Monday, January 18, 2016

Camden Injustice: An Incomplete List and Suggested Action

Where is there injustice in our community? And what can we do about it.
 Police Brutality
There are young men and woman in Camden that have been punched, kicked, arrested, and jailed without ever committing a crime. I have read the reports, seen the pictures, and heard the stories. Please read this article that discusses the issue in detail. See this story as well.
I trust Chief J. Scott Thomson. I know that he has fired more police officers than any other chief in New Jersey. Almost all cops are awesome. They have a tough job. I’m friends with cops. But it says a lot about the state of policing that after a complete overhaul of the police department, after trainings and a presidential candidate touting the grand success months after a presidential visit, we still have young men getting the shit kicked out of them that were never resisting arrest or a threat of any kind.

Last year, a high profile political insider told me that he thought that the accusations were by criminals that wanted to bolster their chance of getting a case kicked out. No. Just as it happened in 1966, 1976, 1986, and 2006, there are some officers that are overly aggressive. [Read Camden After the Fall for many examples.]
What can we do about it?
A.      Write, call, complain, and meet with/to Camden County Freeholders. Remind them that this is still an issue.
B.      Record it, put it on Facebook, talk about it, let the world know the names of the cops that do it.
C.      Start a Camden Civilian Complaint Review Board. Model it after what Mayor Ras Baraka and the ACLU did in Newark, NJ. We already have structure in place, but it needs the support of Mayor Dana Redd, the county government, and the community. The local NAACP could work with community groups, especially the District Council Collaborative Boards.

2Under resourced schools
The argument about district schools versus charter and renaissance schools misses the point. Students need material items and comfortable schools to learn and be prepared for the 21st century economy. For example, at all five district high schools and the three charter high schools in Camden, Biology students need microscopes, slides, preserved animals to dissect, and certified highly qualified teachers. Do all eight schools have that today? No. What happens when that student goes off to college, sitting with peers that were exposed to science with the right materials in middle in high schools?
What can we do?
A.      Understand the school budget process. There is a lot to it. A lot. Remember that unlike 98% of the school districts in New Jersey, we have neither a voting school board nor a public election on the school budget.
B.      Demand that charter and renaissance school budgets be published online, just as public schools are required to do.
C.      Parents can be specific about what their students need in the classroom.
D.      District leaders can be open about the curriculum and resources needed to implement it.
E.       The next Advisory Board meeting is Tuesday, January 26 at Davis Family School in East Camden.

3 Elections
Does anyone think that elections in Camden reflect true democracy? No.
Do I need to say anything else about this? Not really.
What can we do?
·         Vote
·         Do more than just vote. Go to meetings. Listen to different sides. Remember that elected leaders aren’t kings or queens, they are servants.

4 Sex slavery & Human Trafficking
We have sex slaves in Camden. Many of the sex workers [technical term for prostitutes] that we see roam Broadway are forced by circumstances beyond their control to be there.
What can we do?
I think the other thing that we can do is end rape culture, the idea that men forcing women into sex is sometimes okay. Read this article, that lists what we can do to end it.

To report knowledge of trafficking, here is local information. 

Arrests and Jail
In America, and certainly in Camden, the criminal justice systems arrests too many people for too many infractions, and then sends them to overcrowded prisons. People are then released to a community with not enough jobs, not enough affordable places to live, and streets with a thriving suburban resident drug market fueled by the over prescribing of opiates for pain relief.


Our jail here in Camden County is too crowded. To their credit, Camden County Freeholders put out a document that discusses the issues and possible solutions. But that isn’t good enough. This has been a problem for over ten years. There are multiple reports and recommendation on what to do about it. The eighth amendment to the United States Constitution forbids cruel and unusual punishment.
What can we do:
1.       Collect stories about mistaken identity arrests, disgusting almost inedible foods being eaten in the jail, and other deplorable conditions. 
2.       Write, call, complain, and meet with/to Camden County Freeholders. Remind them that this is still an issue.


In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander argues that

This Injustice List is not complete. Please add what you think are other injustices that happen. But like Rev. Dr. King, we must offer suggestions for how to change policies and then identify our specific actions to get the powerful to change. 

