After last week’s protest at McGraw I made a point to attend the East Camden Middle School meeting the following morning. It was much less eventful. The meeting was at 9am, only a handful of parents showed up, and the tone was not one of defiance so much as one of seeking information. But, Camden residents were also met at the door by security who said that only those with children in the school will be allowed into the meeting. I took video of that exchange (I was also initially denied entrance), and I want to use it to emphasize a broader, more nuanced, point I have been trying to make. The cultural bias of those in power makes it hard to empower Camden residents. Ultimately, this is why we need more democratic structures, because absolute power comes with it bias and exclusion. 

This video is from the front lobby of East Camden Middle School. When I attended last Thursday’s meeting, the district’s head of security was at the door ensuring that everyone who attended the meeting had a parent in the school system. As you can see, Camden advocates Moneke Ragsdale and Gary Frazier were initially denied entrance to the meeting. Upon pressing security, they were told that only parents who were listed as an “emergency contact” would be allowed into the building. At that point, a parent offered to go into the office and change her emergency contact forms. Then, all three of us were let into the building.  

Now, there are plenty of reasons to only want parents in meetings, and I’m sure the school district was trying to avoid disruption during the school day. Maybe they were also trying to do damage control after the previous afternoon’s meeting went viral. But what I want to point to is something subtler. While we were in the lobby, waiting to sign paperwork, another Camden resident came through the door. That resident was asked if she had a child at this school. She said no, but that she had a child at a Mastery school, and that the school district had invited her to speak to other parents. 

When I talk about how one set of views is favored over another, this is what I mean. Yes, the school district has held events and public comment. But certain types of involvement is privileged over others. Watch the above video again. Gary Frazier knows it. He asks “why are you trying to hide the truth from these parents?” What both Gary and the Mastery parent knew instinctively was that the content of what they wanted to share with parents indicated how they would be treated. For the Mastery parent, she knew that sending a child to the chosen policy “solution” of the district meant that she would be allowed into the meeting. For Gary, he knew that his skepticism of that same policy choice (the takeover of a school by Mastery) would mean he had a higher bar to hurdle in order to attend. 

This sometimes explicit, and sometimes subconscious, ways of discouraging opposing views or privileging the “right” views happens all the time in subtle ways. A few weeks ago, when Mastery was going to be recognized at a board meeting, the district purchased translation devices. This is great, it has been asked for by the hispanic community for a long time. But, to many who have been going to meetings for years, it was heartbreaking. For years, parents of traditional public schools have been showing up at school board meetings without appropriate translation devices, yet the first time Mastery parents are scheduled to come to a meeting for an award, the District debuts the device. Those parents are encouraged in a different way than others.

These types of subtle expressions of power and favor are always there if you look for them, and need not be intentional to be harmful. A school district employee pulled me aside right away upon our entering of the East Camden Middle School meeting to ensure me that as soon as he found out, everyone was let in. But the damage might have already been done. The chief of security had met Camden residents at the door to exclude them (it seemed the chief was there explicitly for this purpose), while other parents were invited to present at the meeting. It is only because this wasn’t my first meeting, and I’d seen these type of things before, that I even stuck around long enough to take that video. Others were told not to come because community members suspected they wouldn’t allow non-parents into the meeting. 

This is why I think the call for a parental vote for school takeovers is so critical. There were so many subtle ways in which parents of these closing schools were unempowered. They were told they could vote with their feet, but when they did, their school was taken over anyway. They did not attend the meetings to talk about “struggling schools,” but when they showed up after the announcement, they were told the decision was already made. The meetings about closing these schools didn’t even happen at the schools in question. 

Empowering residents is hard, and many times those in power in Camden don’t even try. It’s difficult to get Camden residents, who hold jobs with weird hours and may struggle to find affordable child care on the fly, out to meetings. It’s difficult to overcome cultural barriers and ideological disagreements. But these are reasons that democracy should be the backstop, not the best judgement of people who neither know Camden’s history nor have history themselves here. Let the parents vote, like they’ve done in Philly. If it’s true that the district, as they’ve consistently told me, are sure there is community support for their policies, than there is no risk. But if, as I suspect, the nature of the district’s engagement privileges certain voices over others, we could learn a lot about what Camden residents really want.



