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The New Jersey CannaBusiness Association (NJCBA) today announced the formation of a strategic alliance with some of New Jersey’s most prominent economic justice advocates to ensure minority representation in the state’s emerging cannabis industry. Partners in the alliance include

  • Camden Business Association
  • Essex County Latino Chamber of Commerce
  • Gloucester County NAACP
  • New Jersey State Chapter of the NAACP
  • Salvation & Social Justice
  • Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey

Working under the motto that good economic policy is the policy of inclusion, the groups are banding together to ensure that minorities, minority-owned and small businesses are not left out as the state’s cannabis industry expands. The organizations will share information, conduct business networking sessions, and provide the Cannabis Regulatory Commission and Legislature with ideas to help shape the cannabis economy in New Jersey.

“Whether potential license holders or general contractors or subcontractors, the state must ensure that people of color are part of the economic fabric of the cannabis industry that gets woven in the next few months,” said NJCBA President Edmund DeVeaux. “We have to hold non-minority license holders and contractors accountable for the inclusion of minority stakeholders.”

“We have been collaborating with the NJCBA since the organization’s launch, but also ensuring our Camden community and constituents, which is 96% Black and Brown New Jerseyans, have voices with stakeholders, officials, and industry advocates throughout the State of New Jersey. It is incumbent of the NJCBA to stay engaged through partnerships and collaboration to ensure that this industry does not get built on the backs of the communities that have lost wealth, life, and liberties for decades. We call upon all diverse New Jersey community and legislative leaders to collaborate and ensure that those aforementioned communities are considered first, not last, in pushing for the economic equity of those who have been disproportionately impacted,” said Nichelle Pace, Vice President of the Camden Business Association.

“Aligning ourselves with the NJCBA makes perfect sense,” said Joe Hernandez, Vice Chairman of the Essex County Latino Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors and who represented the Chamber in conversations with NJCBA. “We represent so many individuals, businesses, and communities that would benefit from responsible commercial practices. The NJCBA is the state’s only trade association that represents all interests in the cannabis industry. Most importantly, the NJCBA listened to what we had to say and responded, ‘we are here to help.’”

“We are excited about this alliance with the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association because we both advocate for a cannabis industry that will be inclusive and one that will support policies to protect members of disadvantaged communities from being shut out of this commerce,” said Loretta Winters, President of the Gloucester County NAACP. “We also support sensible regulations and tax policies that will ensure the cannabis industry remains a vibrant and diverse business sector for years to come in the State of New Jersey.”

“The SHCCNJ recognizes the many medical benefits derived from cannabis plants and welcomes new businesses to the State of New Jersey that will have a positive impact on the local and statewide business community, and in particular diverse businesses that need to be at the table,” said Carlos Medina, President and CEO of the Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey.

About The New Jersey CannaBusiness Association

The NJCBA’s mission is to promote jobs and growth in a sustainable and responsible cannabis industry. Starting with the pioneers in the medical cannabis market to the emerging players in the adult-use space, the NJCBA’s focus is to make certain that decision makers and regulators understand and respect the needs of the CannaBusiness community and that our community remain responsible corporate citizens.

During the Obama Administration, thousands of public schools were closed due to being deemed “low performing” because of their students’ test scores. This was part of Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, and it resulted in school closures in cities across the United States—including Chicago, Cleveland, New York City, and Philadelphia—in a misguided attempt to improve the education of Black and brown children.

In 2012, Race to the Top caught on in New Jersey, where state officials determined that twenty-three of Camden’s twenty-six traditional public schools were “failing.”

In 2012, Race to the Top caught on in New Jersey, where state officials determined that twenty-three of Camden’s twenty-six traditional public schools were “failing.” After taking over the Camden school district in 2013, state lawmakers made school closures their go-to strategy to remedy poor academic performance or budget shortfalls, despite the negative consequences school closures often led to.

