By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
CAMDEN – Dr. Nyeema Watson is a child of Camden and proud of it.
The associate chancellor for civic engagement at Rutgers University-Camden has spoken and traveled around the country extolling the value of urban high education institutions as positive local anchors, especially in relations to K-12 and creating educational pipelines for underrepresented youth to higher education.
Watson was raised in Camden as an adopted child and graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School before earning her bachelor’s and doctorate’s from Rutgers-Camden. Like her studies, her heart never strayed too far away from home.
“I never left because Camden has always been an important place for me,” Watson told Front Runner New Jersey.com. “I’ve shared with people that I’m adopted, and I have this quote at the bottom of my email signature at work by Walt Whitman that says, ‘Camden was originally an accident but I shall never be sorry I was left over in Camden. It has brought me blessed returns.’
“I’m a woman of faith, but I don’t believe in accidents. I am blessed that by whatever pathway my biological mother made it to this place, that she was able to find my mother and father and raise me here. I think just being in a city that at times has a beauty, but immense challenges, has made me who I am today,” she said.
Smoothing The Pathway
Watson, who also earned a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, was named assistant chancellor for civic engagement in 2015 and elevated to associate chancellor in 2016, making her one of highest ranking African-American executives as the university.
“I always knew I wanted to be able to smooth a pathway for young people in Camden because that was what happened to me,” Watson said. “I always had an educator who saw in me what I didn’t see in myself, who saw the dreams that I was scared even to talk about.
“They could feel it in me and helped push me along the way, let me be that type of person for young people here. When I got to college I realized the power of education. I knew if young people in Camden, young black and brown people, or just young poor people, don’t have higher education, they’re not going to have a better future for themselves,” she said.
Under Watson’s leadership, Rutgers University–Camden became nationally recognized as a leader in the field of civic engagement by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching with the university receiving the Community Engagement Classification along with honors from the Washington Center and New York Life Foundation, and the President’’ Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll.
“When we opened the Office of Civic Engagement, which will be 10 years ago this spring, it really was like a dream come true,” Watson said. “It was scary because we were going to say, ‘Now I have to do this, and I have to help.’ But I was given so much leeway and so much freedom, it’s been blessed returns.”
According to Rutgers-Camden, the Office of Civic Engagement contributed more than 432,000 hours of community service in and around the city of Camden, impacting some 11,000 Camden residents in 2016-17. More than half of the student population of Rutgers–Camden participates in civic engagement as part of a credit-bearing academic experience with most students contributing 20 hours or more to service.
Wanting To Do More
“I think the needs in Camden City are so great that I’ve always wanted to be able to do more, to find more resources, to serve more people, build a big structure that not only includes supporting them but supporting their family,” Watson said.
“Rutgers has allowed me to do that. … That work is possible, but only if we can support the family. I can’t keep a young person in after-school or I can’t keep them in a college access program if they have nowhere to live or if mom is unemployed and if the lights are out.
“I accept their challenge as personal and just learning how to be a leader, and to learn how to do this work, and learning which hat to speak from: the university leader side, the Camden resident side, the woman’s side of me, or this person of color who was an underrepresented first generation student. I’ve learned how to navigate the identities that I have, inform them in such a way that I can speak to these issues in a way where people will respond to support the work that we’re doing,” she added.
Embrace the Role of Role Model
Watson said while she is happy with the work she is doing, she is also mindful that now other young people are watching her the same way she watched her role models growing up.
“I feel the weight of it sometimes, especially doing this work in Camden City and being of Camden City,” Watson said. “I think there’s expectation on me doing this work versus someone else would have come from the outside. I carry that weight because I think it’s important. I think it’s a humbling experience to know that, for the young people especially that we’ve worked with in some of our K-12 programs, that they see me as this role model.
“It took me a while to kind of embrace that role because I’m like, ‘I’m young, what do I have to tell you?’ But they were younger. And so, it was good to be able to just be like, ‘Look, here is some advice. I’m sitting in the middle of where you’re about to enter into and what lies on the other side.’ So, it’s a humbling experience, but it’s one that I hold dear and try to always carry myself appropriately.”
