In Nov. 2021 after ten years of our evolving mission and impact, we changed our name to Gathering Ground. You may still find reference to our old name Creative New Jersey in posts created prior to Nov. 2021.

LNJ Part II: “E” is for Education

March 2015 Seminar
This blog is part of a ten-part series capturing my experiences as part of the 2015 Lead NJ Class, which follows the monthly two-day seminars our class participates in over the course of one year.  For the next several weeks I’ll be posting a blog every Monday up through my graduation in early December 2015.


What is a leader’s responsibility to push for change even when forward progress is seemingly imperceptible at best or negative at worst? What must a leader do to motivate, to provide direction, to help breakdown obstacles in order to achieve real change? And how do we make change in systems as large as our educational system?

My questions are influenced by Chip and Dan Heath’s excellent book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, and I think about those questions a lot. The Heath brothers use a three-component metaphor in their book to illustrate how change can be made: the elephant, the rider and the path.

elephant_rider_pathThe elephant is the emotional part of human beings that can drive sweeping reform, but can also turn into chaos if not motivated to move in a certain direction. The rider helps to provide that direction, but if the rider cannot properly motivate the elephant it will never move in the direction the Rider needs it to go. Neither the elephant nor rider will be able to get where they need to go in the time necessary if they do not have a clear path to their destination, therefore to create change, obstacles on the path must be cleared.

In March, my Lead NJ classmates and I visited Camden to discuss education.  There, I saw inspiring collaborations between different sectors of the public school system, community development corporations and social service organizations that were working to tackle these essential leadership questions. This holistic approach was one of the several surprising things I learned about Camden.

I’d like to pause for a moment here for readers who have opinions about Camden that may not be based on personal experiences of that city. Working in Trenton for the last seven years, I am sensitive to the exhaustion that residents and champions of Camden may feel about the constant battle against the negative narrative surrounding their city: I’ve felt it about Trenton, and I can tell you it is exhausting to constantly have to reassure people that Trenton is safe, it’s vibrant, it’s a place people can and do live, work and play and that good things are happening.

So when I say that there were “surprising” things that I learned about Camden, I want to be clear that “surprising” should not be equated simply with “good” – it goes without saying, as far as I’m concerned, that there are many amazing people who are making amazing things happen in Camden every day.

creative arts hsWhat I found surprising is how willing different groups – some that have traditionally been depicted as in conflict with one another – were to work together in the face of daunting challenges.

Our seminar started with an unconventional bus tour, one that was co-led by Rev. Floyd White of the Woodland CDC & First Presbyterian Church and Anthony Perno from Cooper’s Ferry Partnership, another CDC making great strides in Camden. Our bus stopped at several locations – The Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy, The Woodland Presbyterian Church, the Octavius V. Catto Community Family School, the Your Shelf Food Pantry, and finally, the new technology center in downtown. In that time we met school admissions counselors, a young man in charge of the student test prep program at the Church, the Executive Director of the Food Pantry and a woman working for a tech start up that relocated from Sussex County to Camden because of the friendly entrepreneurial climate.

What became clear over the course of our morning was that these organizations had all found ways to support each other’s work, and in some cases actually work together, to bring about positive change to their neighborhood by tackling issues from many different angles – providing as many options for success as possible to the residents, students and clients they serve.

handsThat notion of supporting a community from a variety of angles was echoed in our discussion with Ms. Claudia Cream, an endlessly positive, no-nonsense retired principal of the Camden School District, who laid out a methodology she’s used to turn around numerous “problem” schools within the district.

Part of that methodology, Ms. Cream shared, is to help the families come to her for help cutting through the red tape. She can immediately connect families to the resources they need, and she considers that role to be an integral part of her job and her teacher’s jobs: to know what services exist in the community and how to reach them so that parents and guardians can get enough support to provide more stable environments for their children.

On our second day, we had the privilege of speaking with a panel of Camden School District representatives including: Tia Morris, Chief Family and Community Engagement Officer, Katrina McCombs, Director of Early Childhood Education, Felisha Reyes-Morton, Advisory Board Member, and Andrew Bell, Chief School Support Officer. We met at the state-of-the-art KROC Center – a health, wellness, learning and worship campus run by The Salvation Army which included a pool and waterslide, black box theatre, chapel, community library and classrooms. The KROC Center worked with the city bus system to create a stop outside of the Center in order to provide better access for Camden residents.

strength_togetherWe also toured Charter schools like LEAP Academy, at which their founder Dr. Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, who is also affiliated with Rutgers University, has been securing ownership of buildings along the whole block to expand her school and also to revitalize the neighborhood by taking vacant buildings and making them active again.

Renaissance Schools like KIPP Cooper Norcross, which has a successful renaissance school system in Newark, Magnet Schools, and district schools were working together to provide choices for students.

Though often cast in antagonistic roles, these educators and professionals all agreed that the systems that had been in place for over thirty years were not working and had not worked for a long time. They put aside the territorialism that can be spurred when funding for K-12 education continues to be stretched in so many directions (despite the fact the New Jersey has one of the best K-12 systems in the nation).

As Chip and Dan Heath would say, these people and organizations are working with each other and others to clear the path for change; to provide direction, from a number of different starting points, to the seemingly intractable problem of improving educational opportunities and quality; and to motivate people by keeping the children of the greater Camden area front and center.

I put the following questions to all of us, then: How can each of us support our educators, community development professionals and other organizations in the work that they do? How do we, as leaders in our individual ways, impact change in our educational system for the children of Camden and the State of New Jersey?

Photo caption: The Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy hallway with student art.


Kacy O’Brien is the Program Manager at Creative New Jersey, a statewide initiative dedicated to fostering creativity, innovation, and sustainability by empowering cross-sector partnerships in commerce, education, philanthropy, government, and culture, in order to ensure dynamic communities and a thriving economy.

This blog is part of a ten-part series capturing Kacy’s experiences as part of the 2015 Lead NJ Class, which follows the monthly two-day seminars her class participates in over the course of one year. Topics range from policy to the economy, to education, arts and culture, energy, criminal justice and healthcare, with a focus on New Jersey’s current state and its future. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Lead NJ, The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Creative New Jersey, their staffs, and/or any/all contributors to this site.  For corrections or questions, please email Kacy at: kobrien@creativenj.org.

Kacy gratefully acknowledges Lead NJ and The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation for their support of her participation in the 2015 Lead NJ program.

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