Closing schools continues to be a popular “school improvement” strategy well into this new decade. But based on results in Camden, it’s clearly failed.

 

In January 2021, Camden Superintendent Katrina McCombs announced that four of Camden’s district schools would close to meet gaps in the district’s budget due to low enrollment and the poor conditions of those buildings. In March, that number was reduced to three schools.

 

Camden High School—a school with chronic student performance struggles—was not, however, among those that closed. Rather, new life was injected into the school when the New Jersey School Development Authority allocated $130 million for construction of a new building scheduled to open this fall. The previous structure that housed Camden High School, affectionately known as the Castle on the Hill, was demolished because district officials said the building was unsalvageable.

 

Based on pictures of the new Camden High School revealed on Facebook, the community of Camden students, parents, and educators destined for that school will likely be excited.

 

The gymnasium, hallways and classrooms look beautiful. Even some of the old architecture is seen throughout the new building. Certainly, this building should elicit an overall feeling of pride, as it is perceived as a testament to the genius of Camden students and the spirit of Camden High’s alumni.

 

But the building of this new structure has a bitter sweetness to it.

 

With a new building comes the reorganization of the city’s high schools, as the magnet high schools are going to be merged with Camden High School, becoming academies within Camden High School. And the city’s other high profile high school, Woodrow Wilson High, will not be a part of this reorganization.

 

One has to wonder what would have been possible if current and previous school closings had been avoided and neighborhood schools had been consolidated and possibly provided with new construction?

 

Such an idea is not entirely far-fetched.

 

Because of the Urban Hope Act, Renaissance Charter Schools have built new buildings for their students to take the place of traditional district schools that were closed. Tax dollars were used to fund those building projects, just as tax dollars were used to fund the new Camden High School building. The common denominator here is that the school district was under state control when all these decisions were made.

 

If the state felt it was important to keep Camden High School open while providing a new home, despite reduced enrollment in the district and budget gaps, why not do the same for other district schools?

 

Surely there were enough smart people statewide to figure something out.

 

For instance, they could have consolidated neighboring schools, so that students wouldn’t have too far to go for school, and kept those schools in neighborhoods where they were the only one, like Harry C. Sharp Elementary. They could have provided those schools with funds for new construction or building rehabilitation, like the $3.8 million given to Alfred Cramer College Preparatory Lab School for upgrades.

 

Nevertheless, Cramer is one of the schools scheduled to close.

There is a strong contingency of city residents and educators who desire for their schools to remain open and want to regain control of the district.  

Regardless of the specifics of the district’s budget priorities, or district officials’ intentions, there is a strong contingency of city residents and educators who desire for their schools to remain open and want to regain control of the district.

Unfortunately, those folks didn’t receive the same grace as did those advocating that Camden High.

 

School remain open as a district-run school.

 

Maybe it was the rich history of Camden High School, or maybe it’s because of the school’s storied basketball program, currently the top-ranked team in the entire state. Whatever it was, it’s bittersweet to see one school rise as others fall.

 

Whether or not people understand the motives, intentions and behind the scenes actions of state and district officials, they can identify what it looks like when the state of New Jersey essentially picks and chooses which schools in the city to keep open and which ones to close.

 

It’s not that Camden High School deserves to be closed; rather, all schools deserve to be invested in with the kind of fervor that puts students first, particularly those who are traditionally underserved, marginalized and whose humanity fails to be affirmed.

It’s not that Camden High School deserves to be closed; rather, all schools deserve to be invested in with the kind of fervor that puts students first.

My hope is that in the future, district and state officials give the same consideration to schools that were given to Camden High School—that they act strategically, no longer compromising the existence of remaining traditional public schools.

If the argument for closing schools is about poor facilities, build new ones. If it’s about low enrollment, hold a moratorium on Renaissance Schools, or charter schools that take over “failing” schools, in the city. If it’s about closing a budget shortfall, reconsider why the state continues to spend money elsewhere despite its own fiscal challenges.

