By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
WILLINGBORO – Samantha Whitfield decided this year she could no longer sit on the sidelines and watch the town she grew up in take a downward turn.
While some today would turn to social media and even organize rallies, Whitfield, president of the Willingboro & Vicinity NAACP, decided to take things a step forward and run for township council with running mates Kaya McIntosh and Tiffani Worthy.
In June, the three women of color and all new the politics stunned the local political establishment by beating the incumbents on council in the Democratic primary. Whitfield, who recently completed her master’s degree in city planning from the University of Pennsylvania, received the most votes of all.
Since it appears that they will face no serious opposition in the November general election, Whitfield will be officially “township councilwoman” Whitfield in January.
“It was overwhelming,” Whitfield told Front Runner New Jersey.com. “This election was bigger than just me; it was about the chance for transformative change in Willingboro. I was more excited that we secured all three seats than who got the most votes.
“I am encouraged by the voter’s confidence in me as a leader, but politicians are not magicians. It is going to take more than five council people to turn this town around. I’m excited to continue growing resident involvement in creating the community they want to see and activating more people through the ‘Expect More’ movement,” she continued.
Whitfield and her family moved to Willingboro in 1989 from North Philadelphia, which was struggling with deindustrialization, disinvestment, the crack epidemic and violence.
Noticing Shift in Willingboro
“I had a great childhood growing up (in Willingboro), but I noticed a shift coming back after college, and it has been even more apparent within the past five years. There is a pattern of displacement in black communities, whether it be from disinvestment and decline or gentrification.
“I saw movement starting as people started leaving due to the poor school district ranking. I’m not the type of person to be okay, looking past known issues, so I decided to get more involved with improving the community. My parents are still in Willingboro as well as my brother, a few aunts, uncles, and cousins. My cousin Jamika Lemon was just awarded teacher of the year in the district,” she said.
She said as she learned more about how a city runs through her studies at Penn, Whitfield said she believed she could be an asset to Willingboro.
“I didn’t understand how this town functioned well for so long and has now just been in a constant state of decline,” Whitfield said “As I studied city planning at the University of Pennsylvania, I continually brought new ideas and strategies to the township council and often spoke during the public comment section of the meeting. I felt that nothing was being done about the most concerning issues of residents. Some residents at the meetings started to suggest I run for office. I knew the skills I was learning in my master’s program could benefit the town, so I decided to run.”
Knocking Down the House
Deciding to run was one thing. She found actually getting on the ballot was another thing, when the mayor, one of the incumbents running for re-election, filed a lawsuit earlier this year in an effort to keep her and her running mates off the ballot.
Burlington County Assignment Judge Ronald Bookbinder ruled in May, with just a month to go before the primary, that Whitfield, McIntosh and Worthy could stay on the ballot.
“Although our team had more than enough signatures for the petition, it was challenged with a lawsuit,” Whitfield said. “It made me second guess if it was worth all the trouble. We had to find a lawyer, raise more money, and subpoena our supporters to testify on our behalf in court. I even had to miss crucial classes and spent the entire week before finals in court.”
Whitfield said she found comfort and inspiration in the documentary “Knock Down the House,” which chronicled the upset campaign of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez to win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, as she and her team fought for the right to just run.
“It was a real roller coaster of emotions. Watching the Netflix documentary really helped me put it all in perspective as challenging petitions are often used to deter candidates from running but by the grace of God we won the lawsuit in what Judge Bookbinder called a ‘remarkable’ case.”
Community, Supporters Rally
Whitfield said she also found comfort in how the Willingboro community rallied to them.
“The most rewarding part was all of the community support,” Whitfield said. “Our campaign was entirely funded by a grassroots effort. Seeing residents be engaged in this election would have been a success even if we didn’t win the primary. We also saw an increase in voter turnout, especially for a primary election with no presidential candidate. Residents are ready for change and are willing to do the work to get it.
Whitfield said she, McIntosh and Worthy all attend the The Boro Church, where Worthy’s husband Carlos is the pastor.
“It just coalesced for lack of better words,” Whitfield said of the coming together of her running mates. “We always saw each other at community events and meetings. We spent countless hours talking about our ideas to improve Willingboro. When the opportunity arose for us to run it only seemed natural to do it together.”
Black Lives Matter to Activism, NAACP
Whitfield is in her second term as president of the Willingboro & Vicinity NAACP after getting involved with the iconic civil rights organization in 2015.
“At that time, there were Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the country against the deaths of numerous African-Americans by police actions. A local protest organized by Tiara Green ignited my activism. The fight against racism got personal when my younger brother was the victim of a hate crime in the Bay area.
“Although I was miles away, I was so angry I had to do something where I was, so I turned my anger into activism. After attending a few NAACP meetings the president at that time, Kyra Price encouraged me to run for president,” she added.
Whitfield was selected to participate in the NAACP’s nationwide NextGen Program, which targets future leaders and provides them in-depth leadership training.
Through it all, Whitfield said she is thankful for those who stood behind her, particularly her family.
“I am eternally grateful to everyone that has supported me in my journey thus far,” she said. “My family has been nothing short of amazing when it comes to unwavering support. I thank God for his grace and favor.”
City Planning, Sass Society & Doctorate
Whitfield touched on several other subjects in her interview with Front Runner New Jersey.com.
FRNJ: What led you to get your master’s in city planning?
Samantha Whitfield: My desire to see Willingboro improve was the primary catalyst. I was interested in figuring out what we were doing wrong and how to get off the path of decline. Willingboro has many of the same issues as other Black and Brown small towns across the country. No matter what the topic, I always had Willingboro in mind, especially when completing assignments and projects.
FRNJ: What is Sass Society and what inspired you to create it?
Samantha Whitfield: Sass Society is a social events and networking group for active women from all walks of life. Sass Society understands the importance of female camaraderie and strives to fulfill its mission to empower women to live their best lives as well as facilitate and nurture female relationships by providing unique opportunities to connect with like-minded women, create awesome memories, explore hidden talents, learn new skills and better themselves and their community.
Members have the chance to participate in exclusive events with topics ranging from career development to community service and lots of fun in between. I was a Girl Scout from kindergarten to my junior year in high school. I went on to work for the organization through college and then full time after graduation. I got to see how unique female relationships and spaces are and missed them as I got older. It became increasingly difficult to coordinate schedules for get-togethers with my friends, so I decided to make a business out of it and invite other sassy ladies to join. We had so many awesome experiences.
FRNJ: Who are your personal inspirations?
Samantha Whitfield: I’m inspired by the journey of my ancestors in this country. I think about everything it took for me to be where I am today, and I’m in awe! Through slavery, Jim Crow, the great migration, the civil rights movement, the projects of North Philadelphia, I feel like I have it easy. I’m determined to do everything I can to push the needle forward to create a better world for the next generation.
FRNJ: How seriously do you take your role as a role model, particularly for young African-Americans looking to find their place in society?
Samantha Whitfield: As the second of four children, I’ve been a role model almost my whole life. I take that job very seriously, and I love working with youth. It is so vital that we encourage and push them to do the things they want to do. One of my goals for this year is to reactivate the NAACP Youth Council in the Willingboro & Vicinity area. We currently have about half of the 25 youth we need to get the initiative off the ground. I’m excited to engage young folks in activism and organizing.
FRNJ: Where do you see yourself five years from now?
Samantha Whitfield: Even though I just finished a degree program, I am already considering going further in academia. I’m interested in the issue of displacement in minority communities not only from the effects of gentrification but also from disinvestment and decline. I would love to study under Dr. Mindy Fullilove at the New School for my doctorate.