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Camden Election 2015

Election 2015

These are my thoughts and some information on the election this year. Most of my comments are limited to the candidates for Camden City Council, but I also mention things for the state election. This year, we are voting for city council wards, freeholders, state assembly, and state senate.

Disclaimer: These are my personal thoughts. This blog does not reflect the opinion of my job or any organization that I am a part of. I have not discussed the contents of this with anyone before publishing.

Here are some videos from the debate. The quality isn’t great, but you’ll get the point. There are some interesting exchanges. Thank you Pastor Levi Combs for hosting it at First Refuge Baptist Church in Parkside.

Reflections, thoughts, and other things...

  1. What does progress look like? What is development?

The elected officials and their supporters and the opposition candidates have a huge difference of opinion of what progress is. This came out clearly during the debate. There are certainly newly built homes, but there are also many abandoned houses that still crumble their neighborhoods. There are home buyer programs, but Camden also has a steadily decreasing population, as people move to Pennsauken, Palmyra, Sicklerville, and other suburban towns.

In these discussions, Councilman Brian Coleman of the 2nd ward discussed grant programs and other city initiatives. He stressed that the unions and contractors are doing all they can to hire Camden residents. His opponents, Cornell Garnett and Namibia Burke strongly disagree. Garnett did a good job during the debate of showing that his in not with “the machine” or with the new opposition coalition that includes Amir Khan and Roy Jones. He took the audience through the history of false promises. Namibia Burke did a good job of showing that she is literally a fighter (with UCC), former educator, and highly educated. Although in a different ward, Moneke Ragsdale came across as calm and informed. I admit that I am confused why eminent domain was made an issue in this campaign. The city made a mistake in sending out one letter to residents. They then said nevermind. There will not be any homes bought through eminent domain in Whitman Park and the city doesn’t have a developer or grant to pay for it even if they wanted to. This is one of many examples of how truth, facts, and basic communication are replaced with silence, myths, or exaggerations on every side of the ballot.

[I could not find campaign materials for Burley, Moran, or Lopez]

  1. The current people elected don’t come out to the voters

As many of the candidates for City Council discussed gentrification, taxes, housing, and metro police on Thursday, the mayor and three of the four city council candidates played bingo with senior citizens at Riverview towers. This may be honorable and fun for the seniors, but it is not appropriate in a democracy. I like some of the things that Dana Redd has done as mayor, but I think that she and the City Council members that are proud to announce their accomplishments at press conferences and at events to developers, lawyers, and CEOs, should also be willing to defend those accomplishments to the voters.

The crowd was hostile to the establishment. But as you’ll see in #4, there are many myths that float around and unreasonable ideas that deserve scrutiny or explanation.

  1. The current registered voters don’t come out

I don’t want to seem cynical, but maybe the Democratic establishment doesn’t come out to debates or events that they themselves have not organized because low turnout benefits the incumbent. In June 2015, Brian Coleman got 400 votes to qualify to run as a Democrat in the upcoming election - and he had more votes than the other three counterparts. Less than 1,500 people have basically picked who will run the city. Over 70,000 people live in Camden.
City Council Candidate
Votes in June 2015 Primary
Dana Burley, Ward 1
Brian Coleman, Ward 2
Francisco “Frank” Moran, Ward 3
Luis Lopez. Ward 4

The picture below is from the election report from 2014, the same year Cory Bokker ran for and won his full term in the US Sentate. Even years usually have a higher turnout than odd years in New Jersey. The numbers on the far right are percentage of turnout. That is to say how many people voted compared to how many are registered to vote.

In Camden, a city where city hall has taken responsibility for hiring people, changing the police department, partnering with school choice, bringing in companies with over $1B of tax breaks only 1 out of 5 people actually vote. Even so, this is the American system - this is democracy, this is a republic.

I have talked to over 30 people in the last week, conducting an unofficial survey. Are you voting next week? Almost no one said yes. One person knew that Arthur Barclay is running for something. I told him he's running for state assembly. He'll be a lawmaker if he wins. Barclay was the highest vote getter in 2013 for Camden. He pulls in more voters than anyone. The county needs Barclay to not only win, but to get more voters to show up on election day so that the Democrat freeholders too are able to win election. This year, there are four running instead of the usual three. That means that if the republicans won all four freeholder seats, they would take the majority for the first time since the early 1990s. To his credit, Arthur "OG" Barclay came to the debate on Thursday for the entire event and stayed afterwards taking questions.