 

If it’s about academics, consider investing in measures to increase the academic performance of Black and Latinx students by hiring more Black and Latinx teachers, investing in culturally responsive curricula, and training teachers in culturally responsive pedagogy.

 

Closing schools isn’t the solution to helping a community struggling with its education outcomes. But opening a shiny new one isn’t necessarily the solution, either.

Some are so bold, they’ve carved out specific dumping grounds. There’s a place where mountains of old Christmas trees pile up. Other places have tons of kitchen and bathroom appliances or accumulate debris from housing construction and other garbage sources.

 

Camdenites have been fed up for a while. They see it as a combination of greed from the haulers that send their trash there and a form of urban insult.

 

“People come and throw their trash here,” said Laradje Johnson. “They throw away Camden all together. You don’t have to-it’s a great community with great people within it.”

 

Johnson was born in Camden, and her family has lived in the city for three generations — her grandmother was one of the first Black women to buy a home there. Johnson is also one of the apprentices in “A New View,” a $1 million citywide art and social justice project.

Cooper’s Ferry Partnership

Funded by the Bloomberg Philanthropies, dealing with illegal dumping in a creative way is at the core of the project. Its goal is to transform six places along the city’s public transportation corridors into visually interesting spaces with installations that involve resident participation. The larger goal is to boost pride and economic development.

 

“It’s a project that I hope is going to inspire people to understand the power of art,” said artist Kimberly Camp, who was also born in Camden and is the “New View” co-curator. “We know from cases from around the world that if you provide opportunities and access for artists to move in, economic development follows. The creative spark, creative placemaking, which we now call it, of bringing artists that are innovators, curious, entrepreneurial — it’s a fever that infects everybody in the community, and it’s a tide that lifts all boats.”

 

“A New View” will remain in Camden until October and might inspire some artists to remain in the city, but from the start, the curators hope to have an impact on residents.

 

And these are far from traditional public art installations.

 

Take, for instance, the large, tower-like sculpture dedicated to placing boxes and boxes of earth, populated by hundreds of mealworms who love the taste of Styrofoam. Yes, the infamous, non-biodegradable material nobody wants. For three months, the mealworms crunch the waste into compostable mulch that can be used in gardens, and then those mealworms turn into earth-friendly beetles.

 

Mitchel Joachim is the director of Terreform One, the collective that came up with Bio Informatic Digester, and he speaks fondly of the mealworms.

 

The idea, he said, is to allow “creatures that have no voice to be front and center, more important than any human.”

 

“This is a very humble little mealworm, and they do amazing work by getting rid of polystyrene. We don’t need chemicals, we don’t need landfills, we don’t need guys with big trucks dealing with Styrofoam. These worms devour them naturally, and then they turn into beetles so that birds and other insects can eat them, and the things that they produce for us become garden material.”

 

All the way on top of the tower, boxed terrariums teeming with mycelium, fungus that absorbs nutrients from its environment, are waiting to start their bio-work.

 

A few blocks away, an old building displays portraits of 50 Camden residents in each window. Designed by Camden photographer and educator Erik James Montgomery, the artist asked each participant to complete the phrase “Camden is …” Some said, “Camden is legendary.” Others, “It’s my home” and “It’s worthy.” James Montgomery named his project “Camden is Bright not Blight.”

 

Each installation has interactive components for students of all ages. For instance, the heart for the 15-foot-tall Mechan 11 robot called “The Collector” was designed by a Camden high school student and then fabricated by Tyler Fuqua Creations. The robot stands near the State Street Bridge in the city’s waterfront park. The metal giant grabs pieces of trash to remind passersby to take care of the city.

 

“Ultimately, this is about changing human behavior,” said Kris Kolluri, president and CEO of Coppers Ferry, one of the nonprofits behind “New View.”

 

“The city has an amazing history,” he said. “It has been a contributor to the region going back 100 years, and the people in the region deserve the same respect for the environment they live in … For us, it’s about reclaiming the land.”