  • After having canvassed that East Camden community going door to door, and speaking to people on the street, I walked away with two recurring themes. FIRST, overwhelmingly, the community wants McGraw and East Camden Middle to stay district public schools and are very concerned about the forced takeover. To be sure, I did hear some parents however say they had their child in city charter schools and “liked them better”, but they were not in the majority at all. Further parents were much more informed than I initially thought and knew full well what was going on concerning these two schools and the Board’s, Mayor’s, and Governor’s desire to see these schools given away to “their friends.” (In my canvassing I never mentioned that I am a teacher here, and I live in Parkside and teach across town so I was unknown to many people I spoke to that day)
    Perhaps most important of all however to me was not their preference in school governance (public or charter) but unanimously, EVERY PERSON I spoke to was disgusted that they did not have an oppurtunity to participate in the decision making concerning the fate of the public school in their neighborhood. EVEN the parents who send their kids to charter school expressed that it is “messed up people around here aren’t even asked what they want.” The day’s canvassing made me aware that the community does have a desire to contribute and participate, but largely don’t know how, and feel “they ain’t gonna listen to us no-way.”

    To be clear, the lack of authentic civic/community engagement did NOT begin with this administration; BUT they darn sure perfected it. One thing the current administration is adept at is silencing community voice through dictating, mandating, and overtly silencing. What CCSD seems to view as “opposition” or what the superintendent repeatedly calls “special interest groups” is really a community of lower income minorities that want to see children in Camden succeed academically, and be part of the process, and have their concerns taken seriously and addressed. But as we see here, and as we saw last year, they are too often literally pushed out the doors and on to the margins.

    The solution for CCSD to not appear to be, and certainly seem so oppressive, aloof, elitist (and dare I say racist), is to allow for public elections for BOE, allow the community to vote what THEY want for THEIR child’s schooling, extend speaking time limit for speakers during the public portion (as was the case before the takeover, and as other districts give their constituents a 10 minute limit) and allow what they appear to be “the opposition” a seat at the proverbial table. But a prerequisite for the above courses of action is a respect for the community, which thus far, CCSD has shown to have little to none of.

  • I agree with Jose. What Stephen describes happens so often and in so many different contexts. The powerful machine that controls Camden politics is threatened by open and unfiltered discussion. It has been that way a long time. Those in power are arrogant and paternalistic — only they know best. Even in the face of widespread protest and clear public opinion that opposes their position, or their pet project, they go ahead and do what they want. Cherokee Plan for Cramer Hill, State take-over of the City (they opposed it when the Republican Whitman administration proposed it, then supported it when they were back in control); failure to open Gateway Park, ignoring the community plan for Rev. Evers Park, takeover and subsequent dismantling of public schools, failure to include a River Line stop in the heart of Cramer Hill, construction of the St. Lawrence cement plant in Waterfront South — to name a few examples. In all of these cases, public officials systematically discouraged and ignored and “managed” some grassroots engagement, and embraced others. It’s not unlike how Gov. Christie bullies unwelcome voices in his town meetings.

    As always, we owe a special debt of gratitude to those such as Gary Frazier, Prof. Danley, Lula Williams, Mary Cortes, Mangaliso Davis, Martha Chavis, Kevin Barfield, Roy Jones, Sean Brown, Kelly Francis, and scores of others who stand up to power when it attempts to repress and ignore legitimate debate from authentic grassroots representatives.

  • The people garnered petitions to make elections non partisan but lost at the ballot Those E Machines from Diebold which are used in New Jersey have been found capable of being tampered even by remote control. They have found machines loaded with votes prior to an election. I cannot understand why a smart man like does not call the this unconstitutional for an elected board to relinquish its sovereign power with a referendum to the people. The Last School Takeover by Gov Corzine explicitly said that a referendum question was to be asked at the end if the people wanted to continue suspending School Board Elections. Gov Christie comes in just before the expiration and signs a new Bill without a vote. Undermined the entire selection process for a Superintendent that the Board had undertaken for almost a year.

  • What’s amazing to me is the outright attitude of disrespect the school system (and “redevelopment” agencies, and even city government) has toward city residents. It’s almost at the point of being an absurd parody of itself. They’re clearly in the mindset of “this is what we’re going to do, and if you don’t like it, we’re going to either ignore you or berate you.”

    • Here is another incredibly perceptive article from Stephen Danley. He has a knack of hitting the right nail with the right hammer every time. What is happening in Camden would never, ever, happen in a non-minority community. The Mayor and Council member are complicit actors in the rape of the citizens they swore to serve and protect. I hope to be around when someone writes a history detailing how outside corporate and political entities invaded and occupied the City in order to steal their schools.

      • Jose, I agree with you. With one exception. I’m still hoping for a different story for the history books. It’s not over yet. Who said, “I have just begun to fight.”

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