This guest post is by Keith Benson, a local teacher, resident, NJEA member, and Rutgers-Camden PhD candidate:
On the heels of the Mayor and other city big-wigs touting the arrival of a new Philadelphia 76ers PRACTICE (“We’re talkin’ about practice!”) facility that will cost taxpayers $82 Million, and for that king’s ransom, yield a paltry 50 city seasonal and presumably low-paying jobs (do the math on that one), and hearing tales of a school staff member about to be presumably laid-off, I woke up this morning confused and angry as to what is going in this city. In steady succession, academic literature, news articles, and blogs which I have recently read flooded my mind and helped me to understand what is taking place in this city…
Within a similar conceptual framework of academic researchers and practitioners Pauline Lipman of University of Illinois-Chicago, Valerie Kinloch of Ohio State University, Leslie T. Fenwick of Howard University, and Stephen Danley of Rutgers University-Camden, I’ve come to the realization that our city, Camden, is being forcibly changed to cater specifically to those who DON’T live here – with urban school “reform” as the tool and rationale for mayoral-sponsored gentrification. In Camden, a City for Others, Danley writes, “This city is not designed for its residents. And its residents know that.” Understanding that statement is critical toward understanding what is taking place here both educationally and demographically.
In numerous articles, both Lipman and Fenwick investigated and researched the neo-liberal urban school reforms of school closures and establishing of authoritarian, politically-connected corporate run charters in Chicago and Washington, respectively. Both have found that politically endorsed education “reforms” have little to do with improving education for poor and working class black and Hispanic children at all, but much more to do with “re-appropriating urban space” (Kinloch, 2007) to attract young, childless, middle-class white professionals. School reform here in Camden, like other urban areas including Harlem and Boston, is about replacing the current minority low SES residents, in favor of more “desirable” residents with higher incomes and, often, lighter skin. Unfortunately, dismantling the Camden’s public schools is a cornerstone of Mayor Dana Redd’s (and other urban mayors) gentrification agenda to attract outsiders to come and homestead here. The persistent mis-categorization and politicization of Camden’s public school “failures” and the city’s enduring image as one of the most violent cities in America have kept middle-class white outsiders in the staid, leafy-green suburbs away from the governmental dysfunction and poverty minorities here have been forced to endure for decades.
Through aggressive, if not imperialist, initiatives like “Live Camden” seeking to give away the store for new Camden home-seekers in the specific neighborhoods of (white) Cooper Grant and the (increasingly white) Downtown Area near Cooper’s Hospital, the “Eds and Meds” plan that seeks to establish educational and medical corridors through vast swaths of the city through buyouts and even eminent domain, and the Mayor’s request that our public school district to be taken over by the state, (which in turn, deliberately staffed Central Administration with a horde of young six-figure earners who not surprisingly, reside in the posh Victor Building far removed from the experiences and realities of city residents) the Mayor’s vision of a gentrified Camden is obvious. Camden, a City for Others.
At every turn, on every issue confounding our city, our Mayor and city “leadership” have relied on the belief that the solution wrests in the hands of outside others. Despite the fact our public schools serve a citizenry mired in generational and concentrated poverty (due largely to historic discriminatory policies and inherent structural inequality) that greatly affects students’ scholastic outcomes, our city leadership is placing its hopes in corporate-led charters like Mastery, UnCommon Schools, and KIPP (please YouTube some clips of their respective pedagogical techniques which are simply horrifying) staffed with mostly white TFA corps members who will only temporarily fill the role of teacher children. (Indeed, 56% of TFA corps members leave their positions after 2 years.) And despite Camden for too long, to too many people, has been considered a place to move from rather than live in, instead of catering and rewarding those who have shown a commitment to stay and live here, the Mayor and powered elite frequently look past the residents already here. And so goes, as Danley wrote, “The message to local residents is clear: The nice things here aren’t for you. We need other people.”