 

For example, remember that ugly pile of dead Christmas trees? They were hauled away to make space for the Avian Avatars, two 22-foot-tall colorful birds. The sculptures are woven out of bamboo, colorful strings, and other recycled materials, and can be seen from Route 30 and from the River Line light rail train.

For the past few years, the Rutgers–Camden Center for the Arts (RCCA) has led an innovative project at four Camden schools, funded by an Arts Education Special Initiative Grant from the N.J. State Council on the Arts.

 

Now, the RCCA is collecting artwork that students from those four schools created for  “virtual” gallery exhibits that will be available for the public to enjoy from mid-May until the end of June.

 

Life has changed a lot since RCCA’s Museum Mentorship program began. A year of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and a national focus on social justice have had a profound effect on Camden youngsters and it shows – through their posters, digital collages, poems and other artwork.

 

“The schools switched gears with their exhibition themes after COVID-19 and a summer of social justice awareness hit the country,” says Miranda Powell, arts educator at Rutgers–Camden. “You see that very much reflected in their artwork.”

 

Despite a switch to virtual learning, students from Brimm Medical Arts High School, Thomas H. Dudley Family School, Holy Name School, and U.S. Wiggins College Preparatory Lab Family School continued working on their projects. They are now preparing to curate, design, and install their virtual art exhibits for the Stedman and Camden Fireworks galleries.

“Many school populations struggled during the pandemic and virtual learning,” says Powell. “As a result, we were as accommodating as possible to make sure all students maintained a connection to the Museum Mentorship Program in some meaningful way.”

 

At Brimm, Dudley, and Holy Name schools, the RCCA had teaching artists to lead virtual sessions that helped students hone their visions and themes, and create their final pieces of artwork.

 

Brimm held virtual sessions with Erik James Montgomery – artist and photographer and “A New View–Camden exhibitor – who introduced students to the methods of creating “artivisim” after the 12th-grade group expressed an interest in social justice themes.

Holy Name School wanted to help their participating 5th to 8th graders acknowledge their interests social justice issues, including the Black Lives Matter movement, immigration, and how COVID-19 impacted students. They worked with teaching artist Hollis Citron to learn how to express themselves ideas through poster design.

 

Fourth graders at Dudley Family School continued with their initial exhibition theme: Cultural and family identity. Working with art teacher, Barbara Gail, visual artist Doris Noguiera-Rogers and poet Anndee Hochman, the youngest students in the Museum Mentorship Program created digital collages and poems using Google Draw.

 

Powell and Noreen Scott Garrity, the RCCA’s associate education director, began working with the schools on various art initiatives in 2018, enabling students to “really dig into ideas behind art and art exhibitions,” said Scott Garrity.

 

She and Powell began to lead a series of studio art workshops to help youngsters to gain appreciation for various kinds of art and learn how to start with a theme, to create original artwork, then build and promote an exhibition. “They are seeing how the whole process works,” Scott Garrity said.

Birmingham has been riddled with crime for decades, and people are concerned about the increasing number of homicides. In 2020, violent crimes such as rape and robberies decreased, but gun-related violent crimes increased almost 20%. Last year ended with a total of 122 homicides, the most in the last 25 years. So far in 2021, there have been at least 60 homicides in the city of Birmingham, according to data from the Jefferson County Coroner’s Office.

 

Local officials are trying new things. This summer, the Birmingham police are opening a real-time crime center, a tech hub providing live updates. They are also working with Crime Stoppers to get tips that will lead to arrests and hopefully end the no-snitch culture. And, there’s a new federal partnership to improve safety at the city’s 14 public housing properties.

 

However, some people are wondering if that’s enough.

 

I think that the schools need to make some kind of provision for them to have some kind of good job. You see what I’m saying? Not to go out and get a job that’s paying seven, eight dollars.

