Hometown: Charlotte, NC
Minor: Mathematics; Poverty and Human Capability Studies
Why did you apply for this particular internship? I had gained a lot of knowledge over the past three semesters studying poverty and had formed many personal views about the issues surrounding poverty, but I had yet to take action on these. I was seeking an opportunity this summer to put into action all that I had been studying. I had written extensively about my views on the proper policy responsibilities of the government, of citizens, and of the poor, but I wanted to put these opinions to the test. I knew that it wouldn't be until I left the theoretical world of a blank Word document for the real world that I would truly be able to shape my opinions and understand the complexities that accompany reality.
How did your work apply to your studies at W&L? My work with Cooper's Ferry Partnership really was the perfect intersection of my interests in Poverty studies and Economics. CFP's overarching goal is to attract businesses and developers to Camden in order to make the city a place where people want to "live, work and invest." The typical urban economic development model does not completely apply to Camden because of the poverty experienced by a large percentage of residents. CFP must adapt its development strategies to consider issues such as the employment and retention of residents, a limited market, and public safety that typically scare off investors. I learned a lot this summer about maintaining the delicate balance between business/development interests and the residents' livelihoods. Community development is a crucial piece to the puzzle because the neighborhoods require investment, revitalization and stabilization to attract more of the desired economic development.
What was the most unexpected aspect of your Shepherd Alliance experience? I have never been in the South Jersey/Philadelphia area, so I knew very little about where I was coming to live for eight weeks. I was not expecting the extreme contrast between Camden and the wealthier surrounding suburbs. When you are driving, the transition between idyllic suburbia and urban poverty is very startling. So many people living within ten miles of Camden have lifestyles that are worlds apart from those of Camden residents.
Favorite W&L Memory: Tubing down the Maury River with friends during Spring Term
Favorite Class: The Economics of Social Issues with Professor Goldsmith
Favorite W&L Event: Halloween on Windfall (minus trying to get an entire pledge class to agree on one costume!)
Favorite Campus or Lexington Landmark: The view of campus and Lexington from the girl's lacrosse field
Advice for prospective or first-year students? Try out as many things as you can in your first year. You never know what will end up becoming your passion for the next four years.
Panic. That's the word that comes to mind when I think about when we first drove into Camden, N.J. We were driving in and admiring the beautiful skyline of Philadelphia to our left when we realized our final exit was on our right. As we descended into Camden from I-676, I tried to remain calm. My greatest concern when thinking about this summer had been that I just couldn't picture what Camden would be like. It was the great unknown. I had no point of reference and no concept of what to expect. I didn't have an image in my head for where I would be living, where I would be working, or what I would be doing. And then there it was. Our GPS told us to turn left on a street, but it was one way so we had to keep driving deeper into the North Camden neighborhood. I learned later that this neighborhood was one of the poorest and least stable parts of the city. The first thought that came to my mind was that it was scary. As our car bumped along the horribly paved roads, we passed rows of rundown houses and strained to decipher the street signs, many of which were either missing or painted with graffiti. Camden surely wasted no time plunging us right into the urban poverty that would surround us for the next eight weeks.
After our not-so-smooth arrival to Camden, I was definitely nervous about straying far from either the Rutgers-Camden campus or my office building. So when my supervisor informed me that I would be going out into the neighborhood of East Camden to do property surveys, I cannot say I was very comfortable with the idea. I still was a little unsure after the experience of the Camden neighborhood the first day and did not know how to reconcile all the safety warnings I had heard with the reality that I would be out and about in these neighborhoods all day, every day. However, there is only so much you can learn from inside an office building. I realized that this was the opportunity I had been hoping for this summer--a chance to take all my knowledge and opinions about issues of poverty out into the community, put them to the test and let my experiences confirm, shape or change all that I thought I knew.
So block-by-block, lot-by-lot, we walked down the sidewalks of East Camden examining the condition and occupancy of each parcel of land. Armed with a clipboard, a map, and two iPhones to record data, we looked like tourists who have gotten VERY lost. In a city where only about 15% of the population is white, and in a neighborhood where the percentage is smaller than that, it was very apparent that the young white girl with the clipboard, Nike running shorts, and a sorority t-shirt did not belong. The property survey was part of a Wells Fargo Regional Foundation grant that St. Joseph's Carpenter Society in Camden had received in order to create a resident-driven neighborhood plan for East Camden. The first step in this planning process was to get an accurate picture of what exactly made up the neighborhood. Cooper's Ferry Partnership stepped in to provide manpower for the surveying efforts. Our property survey would provide the planners with information about each lot in the neighborhood and whether it was an empty lot, residential, or commercial space. Another benefit to the survey was the identification of the vacant houses. Vacant houses decrease the property values of the other houses on the block, can be a safety hazard to neighboring houses and people, and can serve as sites for illicit activities. For instance, a lot of the houses in Camden are row houses, so they share a wall with one or two other houses. While walking around doing the survey, we met a man whose house shared a wall with a vacant house that was mildewing due to the water damage from the other house. It is St. Joseph's Carpenter Society's goal to identify problems like these and make sure the City takes care of them. St. Joe's has refurbished/rebuilt about 900 homes in the East Camden neighborhood over the past 27 years.