  1. Facts don’t come out

During the debate and throughout this and other political campaigns, taxes, crime, the influence of Community Development Corporations (like PBCIP or Heart of Camden) public education, were discussed. As a student of these issues for ten years, I was disturbed by how often myths were stated as facts or candidates seemed to not have a basic understanding of the fundamentals of local government in New Jersey. This does not mean that they are not qualified to be in city government, however, it is disappointing that people seem to not know or care about the facts.

For example, a question was asked about tax revenue for Camden schools. No one mentioned a simple and easy to find fact - the district collects very little for Camden schools from property taxes. Out of a budget that is over $350M, only $7.5M is collected from Camden property taxes. Most of the revenue for Camden schools - district, renaissance, and charter - comes from taxes collected throughout the state. With a 2% limit, if the city actually did raise taxes it would increase the budget by only $150,000. 

This is one big reason why the state has influence on what happens in the school district. Yes, this is a complicated issue. After three years of studying the school budget as a board member, I admit that I still don’t fully understand the complicated figures and calculations. But I know that the answers all the candidates gave were inadequate.

Source: click here

I also know that not enough money gets to the classroom. The evidence of this is not enough technology, books, microscopes, calculators, or many other things that students need to truly get a thorough and efficient education.

  1. We have gangs!

In the debate on Thursday night, there was no mention of gang violence. What? We dishonor our youth and disrespect the dead and their families if we deny that many of the murdered victims were targets. Government programs are not the answer either. Government is not the cure for Camden crime. At least not how it's been done so far. But I digress...

  1. Metro and Paymon aren’t leaving

For the second city election, I heard candidates that are otherwise seemingly intelligent people claim that they would rid the city of Metro police. They will not and cannot so should not say they will. Either they are ignorant of the basic nature of local politics and government or are making sleazy pleas to residents angry with the over zealousness of some police officers.

On what path does the Metro county police department leave and get replaced with a city force? Christie is governor, the mayor has two years left to her term.

The better fight is for a police oversight board, like what Newark has. We already have the DCCBs. The structure is in place, but the DCCBs power would grow enormously if they were a civilian review board. This could have been a huge campaign idea for the opposition. But for some reason, it wasn't. See the story here.

I have sat in many meetings where people call on the superintendent to resign. I didn't actually hear this arguement at the debate, but I am discussing it anyway. We don’t have an elected school board (yet). Christie, who ultimately picked Paymon Rouhanifard, is governor and will remain so. The democrats will likely stay in control of the state senate and assembly. Paymon’s contract was renewed recently. KIPP and other schools have new buildings. They are not going anywhere. They are here to stay. Even if Paymon quit or was fired today, which is extremely unlikely, he would be replaced with someone by the same team that hired him. Calling for his resignation may be a great rally cry for some events, but it does not lead to actually improving the enormous and untouched issues that remain in schools.

I urge all of the candidates to think about the practicality of their ideas.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Pipe Stops Here

Too many black boys get suspended too many times for too many infractions at too many schools. This has been true in Camden. This is true across the United States.

At Bonsall, which sits in the most violent neighborhood in New Jersey, over 25% of students were suspended last year.

Last week in Camden, the superintendent announced [see it here, starting at 6:12] that proactive steps would be taken to introduce a new discipline procedure and rules for suspension.  Below is an image of the slide that Paymon gave.

This is an important step, but verification and follow up are key. Just because a superintendent says something, no matter how noble, it does not mean that it will be done.
We know that many criminals that lurk our streets with guns are themselves victims of an unjust discipline process in schools that lack true due process. One of the many strategies that can make Camden a safer city, is working with those in power that are doing their part in ending the school to prison pipeline. You can see my comments about this at the last Advisory Board meeting here, beginning at 56:00.
In 2013, after learning about this crisis at a school board conference, I began the steps to address this issue. Teachers and principals were excited to be involved. I was the chairman of the policy committee, but acted as a facilitator. The goal was to adopt new rules and limit the ten day suspension. At some schools, students were suspended without hearings, without counseling to alleviate future similar incidents, and without following the basic rules of the district’s own code of conduct.
At the meetings, mostly everyone thought that empowering teachers to manage their classroom with approved rules and supportive principals was invaluable.  Not everyone was on the same page. One principal proudly told us that she would suspend her middle school students for seven days, by dishing out suspensions consecutively for different infractions in the same incident. Three days for this and four days for that. [She’s no longer a principal in the district.] Principals, directors, teachers, and parents gave their feedback on changing the discipline code. Its current state was a mess. The school districts official rules for student discipline were problematic. It told principals to punish first and twelfth graders the same way. It was harsh. Third infractions in one school year often we to meant with ten day suspensions. Two full weeks. One fifth of a marking period.