– Apostle Wanda Stephens

 

After Stephen’s son was killed in 2006, she turned her grief into action by starting the organization Mothers Who Want The Violence To Stop. Stephens wants city and school leaders to enact more systemic solutions.

 

Research shows that one issue that leads to crime is income disparities. Almost 30% of Birmingham residents live in poverty. Lonnie Hannon, who is a behavior health professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said that people like to live in what’s considered societal norms.

 

Like, to be able to purchase a house, to wear specific types of clothing, to drive certain types of cars, to provide certain resources to the family. Then you have to find ways to increase legitimate opportunities for the people who are experiencing what I call, you know, chronic poverty.

– Lonnie Hannon

 

Hannon said if people aren’t feeling that they fit within those social norms of income, then they’re willing to take risks to get there. This is common among urban communities.

 

Birmingham could learn some lessons from Camden, New Jersey, which has served as a model city for decreasing its crime rates. In 2013, the city of Camden disbanded its police force and rebuilt it with a focus on community policing. That year, the city had a total of 57 homicides, but in 2020, they only had 17. That’s a 67% decrease. Camden County Commissioner Louis Cappelli attributed the city’s success to focusing on building community relationships.

 

Trust has led to a tremendous partnership between residents and police that helps us to solve crimes, prevent crimes. It lets us know where there might be some hotspots or bad things happening.

– Louis Cappelli

 

Jeffrey Walker, who leads the department of criminal justice at UAB, endorses community policing. For example, he said police can walk and interact with people in their neighborhoods at particular times.

 

If you look at Camden, that’s a lot of what they did. They just started doing some very serious interaction with the community.

– Jeffrey Walker

 

While the idea of defunding the police has grown more popular nationally, Hannon said he doesn’t agree with that. He pointed to other longer-term solutions.

 

Do I feel as if we should invest in mental health, should we invest in education, should we invest in de-escalation tactics? Yes, I do.

– Lonnie Hannon

 

One program that’s taking that community-minded approach is the Birmingham Promise. It guarantees qualifying Birmingham City School students free college education. This gives at-risk kids a chance to elevate their economic status without the burdens of student loan debt. This is a longer-term solution that may take years to see the full results, but all of these efforts could make a difference in Birmingham.

As a policy coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance in Los Angeles, a nonprofit organization that aims to combat the war on drugs through policy change, Humphrey developed advocacy skills by campaigning and lobbying for drug policy and criminal justice reform legislation. “I learned about the added impact our criminal justice system has on the immigrant community through the threat of deportation and the perpetuation of racist narratives in order to further surveil and criminalize the Latinx community,” Humphrey explains. The experience solidified her commitment to criminal justice reform and led her to Rutgers Law School in Camden.

 

“I saw how criminalization was handed down to individuals based on socioeconomic and racial factors, more than actual justice or harm,” says Humphrey, a 2021 Rutgers Law graduate.

 

As a social justice scholar at Rutgers Law, Humphrey connected with the Camden-area community through pro bono projects, including assisting low-income clients to prepare and file bankruptcy petitions, monitoring and volunteering with the Camden County Board of Elections on Election Day, and working with the Drug Policy Alliance and the American Civil Liberties Union.

 

After George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, Humphrey felt compelled to join the first peaceful protest in Philadelphia. When police became aggressive with the crowd, she used her knowledge of the law to protect protesters’ rights.

 

Humphrey intervened to hold back a protester after one officer shoved his bicycle against the protesters. “I wanted to make sure people didn’t respond in a way that would allow police to do to us exactly what we were protesting,” she recalls. In response to the officer’s action, one man lunged toward the officer. Humphrey held the protester back and instructed him not to touch the officer. “I know there is a low bar for what is resisting arrest or assault of a police officer,” says Humphrey. “Once you are deemed as resisting a police officer, or trying to resist their command, that gives them justification to use force, per our Supreme Court jurisprudence on excessive force.”

 

The Ewing native is hopeful for progress in the future, following the global racial reckoning.

