On Saturday, a group of teenagers will step onto a newly built stage in Camden’s Northgate Park to perform a play about what it is like to live with environmental racism in Camden.
One of the players is high school junior Eva Vanterpool. The daughter of City Councilmember Shaneka Boucher is already a veteran of activism, having served as one of the leaders of Youth 4 Justice NJ, a group advocating to close youth prisons in New Jersey and divert young people into rehabilitation programs.
But this is new to her.
“I never really thought about environmental injustice, to be honest, or environmental racism,” said Vanterpool. “Those are pretty much new terms to me.”
Residents of Camden are subjected to more than their fair share of environmental hazards: A combined sewage overflow plant was built in the Waterfront South neighborhood that subjects neighbors to sewage floods from 37 municipalities across the county whenever stormwater causes overflows; stormwater runoff from the Ben Franklin Bridge floods homes near the foot of the bridge; and a scrap metal recycling plant (EMR) in the city that caught fire in January and spewed toxic smoke into the surrounding neighborhood. That was not the first time it had burned.
The play, called “Town Hall: Resolution 50,” posits that the reason Camden has so many infrastructure and environmental problems that can worsen residents’ health and quality of life, is because Camden is predominately Black.
“As a girl born and raised from the city of Camden, it’s often said that we will only be known for the color of our skin and the texture of our hair,” the characters recite, in unison, during a scene of a public hearing. “Today we are here to talk about a new mandate, a mandate for our home, a mandate for our environment where we live, work, learn and play.”
“Town Hall: Resolution 50” was written and directed by Samir Nichols, the founder of Superior Arts Institute, which uses dance and acting as a tool for advocacy. Nichols partnered with the Trust for Public Land (TPL) to engage in a monthslong process of listening to Camden residents, and using their stories as the basis for a play.
Earlier this year Nichols staged three pop-up performance events in Waterfront South, North Camden, and Cramer Hill, followed by talkback sessions to encourage neighbors to share their experiences.
“My mom, she lives in Fairview, right by the Walt Whitman Bridge, and she experiences flooding. So I listen to her stories,” said Nichols. “I listen to those in Waterfront South who’ve been affected by the EMR burning.”
Nichols heard stories about the ground underneath the swing sets in Von Nieda Park becoming saturated with sewage due to stormwater backup, and North Camden residents who are much more likely to get cancer than other parts of New Jersey.
One of those early participants was Vanterpool, who lives in Waterfront South near the sewage plant, an area prone to the smell of raw sewage.
“When I walk out my house, I can smell it,” she said. “It’s actually been like a joke. You know how kids get on each other? Like, ‘You smell like 6th and Ferry.’ That’s the neighborhood I live in. It smells so bad that kids will bully you for it.”
After participating in talkback sessions, Vanterpool decided to join the theater production. Although she had no experience in theater, she felt the project fit into her burgeoning activist career.
“I’m not an actor. I never want to be an actor, but it was a new way for me to feel heard,” she said.
Theater is also a new tool for the Trust for Public Land, which has been involved in improving Camden parks, playgrounds, and infrastructure for five years. During that time it has made layered data maps highlighting hot spots of health and environmental concern.
“But in that journey, we found that the community really wasn’t involved in setting the data. The data was just there,” said Danielle Denk, the director of the Trust for Public Land’s Community Schoolyards Initiative. “It’s fantastic data, very interesting data, but not as relevant if nobody’s interacting with it.”
Denk said Nichols provided TPL with an excellent way to reach Camden residents.
“As a Camden resident that has his own stories, his own lived experience, [Nichols] can frame that and establish really strong connections. People share so much more because they’re sharing with a friend in Camden,” she said. “Samir is the gatherer. He’s the story collector. We really wanted to make sure that he held that space,” said Denk.
“Town Hall: Resolution 50” will be performed only once, for free, at 2 p.m. on the outdoor stage at Northgate Park, along with a short film produced by Superior Arts, also about environmental justice in Camden.
Nichols said he sees the performance as part of the play’s further development, and imagines another rewrite and subsequent production in an indoor space early next year. The Trust for Public Land is behind the idea, pending funding.
“I would love to see it performed in schools,” said Denk. “These are high school students who are on the stage. I really am passionate about getting youth involved and taking action around these things.”
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