Below is a screenshot of the original agenda, when I brought this issue to the Policy Committee.

I congratulate Paymon for taking this step. I think that this policy update can save lives for years to come. It isn’t enough. It comes too late. But in these days where the community feels that it is held captive by criminals and ignored by their political leaders, this is an important step. This means that more students will spend more days in the classroom learning. But those schools must be safe and the teachers must be able to teach with a solid curriculum and resources.
The community can support this by constantly talking about education and expressing the value of it. The messages of respect and studying must be expressed consistently. How are your grades? You staying out of trouble? The community is counting on you.

We must also continue to question Paymon, the Advisory Board, and principals to not let this issue fade from fatigue of the five point plan. We need more in-house suspension, more teachers and administrators from similar poor urban communities, and more after school activities for students. The work continues. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Beyond the Poynt

Note: I am a former Camden school board member and current graduate student. There will be postings about the public schools and other urban issues posted throughout the summer. Please share and comment.

The smell stung my nose. The air was so thick I could barely breathe. But I had to see what was in there. The window was cracked open as dry air blew through dusty vents. Profane images were drawn on the wall. You can see the pictures that I took with my cell phone that day.

I went to other bathrooms and saw different versions of the same things. I was very angry, but very glad that someone suggested that I should take a look at the bathrooms while I was at Pyne Poynt. This was in 2012 as the school board was going through its first steps of engaging the community for a new strategic plan.

Minutes later, I asked if the principal was in the building that evening. He wasn't, so I talked to the vice principal. I showed him what I noticed in the bathroom and alerted him that I would share my observations of the disgusting conditions of the bathrooms, as well as information about the engraved words and graffiti found throughout the hallways. He looked nervous and stammered his words as he talked. Through his thick and smudged glasses, I could see that he was upset. They had bathrooms for special guests in the school that day. Maybe he didn't expect anyone to walk past them and into a stall that hundres of middle school students used everyday.

At the next school board work session, I and another board member that was with me at Pyne Poynt described our observations to the entire board and central office leadership. In his usual way, Mr. Mills, acting superintendent at the time, stoically said that he would address the issue. Although I believed him, I also knew that he made the same promise about a dozen other equally disturbing issues. At the meeting, the director of facilities said "that the principal had a responsibility to tell the maintenance department about what he saw".

A picture I took at Pyne Poynt in 2012.
I wanted to say "So let me get this straight director. In your view, if a student draws a penis on a brick wall, the principal has to tell the janitor so that the janitor knows about the graphic image. I thought that janitors were in the bathrooms everyday to clean them?". I didn't say that because I didn't want to cross any lines of governance. But many of us thought it.

School takeovers do not fix problems like that. Leadership does. The problems with Camden, its schools, its government, and many of its non-profit organizations is its leadership. I am not sure anyone that has done work with this new team could legitimately claim that the bathroom would still be funky.

Although it is a hugely unpopular opinion in some education circles, from my observations and tours I am confident that Mastery would not have any school bathroom like the putrid smell and profane images that I saw two years ago. Now of course it is simple to respond that no school should look like that, but the reality is that too many do. Too many principals and inept supervisors have allowed conditions in urban schools for too long.

The governance of schools matters, but the conditions of schools and quality of curriculum matters more. I think we should all be skeptical of any "outsider" that comes to a poor city, because history has taught us that many people have ulterior motives that are not in the interests of students. The debate around Mastery, Uncommon, other charters, and the current 27 public schools has been odd to me because its lack of intellectual honesty. Even some respected academics have missed the point. The quality of education and things like safety and graduation rates matter to parents and school culture matters to students.