 

“I do feel that there is a possibility for significant change with greater awareness and growing demands for substantive changes, such as redirecting the police budget funding to social services,” says Humphrey. “But it is a shame that it takes someone dying for some people to recognize that we have rights that should not be violated.”

 

Humphrey begins her first post-law school job this summer as a clerk for New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division Judge Thomas Sumners.

 

In the future, she hopes to work on civil rights litigation or policy work involving police brutality and prisoners’ rights.

Organic produce may not be the first thing that comes to mind when people think of Camden, but a community gardener in North Camden is hoping to change that.

 

Jackie Santiago runs two community gardens in the neighborhood, one on the 300 block of Byron Street and another on the corner of Grant and North 6th streets. And, plans to add a third soon at Mastery High School.

 

In addition to her harvests of peas, tomatoes, onions and more – which are shared with members of the community – Santiago said the colorful lots are a boon to the neighborhood in other ways.

“It’s a place to be tranquil,” she said. “Anybody can come here, sit down, relax and have a quiet place to enjoy.”

 

The spaces are never locked, and Santiago said locals should always feel welcome in the gardens, even if she’s not there.

But she can often be found maintaining the spaces, which are decorated with lots of colorful artwork and brightly painted tires, because it’s a time-consuming daily task.

 

“Our biggest jobs are always weeding and watering,” Santiago said. “I weed every day. Even on my days off… There’s no days off for the plants.”

 

Santiago has around a dozen part-time employees who help her, but she also has a small army of volunteers consisting mostly of North Camden community members and school kids.

But the gardens are also a family affair for Santiago. Her niece Erielys Vicente, 18, and her son Diego Vicente, 12, help her with some of the daily labor.

 

“We’re planting tomatillos and green beans and on these trees, there’s some peaches and apples,” Diego said.

 

He prefers the produce from his mom’s garden.

 

“Some of them use pesticides to get rid of the weeds,” he said of most produce available at the grocery store. “It doesn’t give you the same flavor.”

 

His cousin agrees the natural approach to farming leads to tastier fruits and vegetables.

 

“When you go to the store and buy a strawberry, the ones there are mostly sour,” Erielys said. “The ones we get here are really sweet, because we’re not adding anything to it.”

 

On Saturdays, when the gardens are abuzz with volunteers running all-ages educational programming and cookouts featuring the crops harvested, the cousins help Santiago coordinate the youth program, an important way for the neighborhood kids learn about fruits and vegetables in a city where fresh produce can be hard to come by.

 

The garden on Grant Street can trace its roots back to 2011 when a local non-profit called Hopeworks founded the garden.

 

Santiago, a Camden native, returned to the city in 2017 so her family could care for her after she was diagnosed with cancer and needed chemotherapy treatments. It was supposed to be a temporary move, but that’s when Santiago started the garden on Byron Street.

 

In 2019, she founded the North Camden Community Gardens organization in conjunction with Camden Lutheran Housing Inc., another non-profit.

 

Santiago’s organization took over operations at the Hopeworks garden in 2020, which is now called the “La Esperanza Garden,” which means “the hope” in Spanish.

 

She hopes to open the location at Mastery High at some point this year.

 

But Santiago has her sights set beyond North Camden. She wants to partner with other community gardening organizations to provide resources in eight Camden neighborhoods for other residents interested in acquiring a green thumb.

 

“The goal for the eight greenhouse hubs is that anyone who wants to start a garden can come to our garden and we assist them with soil, mulch and plants,” she said. “We’ll even have a shared tool library.”

 

Santiago said the initiative is not off the ground yet, but that she hopes to have it ready soon.

 

Perhaps most importantly, those interested in gardening shouldn’t be intimidated. Before 2017, Santiago’s only gardening experience was from when she was a member of her high school’s ornamental gardening club.

 

“I put stuff in the ground and pray that it grows,” she said. “I’m getting better every year.”