’s justice issues, and finally doing
work directly with community members. Danley trains his students to hear when they are doing
harm or not contributing to the cause the way community members want. Camden residents have
had negative experiences with Rutgers Police over the years, “for years the Rutgers Police was
used as a force to enforce the boundaries of the Rutgers Campus…sometimes we can brag about our community engaged work without thinking about the core of what our University is doing.”
Danley listed his largest critiques of Rutgers: “I don’t think we should have a police force, I
think we need to be more cooperative with development and I think we should be paying
PILOTs (payment in lieu of taxes)”. These critiques highlight structural issues that must be
addressed to ensure that positive work, whether through CURE or other initiatives, doesn’t
overshadow underlying problems, Danley says.

To fully understand Camden’s distrust of big institutions like Rutgers, we need to explore the
underlying reasons for their reluctance. “Camden is often criticized from around the state as
being a place where we throw money at problems, … when we throw money at a problem, who
catches the money?” Danley adds. When asked about Camden’s relationship with subsidies
moving into their city, Danley brings up the fact that corporations like Holtec, Campbell’s Soup,
Triad1828 Centre, and Subaru, “create little fortresses that have very little to do with the local
economy”. Very few Camden residents are being hired at these companies and their existence is
intentional due to the tax cuts they receive to reside in Camden. These corporations make it so
that their staff does not interact with the Camden community, these buildings are enclosed by
fences and offer numerous parking spaces to prevent the use of public transportation.
Additionally, for those who do use public transit like PATCO, there are shuttle buses provided to
avoid passing by local businesses, and the buildings themselves often have cafeterias inside.
“What I would argue is that 1.6 billion dollars for which the justification was improving a city
got captured by private companies, and that’s heartbreaking”. As Danley sees it,
Students have been the driving force behind the changes Danley has witnessed during his time
living in Camden and teaching at Rutgers. There’s a significant stigma surrounding Camden,
evident in media, conversations, and academia. Danley urges us to acknowledge that students are
starting to view Camden beyond its longstanding labels. Danley attributes the shift in student
perceptions to Gen Z’s political awareness and the diversification of the student body, including
efforts to bring in more residents from Camden and other diverse backgrounds. He also credits
the efforts of campus leaders like Dr. Nyeema Watson and community partnerships with
individuals like Roncha Dickerson and Asiyah Kurtz for combating negative stigmas about
Camden. Students are seeking genuine experiences and a departure from the “ivory tower”
mentality. Danley highlighted that “community organizations are doing double work.” Meaning
they’re not only improving communities but also reshaping Rutgers’ perception of Camden.

As previously mentioned by Dr. Stephen Danley, the passionate advocate for Camden residents,
Ronsha Dickerson sat down with me to share her experience working with Rutgers and private
corporations. Dickerson, a proud mother and grandmother, began her journey in community-
based organized work through Unity Community Center where she specializes in African
dancing and drums, martial arts, and music, to “help youth understand their genius in urban
communities”. Her leadership in Camden, We Choose, aims for education, housing, food
production, employment, safety, and healthcare improvements in Camden.

The group collaborates with other Camden organizations, such as New Jersey Working Families,
Camden Parent Student Union, as well as advocacy groups focusing on environmental and
economic justice birthing their coalition. “Bringing in big corporations to Camden was supposed to mean more job opportunities for residents,” Dickerson recalls. She remembers when jobs at places like Campbell’s Soup and the waterfront docks provided steady employment to residents like her mother and father. “If you’re going to give these people no taxes … at least make it to where it is lucrative to the community and residents are able to work in these spaces”. The need for these corporations to benefit the community was desired. Residents want more than just entry-level positions; they seek
opportunities for career advancement and higher-level roles. However, obstacles such as
educational requirements often hinder residents from accessing these jobs. Dickerson questions
why corporations came to Camden if they weren’t going to prioritize hiring local residents.
Efforts were made to gather signatures for a petition proposed by Camden, We Choose. They
aimed to change the law so that corporations hiring at least 25 employees must disclose how
many are Camden residents. “People were standing in line to sign that petition…our goal was to
hit the streets to get 750 signatures”. Excited about the overwhelming support, they collected
around 1200 signatures, exceeding the required amount. However, the city council rejected 500
of them, claiming they didn’t meet their standards. Despite feeling discouraged, they addressed
the city council where President Angel Fuentes criticized Dickerson and her team for not
following proper signature procedures. However, undeterred, they organized a rally with the
assistance of support groups and individuals, ultimately gathering around 1000 additional
signatures required for the petition. The next step was to present the matter to the city council for
a vote. If the council rejected it, residents would then vote directly on the referendum during the
November midterm election. Initially, the City Council didn’t want to vote on the matter, so a
lawsuit was filed to challenge their decision. The judge ruled in favor of Camden’s coalitions and
residents, making it law since September 7th, 2022, that every February and August,
corporations with 25 or more employees must report how many are Camden residents. The first
report in February 2023 revealed that in about 10 large Camden corporations, only 1% of their employees are Camden residents. While there has been some upward change in employment percentages, Danley emphasizes that “The gains that are coming in Camden residential hiring is not being the goodwill of private corporations but is being the result of Camden residents organizing and
holding companies accountable for keeping their promises.”