Paymon Rouhanifard is the State Superintendent. He is the person with the power. The best way to have discussions about the future of public education in this community is to do so respectfully and with facts and ideas that can help guide the future. There are many people that agree. Young Urban Leaders, an organization I founded in 2009, met with him and some of his staff in February and discussed the strategic plan known as the Camden Commitment. As about a dozen of us gave suggestions and feedback, he was honest and truly listened to what the attendees had to say.

I do not agree with all of his decisions. This current school year, too many students are still suspended for five days or more. The research and common sense are against this practice. Students are suspended for being truant. Fighting students are suspended for ten days without any mediation. Special education students are suspended against the rules in their IEP. The discipline code is outdated, unfair, and often not followed by some principals. This is a completely unnecessary crisis that the superintendent now has the power to fix with one email. He has not made this a priority, but the community can - and should.

From my experience in this community and on the school board, curriculum is the biggest problem in the district. The classes offered at some schools, the lessons taught in some classrooms, the amount of testing at all schools, and the role of the Regional Achievement Center and their "model curriculum" are all critical issues because they get to what students are actually learning. I see students' homework, their report cards, and discuss the lessons that they are learning with them. Too many students are not being prepared for college or careers that require decent writing, basic research skills or critical thinking. If you ask some recent high school graduates that are now in college, they will confirm that they struggle more than many of their peers. This is not because they are poor or because Camden is violent. It is because some of their teachers had low expectations or poorly delivered lessons. Should a high school student have "fill in the blank" as homework? Why are seniors taking Environmental Science at Medical Arts and not Anatomy or Biology II? Does it make sense that students from Medical Arts will take Chemistry for the first time in college?

The Needs Analysis done by UPD clearly stated the problem with curriculum in 2012 and as a board member at the time, I never heard their assessment credibly challenged. They wrote:

In assessing curriculum and instructional practice, the district lacks a board-approved curriculum and a clear, coherent vision for instructional and school improvement. Implementation of academic programs, including those intended to support students with disabilities and English language learners, varies widely across schools with little monitoring or evaluation, and instructional rigor and student engagement are low across the district. While schools have great autonomy to implement programs, principals have very little authority over budget or personnel decisions. At the same time, the district lacks a talent management strategy that is linked to district priorities and fails to strategically recruit or place high-quality staff, leaving schools with teaching vacancies and staff who are not well suited to their school. (Camden City Public Schools: Needs Analysis, Page 5)

At my first school board meeting in May 2010, I was quickly exposed to what the next three years would be like. There was no room for me to use the school board to pursue radical ideas I had about public education. I learned very fast that I would have to find another platform to discuss anything that would be considered radical. Ideas like not closing schools for Columbus Day, so that we do not celebrate colonialism, would have to wait.

At the first meeting, the chairman of the policy committee recommended to the board an update to sports eligibility. I thought it was perfect, with one exception. Throughout the policy, the term "C Average" was used. I mentioned that it should be changed to a specific number based on the 4.0 scale. What does C Average mean? Is it a 2.0 or a 2.75? I didn't care about the specific number, more so that there should be a number to give the Athletic Directors and students clear guidance without any unnecessary ambiguity. It was not changed. Not one board member, superintendent, or director spoke up. Maybe it was too late, maybe they didn't understand or care. My suggestion was practical, easy to incorporate, and important to students that want to play. It had nothing to do with George Norcross or Chris Christie.

Some ideas, including some of the most important ones, transcend politics. The debate right now about what is happening in the Camden schools needs to go beyond the personal insults, myths and unproven theories. Charter schools are not bad. Some are better than others. Hundreds of parents chose to apply and send their children to those schools. For many of them, they are happy with their decision. No true advocate should vilify those parents and students because of disagreements with the public school leadership.

Paymon understands the test data. Obviously. But, of all the people Paymon hired, the Academic Leader should have been his first, not last.

Let's get beyond petty schoolyard fights and get into debates about what is happening in the classroom. What's really happening.

Below you see a meme that is making its way around social media. The message is not new, but it is certainly relevant. The education system of the United States and many other Western nations is broken. The culture of valuing education is also a problem - one that begins at home.