Watson touched on several other topics during her interview with Front Runner New Jersey.com.
FRNJ: You’ve been a part of several boards and several nonprofits. Is there any one in particular that’s really close to your heart?
Nyeema Watson: The work that I’ve done with boards has been centered around children, youth, women, and families. Currently, I’m the board chair for the Center for Family Services, and I think that is exceptionally close to my heart because the work they do impacts people when they are immediately in need. Whether it is suffering from drug addiction, a young person who needs temporary shelter or long-term shelter. Whether it is women fleeing from challenging conditions with their children, they are at that point in time where you feel like you may have nowhere else to go, the Center for Family Services is there. They’ll be there for you from that critical point all the way, actually, then oftentimes have space for people who’ve been clients to kind of come back and work. To be the chairwoman of the board has been an amazing experience. I think it’s because they’re just doing this amazing work.
FRNJ: Who are your personal inspirations? Are your parents, teachers? Who would you count as people who have really inspired you along the way?
Nyeema Watson: I think people say their mother and it absolutely is the case for me. In retrospect, my mother died three years ago. I think I have a better appreciation and understanding for her now than I did. What it must’ve felt like as a woman who, certainly my father was there in the household, they were married, he was the bread winner, but here was a woman who was a foster parent and adopted.
These various kids came to her and she always made room for one more. She raised us all during a time where Camden was a really challenging place. At the height of the crack epidemic, violence and crime. And for me personally, I can’t speak for my siblings, I didn’t really know. I didn’t really know these challenges were existing because she kept such a tight hold on the family. You went to church, you came home, you went back to your grandparents’ houses or your cousin’s houses, then you came home. So, the circle was small. But we lived in a tree-lined street with a big yard, and my dad every day. It wasn’t until high school and college that I realized, “Whew. Camden was rough.”
[My mother] would always say, “There by the grace of God,” and I didn’t get it until I could intellectualize it. So, I really do, in the work that I do, I think that’s why I’m so drawn to working on behalf of children and young people, because of the life that she lived.
FRNJ: Others role models?
Nyeema Watson: There’s also been other women contemporaries of mine who I feel like I’ve grown as a leader and as a black woman leader because of two with them. Our chief of staff here, Loree Jones. I tell her this. I don’t think she believes me, but seeing how she is able to really bring groups of disparate people together around common causes in a navigating, challenging situation, knowing when to push, knowing when to step back. It took me a while to grow into being a leader. But I’ve learned a lot by watching her and getting mentoring and counseling from her. I don’t think she realized I was using her as a mentor, but I have.
But it’s a host of women like that. I keep a tight circle of women as mentors and as friends, and as we kind of navigate this road of leadership together, whether we’re women of color or just women leaders in Camden, in the city, I have some touchstones to go to instead like, “Am I crazy? How do I deal with this?” That’s a safe space for me. I think that’s what has made me successful because I’ve had other people to go to and that helped me navigate.
FRNJ: How does it feel to be from Camden and now playing such a role in its present and future?
Nyeema Watson: I feel like Camden is not where it was. I have confidence in the leadership of the city and the leaders of major institutions to help push it into this new direction. We just had a press conference this morning on a project that we’re partnering on Rutgers, Camden, Cooper’s Ferry, and the mayor’s office. It’s called A New View. It’s funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies. It’s using art to address a public issue in Camden. So, we’re using arts to address illegal dumping.
I’m excited by the possibility. I would say I’m excited that crime is down. I’m excited that education is moving in the right direction. I’m excited that these new companies have come to Camden City, but I also will maintain — skepticism is not the right word — but I also want to make sure that all of this success that’s happening really impacts the day-to-day residents and the neighborhood that my dad lives in. And that what we’re seeing on the waterfront, what we’re seeing on downtown really can have a ripple effect of bring additional resources into the neighborhood campus. To the people wanting a job or a higher paying job, wanting to make sure that in their neighborhood, within walking distance, there’s a great educational opportunity for their child.
Growing up in Camden, Watson knows exactly what providing and creating those opportunities mean for the children there.
Photos courtesy of Nyeema Watson and Facebook
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