This is a reflection piece I wrote about my internship in Camden. It is a work in progress, so if you have any feedback, it would be much appreciated. Enjoy.
The act of throwing one’s trash on the ground is one of disrespect for the land beneath them. “Trash” is any object that its possessor deems useless after its purpose has been expended. Empty bottles, cans, broken televisions, and used syringes occupy the streets, alleyways, and abandoned houses of Camden, New Jersey because its citizens do not view it as a city they can be proud to call their home.
With every bright mural inspiring its passer-bys, every community garden started, every boarded-up house painted with bright colors to distract from a caved-in roof, the city of Camden becomes a place that its residents can be proud of. My project through DeSales Service Works involved turning this “trash” – these items of no value – into something beautiful and more valuable, flowerpots that will bring new life. Similarly, out of the wreck of the city’s downfall marked by houses falling apart, boarded up storefronts, and dreams only of survival and escape, the city will be revitalized into the place Walt Whitman dreamt of, “a city invincible.”
It is not only the city’s trash that has the ability to be UPcycled (that is, to take something useless and turn it into something that holds more value than it did in the first place); it is also the city itself. The rest of the state, as well as the rest of the country, view Camden as useless territory. Because of this, New Jersey has dumped multiple jails and sewage plants in the city because nowhere else is worthless enough. The city is seen as good for three things – drugs in North Camden, prostitution in South, and murder all around.
The city wasn’t always like this. Backtrack a couple decades and you’ll find a booming city, successful through its manufacturing industries. Then, it was the place to be. But ever since American companies moved overseas with unethical, selfish goals of cheap, easy labor, Camden lost its economic worth and was dropped on the curb, just like an empty aluminum soda can. Now the people there are stuck, struggling to survive. And although the value of the city has depleted, the value of humanity will always exist. Therefore, for the city to prosper again, the value of the people must be recognized as a reason to revitalize.
The problem is, most individuals outside of Camden are unable to understand this worth because they haven’t – or don’t want to – to experience it. Blessed by the opportunity to participate in multiple service projects there, I have been able to get a closer look into the lives of Camden’s residents. I have been able to see that this city has so much more to offer than what meets the eye, than what its surrounding suburbs have judged it by.
Most people in Camden live with great faith and hope, desiring change in their city, but without a clue of how to achieve that dream. They sit on their front porches, even though they know danger on the streets is more than common, to foster community – having conversation, or at least sharing a smile, with all those who pass. When the community is struck by the grief of murder, memorials will spring up around the city the following day, as friends and family gather to place empty bottles, notes, and pictures at the site of the tragedy. Condolences are shared, and friends join hands in prayer for the deceased, for the children who now must cope with the loss of their parent, and for the parents who must cope with the loss of their beloved child.
A line from one of my favorite songs is, “at anyone’s expense except their own, would they laugh if they knew who paid?”(Ten Thousand Words by The Avett Brothers). A curious child in Cherry Hill, the suburb next door to Camden, flushes the toilet for the first time and asks his mother where it all goes, to which his mother replies that it goes down the drain, underground. A curious child in Camden goes outside on a humid summer day and asks his mother why it smells the way it does, to which his mother replies, “because lots of people flushed the toilet.” Most of the decisions we make for our benefit, somehow find their way to trickle down and affect those who don’t have the means to fight back. Camden will have the ability to be revitalized when we stop taking advantage of it. When we realize that we can still find worth in a place that won’t benefit us financially. When we realize that Camden’s situation is not a result of the people there, but rather the people there are fighting survive in a city whose economic downfall they had no control over. When we realize that we can help in both little and big ways.
But how can we help a city that is so visibly helpless? Outside the city, we must combat ignorance through education and mindset change. In the city, we must have conversations that remind people of the worth they innately possess, and we must foster a sense of nationalism to boost morale because they should be proud Camdenites. Economically, businesses need to recognize that they can play a role in building this city up again, maybe by placing an attraction in Camden to bring tourists into the city. This not only will flow money into the city, but also will provide jobs for the many unemployed, moving people away from the drug industry and “dating” business, and into jobs that will positively affect the community.
This all starts with you, with how you perceive the guy sitting next to you on the bus, or the homeless woman on the street…with how you perceive all the blessings in your life, and the blessing of life. It’s about mindset change within yourself and inspiring that change within the minds of those around you. Ask the hard questions and search for their answers—not only in books, but also in the experiences others have entrusted to you. It’s about doing things that matter for those who people think don’t matter, and ignoring those who tell you that it’s pointless and that you should be working for your own benefit. We should be working not for the improvement of our own lives, but rather for the improvement of the lives of the marginalized. As their lives improve, the lives of everyone else will transform as well, as we start to live of love. It’s a ripple effect that can start with anyone. It can start with me. It can start with you.
open your eyes and observe everything. open your ears and listen to everyone. at night, listen to the silence. open your heart and leave it open. open your mind and think. then open your mouth and say what you will. - EJM.