‘A chance to tell their own stories’: New documentary tackles environmental racism in Camden

In a documentary premiering Monday, Rutgers-Camden students spotlight the environmental issues faced by residents of the city.

Toxic dirt pile in Camden

Weeds cover a pile of toxic dirt contained behind corrugated fencing at the intersection of 7th and Chestnut streets in Camden, N.J. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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To mark Earth Day, three Rutgers University-Camden students will host a screening of “A Narrative on Camden’s Resiliency: The Unspoken Housing and Environmental Issue,” a documentary that explores “the racialized narratives of environmental and housing conditions” in Camden.

Filmmaker and Rutgers University student Freideliz Perez said she became a part of the documentary to advocate for the city she grew up in.

“This is where we live,” she said at a screening of the film’s trailer in March. “We got to work for [it], and for our future.”

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The documentary features interviews with multiple members of the Camden community, including prominent environmental and social justice advocates Roy L. Jones, executive director of National Institute for Healthy Human Spaces and Kevin Barfield, former president of Camden County’s NAACP.

Shaniyla Johnson, a Rutgers-Camden alumna who lived in Camden up until last year, speaks in the film about how it was unsafe to drink from the water fountain at her high school.

“They had tape on [the fountains] and … little water jugs … were just all around the school,” said Johnson in the documentary trailer.

According to Johnson, Roy L. Jones was instrumental in securing these water jugs for the high school.

In the documentary, Isaiah Carr, another lifelong Camden resident, recalls having to boil tap water to make it drinkable in 2016. Kenny Marte remembers driving through basketball courts to find his way around a flooded Cramer Hill, his neighborhood, following a “big rainstorm.” Sulena Robinson-Rivera, who works for the city, considers the lingering impact of Camden’s industrial past on the city’s air quality, as she and many others now live with asthma. Lari described the residents’ concerns about asthma as “recurring” throughout the film.

Camden’s residents are also affected on an economic level by the city’s legacy of pollution. Johnson, the Rutgers’ alum featured in the film, noted that the prevalence of brownfields and Superfund sites, properties with various levels of contamination by toxic substances, inhibits investment once potential developers learn how expensive it would be to clean up the land.

“Camden is trying to recover from its industrial past, but it’s very hard,” said Johnson.

For Perez, and fellow filmmakers, Grace Asare and Samira Lari, the impetus behind their documentary is to spur conversations to help solve Camden’s environmental and economic challenges.

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Though neither Lari’s nor Asare’s families are from Camden, the pair still found themselves connected to the city from an early age: Lari grew up in Pennsauken Township, which borders Camden, and Asare’s childhood babysitter would take her and her siblings on trips into the city. Consequently, it was important that the documentary center on the voices of Camden’s residents, which they said are “often overlooked.”

“Our main goal was to amplify voices,” said Asare. “It’s not our job to come in and be [at] the forefront.”

The film will premiere Monday at Nuanced Café, one of many minority-owned businesses on Camden’s Market Street.

“Everyone deserves clean water,” said café owner Rosemari Hicks. “Everyone deserves to live in a place where it doesn’t smell like sewage. [People] want the same quality of life that you get elsewhere–and they shouldn’t have to leave the city of Camden for that to happen.”

Johnson, who was interviewed for the documentary, attended the showing of the film’s trailer and is “excited” to see the entire film. She hopes it will encourage a “stronger love for the city.”

Lari and Asare hope to change people’s “negative” perceptions of Camden and shine a light on the work already being done by Camden’s residents to fix the environmental damage in their city.

“As Rutgers students, we’re being given this opportunity: Let’s give Camden residents a chance to tell their own stories,” said Lari.

The full documentary can be viewed on the S.H.E.A.G.’s YouTube channel after its premiere at 5:30 p.m.

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