Features | Winter 2012
Responding to "Savage Inequalities"
By Rediet Mulugeta, SPU Senior
While a freshman in 2008, I walked into the John Perkins Center at Seattle Pacific University and found an application to a winter service trip in Camden, New Jersey. Students on this trip would work with an organization that’s tackling issues unlike any in my past experiences.
I grew up in Federal Way, Washington, just south of Seattle, and while in high school, I was involved in a program called Advancing Leadership Youth. ALY exposed me to the scope of the community-development issues in our own neighborhood and the strategies local organizations and community members were using in collaboration to help the city’s young people succeed. But my trip to Camden expanded my understanding of community development — both geographically and experientially.
Camden is a five-minute commute from the affluent Cherry Hill, but vastly different on the education spectrum. Historically, Camden was a flourishing city with many industries and an educated and working class. After years of decline due to industrial relocation, population shifts and economic challenge, the city is now known for its unemployment, poverty, and poor education.
Demographically, Camden is young: More than 35 percent of the total population is under the age of 18. In 2005, nearly one out of every five people in the city was living in severe poverty. Also, as reported in the 2005 American Community Survey, there continues to be a 13 percent vacancy rate in the housing market with a higher proportion of households in Camden relying on public assistance. Local schools remain under-funded.
Beyond Textbook Learning
Our trip to Camden was not one that we could learn about in text books. We drove through vacant streets, saw boarded-up houses, and visited resource centers. Camden is in great need. In Savage Inequalities, author Jonathan Kozol writes Camden provides a “stunted image of our nation as a land that can afford one of two dreams — liberty or equity — but cannot manage both.” When educational standards are not met effectively, the disparities within urban education become a development issue.
In Camden, effective education has to move beyond academics to also emphasize relationship and interaction. UrbanPromise, the nonprofit organization hosting my team’s visit, provides just this type of educational, relational, and social connection for the city’s youth. With a mission to “equip Camden’s children and young adults with the skills necessary for academic achievement, life management, spiritual growth and Christian leadership,” UrbanPromise offers after-school programs, summer camps, alternative schools, job training initiatives, and other programs that challenge the youth to develop academically and within the community.
During my week in Camden, I was placed in a second grade classroom and saw what genuine care and support these students received. Unfortunately, not all of the students in the city participate in UrbanPromise programs, showing more work must be done to change this and other urban school systems.
I have always had a passion for international development. But UrbanPromise taught me the importance of sustainable development within our own communities in the United States. Once home from Camden, I began to play my part in addressing the needs of my own community. In the 2009-10 school year, I put my passion for urban education, forged in Camden, to work. Through the Perkins Center’s Urban Involvement program, I became a volunteer team leader for the Neighborhood House tutoring program in White Center in southwest Seattle. In the summer of 2010, I traveled to Rwanda with SPU’s short-term mission program, SPRINT, which helped me see what effective and sustainable development looks like on a community level.
Now as I finish my degree in global development and stay involved in my community, I am learning to redefine my passions and desires so that they may be effective not only in helping me learn and grow — but so they may be useful to those within my community who need an extra hand to succeed.
From Federal Way, Washington, Rediet Mulugeta is a senior at Seattle Pacific University, majoring in global development studies. She is currently the student coordinator for Urban Involvement in the Perkins Center at SPU, and after graduation, she plans to continue working in community development at home or abroad.
|Learn more about The John Perkins Center by watching the video This is the John Perkins Center on iTunesU.|