Dickerson describes Rutgers’s efforts to connect with Camden residents as being like a “bubble”
that separates the institution from the city, creating a divide. She faced challenges in trying to
collaborate with Rutgers’ Fine Arts and Gordon Theater to showcase underrepresented sides of
Camden through art shows, plays, and music. “There were so many loopholes and trade tape to
get Rutgers to become a good partner with residents in Camden.” However, she notes a positive
change with faculty like Dr. Stephen Danley, who supported grassroots organizations and used academia to advocate for social justice. “He was with us when we were fighting for the winning
back of our local school board. He was with us when we were fighting for safe schools in
Camden…he was showing his humility and support for the things that Camden’s grassroots
organizations were doing and he wasn’t afraid to utilize his academic side and his classroom to
tell the story.” Academia plays a big part in fighting for social justice, “he knew that data and
research were going to take us to the next level.”Dickerson emphasizes the importance of access
to Danley’s graduate fellows for their data expertise. She appreciates efforts from individuals like
Dr. Green and Dr. Nilson, but believes Rutgers needs to foster trust and true partnership by
allowing faculty like Danley to showcase what collaboration really looks like. “Where Rutgers
can do better is to allow the Dr. Danley’s and Professor Green’s and other folks on that campus
to show that partnership looks like trust.” She urges Rutgers to realize if they open their gates,
they must allow members to “not visit the campus to be the campus.”

Dickerson ended our conversation highlighting the opportunities for Rutgers students to make a
difference on campus and in Camden. She encouraged students to join social clubs, connect with
grassroots organizations, and engage in political activities, such as organizing debates for local
candidates. She stressed the importance of voting in local elections, volunteering in community
meetings, and staying connected to Camden’s progress. Dickerson expressed appreciation for
individuals like Dr. Danley and Jim Brown who have worked for positive change. She hopes for
greater respect towards Rutgers Camden from South Jersey, emphasizing the potential for
collaboration between Rutgers and Camden residents to achieve significant outcomes despite
Camden’s size.

Asaiyah Kurtz, originally from Memphis, Tennessee, and the executive director of Camden
Fireworks, found exploring Camden to be a rewarding experience. Through this, Kurtz and her
team developed a mission to use art for social change. They provided low-rent studios and
workshops to engage artists, resulting in nearly $50,000 invested in local artists through
employment opportunities and exhibitions. Kurtz also collaborates with other organizations to
advocate for issues like environmental justice in various ways.

The city has had trouble in the past with developing a public art program due to none of
the city budget being dedicated to the arts, and Kurtz wants to “establish a model that is said to be
environmentally overburdened and make it a national example of how inclusive, environmentally
friendly public art…can engage the community.” Camden FireWorks is teaming up with the city
to turn vacant lots into public art spaces. They’re offering paid apprenticeships to artists who
want to learn how to use these areas creatively, according to Kurtz. Currently, Camden
FireWorks is running a project funded by Rutgers’ Diversity, Inclusion, and Community
Engagement (DICE) office to conduct community mapping. This creates an overlay on the map
of Waterfront South, identifying key areas where improvements can be made to enhance safety,
such as clearing weeds or improving lighting. Kurtz explains that some Camden organizers may
feel uncomfortable seeking funding from Rutgers due to a “perception, and I don’t know how warranted it is but Rutgers tends to throw its weight around that does not include the community.” It’s suggested that Rutgers should build trusting relationships with local organizations to encourage them to seek support for their projects.

“I want to share a story. I was talking with a gentleman in the neighborhood about a focus group
that was happening, and…he told me ‘I am so tired of being studied’. You know what’s going
on…why do you keep asking me to repeat the same thing if you never fix it.” Kurtz emphasizes
the need to stop viewing Camden as a place needing fixing, disregarding its residents’ agency
and power. Many longtime residents have deep connections to the community, and we should
identify and strengthen those bonds. “There is some history, some connection to place…and we
need to be identifying them so that we can strengthen those and partner with folks who know
best their community.” She describes stories of institutional powers often imposing their ideas on
urban areas without considering residents’ perspectives. Building true relationships between
institutional powers and local residents is essential for improving Camden neighborhoods
collaboratively according to Kurtz.

Kurtz emphasizes that people already have power; organizations like Camden FireWorks don’t
give it to them. However, “sharing the institutional power that FireWorks has” can help amplify
this power by sharing its institutional resources. Kurtz ensures that their work respects and
honors people’s inherent power and voices. She believes it’s crucial for organizations like
Camden FireWorks to go beyond the status quo and challenge and question existing power
dynamics to bring about meaningful change.

To stay connected with the organizations mentioned, I encourage you to follow them on social
media and visit their websites. Keep informed about their latest initiatives, events, and
opportunities to get involved. Visit the websites of CURE and Camden FireWorks. If you’d like
to receive updates from Stephen Danley and CURE, please sign up here. Follow CURE on X
@CureRutgers, @camdenfireworks on Instagram, and @Camedn,WeChoose on Facebook.
Thank you for reading and for your interest in supporting their work.

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