Changing Perspectives: Ram Raval ’18 Changing Perspectives, Cooper’s Ferry Partnership , Camden, N.J.
“By the end of my internship, I began to view economic development as a comprehensive implementation of infrastructure that will create capabilities for the area’s citizens.”
Interestingly enough, one of the most memorable experiences I encountered while working at Cooper’s Ferry Partnership (CFP) in Camden, N.J., occurred even before my first day of work. Eager to begin our journey of cooking for ourselves on a budget, my roommates and I decided to buy groceries immediately after settling into our apartment. Shortly after beginning our search, we quickly realized that the nearest supermarket was not only outside of Camden, but also inaccessible by public transportation. We then learned upon arriving at the supermarket that it also lacked any fresh produce, forcing us to shop at a nearby, more expensive store.
Knowing that around 35 percent of Camden households lack access to their own vehicle, I quickly began to understand the extent to which food deserts plague Camden and similar urban environments. Having been raised in a suburban community with cars readily accessible, I never truly understood the severity of food deserts as an issue, despite countless readings and discussions in my poverty studies classes that argued otherwise.
Still, looking back, it seems rather peculiar that the most pronounced memory I have concerning Camden’s problems is from my very first day in the city. I eventually realized that this is so because while my first week may have served as an introduction to Camden, its history, and its issues, the subsequent seven weeks of my internship focused on its bright future and the necessary steps to achieve it.
An integral component of CFP’s mission is to change the conversation regarding Camden. Instead of introducing Camden by listing its crime and poverty statistics, it is our responsibility to focus on its potential. For example, a mere 1.5 miles separates Camden from Philadelphia, the fifth largest city in the United States; Camden has a long stretch of waterfront property with panoramic views of Philadelphia; and Camden is serviced by excellent transportation infrastructure such as the RiverLink Ferry, the PATCO Speedline, and nearby I-295 and I-76.
CFP is a not-for-profit corporation that leverages partnerships with public, private, and other not-for-profit entities to execute long-term, sustainable economic development in the city of Camden with the goal of making the city an attractive place to visit, live, work and invest. As one can imagine, this broad mission statement has led CFP to possess a diverse portfolio of projects. For example, my projects for the summer included promoting recreational trails throughout Camden, helping execute components of a neighborhood plan for East Camden, improving the business model of the Camden CoLab small business incubator and helping to draft and edit grant proposals for each of the preceding initiatives.
After working on these projects for eight weeks, one of the primary takeaways I gained was an appreciation for the importance of creating “capabilities,” a notion developed by Martha Nussbaum. Nussbaum’s concept of capabilities argues that poverty extends far beyond a mere lack of financial resources; it is also a deprivation of resources and rights such as education, health and healthcare, recreation, safety, cleanliness and political power, all of which work together to promote welfare. CFP works to equip Camden to provide its residents with these capabilities by improving green space within the city, implementing trails, cleaning its streets, improving roadway conditions and safety, implementing cultural programming and facilitating investment. By the end of my internship, I began to view economic development as a comprehensive implementation of infrastructure that will create capabilities for the area’s citizens; in other words, an economic development firm aims to outfit its city with the groundwork necessary to ensure the welfare of its citizens. By improving the quality of life for its citizens, Camden will in turn attract investment, which will eventually work to mitigate financial hardship, thus working to solve poverty from both a capabilities and purely financial perspective.
In retrospect, my experience this summer supplemented my pre-existing knowledge by adding another dimension to it: I now understand and respect the importance of focusing on solutions to poverty rather than merely its existence. I went into the experience expecting it to primarily be a means of becoming acquainted with the nature of urban poverty, but living and working in Camden taught me much more about the hope and potential within the city than it did about its struggles. At the risk of sounding youthfully optimistic, my experience working at Cooper’s Ferry Partnership in Camden taught me that there is an abundance of realistic, feasible work that can be done not only in areas of concentrated urban poverty such as Camden, but throughout the United States and globally in order to make the world a better place to live for all. Not only am I now considering economic development as a potential career path, but I have also begun to view the world differently. For example, while driving through my hometown of Virginia Beach, I now envision potential development opportunities by considering how projects being done in Camden could extend elsewhere to improve quality of life. Economic development does not necessarily have to serve only as an anti-poverty measure, but can be a means of improving the world in general.
Photo: Ram Raval ’18 (far left) with his fellow CFP interns and Donna Redd, mayor of Camden (third from left).