Greeting on a very sunny, beautiful day in the Camden region!
This week a group for LaSalle University are involved in an experiential learning opportunity here at CFET. 8 students and a leader are staying at the Center, working in a variety of agencies throughout Camden city, and learning about this great city, and the challenges and successes you can find in every nook and cranny of the “city invincible.” They will also be identifying ways in which they can be agents of change in their campus community. We have been doing this work since October 2009, and it is often difficult to communicate the value of the work. What value is there in inviting young people to spend up to a week with us, in Camden? Why should you support this work?
Since the beginning of CFET, we have wanted to host people in our neighborhood. We were inspired by the thousands of people who flocked to the New Orleans area after Hurricane Katrina. Some of us even went to New Orleans, to help with the massive cleanup and rebuilding effort required there. Those of our number who made this trip returned with a powerful sense of plenty being wrong about the way in which our country cared for those most disadvantaged, but they also returned with a renewed sense of mission about the “bit” they might do to address injustice in their own community. We thought CFET could be an agent for this kind of experiential education.
Important to us, though, was that any visitors to our place would come to further the amazing work of people in this community. The aim of our retreats, if you will, or experiential education opportunities, is two-fold. First, we want our guests to meet and learn from the amazing people of Camden, NJ. Second, we want our guests to leave with a deeper awareness of their own agency, and a responsibility to direct that agency toward justice, especially for those most vulnerable.
They learn about the amazing people of Camden, and the work they are doing to build on the strengths of this city. They meet, and work with, the teachers of Sacred Heart School who have created a wonderful space for learning in the Waterfront South neighborhood of Camden. They meet the amazing children, with bright smiles and eager questions, whose hugs leave an imprint on our visitors. They meet, and learn from, the people at Cathedral Kitchen, who have built a culinary arts program for adults, that sets the conditions for a stable life in Camden, NJ for so many families. They spend time with, and learn from, the people and youth of Urban Promise, an organization that provides social and educational resources to the children of Camden. They also work with Farmer Jon at CFET, and the assistant farmers/eco-interns, in Eve’s Garden, the Liney Ditch garden and the fruit orchard. They discover the power of food in an area the USDA has designated a “food desert.” The assistant farmers lead them through a role playing exercise that highlights the structural dimensions of poverty and environmental risk. Throughout these experiences, our visitors discover the beauty, wisdom and power that resides in the people of Camden, NJ. They discover a Camden that is not often celebrated in the media or is easily overlooked against the backdrop of sleek new buildings in ‘center city” Camden.
They also discover their own agency. While they are young, and the challenges of climate disruption, racism, environmental injustice and poverty can be overwhelming, they discover that like the people they meet during their time in Camden, they can do their “bit.” And their “bit” is all that is required. During evening reflections aspirations begin to be voiced, ideas surfaced, possibilities surveyed. By the end of their time with us, our visitors have begun to identify things they can do at home, on their campus, in the world. Beginning a “meatless Monday” practice in their own lives. Exploring the possibility of solar panels with their families. Starting a divestment from fossil fuels initiative on their campus. Organizing “teach ins” with interested faculty on specific issues related to environmental justice, poverty and racism. Being a more critical consumer of news related to these issues. Taking courses that permit them the time to explore the issues. Being ambassadors for Camden, NJ, speaking up when peers or family members speak ill of the city. Staying connected to what is going on in Camden, at CFET, at the agencies they’ve interacted with during their time with us. Voting, and voting intelligently and responsibly.
CFET hosts our visitors for a long weekend, or a week. We have witnessed countless moments of self-discovery, of deepened understanding, of Camden children teaching our visitors about injustice, about food, about poverty, about hope.
A long-standing hope for us has been to have someone who spent time with us in high school or college to come back with a group when they are older. It finally happened this year! A young woman who spent time with us while in college several years ago brought a group of George Mason University students to CFET this past spring. She is working on her Ph.D. in public policy, focusing on the criminal justice system. Through her network, she brought the GMU students to a prison, to sit down with inmates to talk about justice. It was a powerful experience for them, and it was a full circle moment for us. One of those people who came to Camden discovered her agency in a new way while with us, so much so that she brings a group of undergraduates to Camden, to the same place.
We count on it happening again! Why not?
At CFET we do our “bit,” and we count on all those who spend time with us to discover, and to do, their “bit” too. If everyone is doing his or her “bit,” we find profound changes happening in our communities.
Do your “bit.” Come join us. Support our work. Find out how you can be involved. Discover Camden, her people, her energy, her future. Discover yours, perhaps for the first time!
Mark Doorley, Ph.D.
President Emeritus, Board of Trustees
Center for Environmental Transformation