If you are interested, watch the video to learn more. In case you don't watch it, the speaker explains how limited we are in our discussions. Our schools operate much like they did in the 19th century all over America, with very few exceptions. If we are going to debate, let the ideas include 21st century ideas that prepare students for the global economy. But if nothing else, let's always have clean toilets.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

An open letter to the winner

Dear Winner of the Election for Mayor, 

Congratulations. I look forward to having professional relationship with you. 

I have the following recommendations: 

  1. Have a meeting with the other candidates. Find a way that you can continue to work together. The others want to be involved. They devoted the last few months of their life to public service. Our city is too easily divided and angry at times. Show some humility and grace. Meet with them, pray with them, learn from them, challenge them to help with the agenda.
  2. Promote the Learning Matters initiative: This city has 27 traditional public schools, four private schools, and a dozen charter schools.  The education debate has been too much about what types of school are better or who should lead them. That mattes, but the value of learning matters more. A student that is motivated to learn will know that algebra, writing, science, and history are important to his or her present and future. Education, good grades, access, quality all matter. Learning matters. Over 27% of our city is school age children. The mayor can promote this idea by telling students the power of education and learning. Say it in assemblies, on YouTube, and at every event there is. An urban minority mayor has the moral responsibility to remember the wisdom of promoting education of DuBois, Washington, Garvey, and others in the early 20th century. They disagreed on the exact platform, but they made it clear that education is necessary.
  3. Find money for trash cans on the business corridors. This is simple. Let's help the Clean and Safe Program be more effective by giving people a place to put their trash. Along with that, encourage people to throw trash in the can and not the sidewalk or street. Would tickets for the litterers help? I'm not sure, but the city is still too dirty to allow economic growth.
  4. Rework the Mayor's Youth Council. If you've been to a meeting, you'll understand. The homepage of the website includes former Mayor Faison and and former Gov. Corzine. They may be a symbol that the current organization needs to modernize, have clear objectives, and do more to address the many needs of the 24,000 children that live in Camden. The group has a great opportunity to be reorganized and have new leadership.They may be able to address issues the Division of Youth Services has.
  5. Explain why PILOTs are a good thing for the city. During the debates, a few candidates spoke against payments in the lieu of taxes. PILOTs are different from tax abatements; if fact, they are sort of opposites. Non-profit organizations are not requried to pay taxes to the city government. Under PILOT agreements, the city gets revenue from hospitals and other organizations, that it otherwise wouldn't. Knowing that, it is confusing to hear people speak against it. What would replace it? No mayor would actually try to get less money for the city and no City Council would approve it.Tax abatements are different. City Council has acted differently towards them. The arguement for tax abatements is that they promote new business to cities that need them, by not paying taxes for 10-20 years.
  6. Explain why Eds and Meds are the beginning of economic development. Hospitals and schools in Camden bring thousands of people to our city daily. Most work here and others are patients or visitors. They are anchor institutions. There is much good that does and more than can come from them. They aren't always perfect neighbors, but they are employers and add to the civics and richness of our city. You can't promote the hospitality industry in one venue and then are argue that service positions (in hospitals) are bad in another, without expressing an odd contradiction.
  7. Interview current drug dealers. Ask them why they do what they do. Gun proliferation only explains a a small part of why their is crime in Camden.There are many steps that can be taken to reduce crimes. If you begin thinking about gun violence with gun sales across state lines, you're wildly confused about why there have been 200 murders in the last four years.
  8. Help small businesses come, grow, and expand. Period.
  9. Tell the police to be nicer. People can be approached and even arrested with respect. Being nice to the public will make investigations easier.
  10. Advocate for affordable housing reform.  Governor Chris Christie has blocked attempts to allow affordable housing units to expand to the suburbs. The NJ Supreme Court just overruled him in September. As mayor, you can be an advocate for poor people that need options for housing. Concentrated poverty is bad for the poor person, the community, and society.
  11. Create a citywide youth athletic association. I've heard this idea said by a few people over the years. Felix Moulier said it at the PBCIP debate and got a thunderous applause. It's a simple, yet powerful idea. The mayor can work with him, Bryan Morton, and many others to set up a single non-profit organization that collects payments from parents, hires coaches, works with the city to maintain facilities, and manages baseball, basketball, soccer, and other sports and activities for the youth of the city.  Many cities have them: Cherry Hill, Pennsauken, Gloucester Township
I hope you appreciate this list and find it helpful.