St. Joe's has a fabulous reputation within the community. I learned from walking around that week that this reputation is extremely important. Naturally, many of the neighbors were wary about our groups walking up and down their streets, taking pictures, and examining their houses. It was not uncommon for someone to come up and ask what we were doing. We were able to say that we were with St. Joe's and were doing a property survey. This immediately eased their nerves because they knew St. Joe's was a name they could trust and an organization that has been serving their community for a few decades now. I realized that whenever you are doing work with an impoverished community, this trust-building is pivotal to your success. I got to walk around with the director of St. Joe's, Pilar, and she would often go up and knock on someone's door that we passed to say hello or check on one of her friends. She knew all the community leaders who were in the know and watched out over the neighborhood.
My fears of the neighborhood quickly slipped away. We had no problem whatsoever. There was of course the occasional sighting of drug activity, prostitution and inebriation, but I would say that over 90% of the people in East Camden that we saw were just ordinary people trying their absolute best to provide for their family and get by the best that they could. Pilar advised us to greet everyone we saw because it lets them know you are not being secretive or threatening. It's amazing what an exchange of a "Good morning!" and a "Hi, how are you?" can do to break down boundaries between people who sense they are very different. I felt so much more at ease once greetings were shared with the neighbors who were out and about. My nerves were long gone and I felt my confidence growing everyday as I spent more and more time in the neighborhood finding my way around and meeting people along the way. Soon, successfully avoiding the Pit Bulls of the neighborhood became my only fear!
One day, the Camden City line ran right through the middle of one of the blocks we were surveying. This meant that one half of the block was in Pennsauken, NJ and the other half was part of Camden. Doesn't sound too extraordinary, but the visual transition at this invisible border was incredible. Right in the middle of the block, the grass was suddenly cut and maintained, there was no trash in the street, the pavement was new, the street had been swept, and the houses were in good condition. It was like walking into a completely different neighborhood, but the two different worlds were right next to each other on the same street. The huge impact of a properly functioning city government has never been so visible. The trash trucks from Pennsauken stop right in the middle of the block, the streets sweepers stop and turn around, the landscapers stop mowing. The inequality in our society is undeniable, but I have never seen such a blatant juxtaposition of the "haves" and the "have-nots".
This upsetting sight stuck with me the rest of the day, and as I walked into the lobby of my apartment I was still trying to wrap my head around what I had seen. The security guard got my attention and told me that if I had any questions about the evacuation, I could ask the lady sitting in the lobby at the table. I was so confused! Evacuation? What evacuation? As I went upstairs to talk to my roommates, I quickly noticed that the elevators weren't working and neither was the AC. What we soon discovered was even more shocking. The city of Camden was out of water. Turn the sink on and nothing came out. No water in the entire city.
It appeared at first that the shortage had something to do with residents opening the fire hydrants in order to cool down on hot days, but it turned out that the aging, dilapidated pipe infrastructure in Camden had sprung a foot-long leak. Our whole dorm was moved to a hotel in the suburb of Cherry Hill. It was great and we got a free meal and enjoyed our big hotel beds and TVs. However, it was not that enjoyable when we thought about all the Camden residents who were stranded with absolutely no water to cook, clean or drink. Not to mention that it was over 100 degrees that day in Camden, and all the news stations said it was a record heat wave and that everyone should seek shelter. I know from my poverty courses that the poor don't have the disposable income to go by four bottles of water at $1.50 each for their family. That's probably one hour of wages that was needed just to keep the lights on and pay the rent. Thankfully, the water came back on about seven hours later, but the city still had to boil the water before using it through the weekend to be sure of its cleanliness.
Camden did not get this way on its own. A post-WWII departure of tens of thousands of jobs, followed by the flight of the middle class, put the city on a path of decline. Nevertheless, I have found this city to be full of amazing potential and many dedicated individuals who are working to return Camden to its former greatness. I truly believe the future is bright for Camden and I consider myself lucky to have been given the opportunity to live and work there for eight weeks.