Editor's note: This is the first in a series of profiles on newly-elected members of the Camden City Council and School Advisory Board.
CAMDEN, NJ — Traversing the halls of her dance academy in Parkside, Nyemah Gillespie’s passion to better position the children of Camden schools can be best captured not by the refurbished halls, beautiful pink walls or new gymnastics room.
It’s the gutted sections of the Jerrothia Riggs Center. All that can be read within those downtrodden floors and exposed wires. The collapsing columns yet to receive attention and the dust-coated floors yet to be swept.
“You can see how far we’ve come by looking at the parts of the center we haven't fixed up yet,” Gillespie said, carefully stepping into the unexplored halls. “But there’s more work to be done.”
The same could be said for the Camden school district. A budget deficit, teacher vacancies, and the potential for layoffs are just some of the challenges ahead.
There's much to be celebrated too. But by the Camden native's nature, she believes looking at what could be improved is key to her new role on the school advisory board.
“When I campaigned we ran on ‘Education for Everyone,’ but for me it’s also about bridging the gap between the district and parents,” said 31-year-old Gillespie, who is known as “Miss Nye” to her dance students at the academy. “I'm just trying to get more people to the school board meetings and teacher conferences. I think the biggest issue facing Camden schools is miscommunication and I want to be the kind of person that’s honest and real with everyone.”
A lifelong Camden resident, Gillespie is the daughter of Camden Community and Parent Involvement Specialist Tanya Gillespie-Lambert.
"She's always been very community-oriented," Gillespie-Lambert said over the phone. "I know when she first told me she was going to run for the board I was a little concerned because entering politics was very different from what she was doing. But it was where she thought she could make the biggest impact, and she has a great support system."
Nyemah Gillespie lives in Camden with her 11-month-old son, Kaz — which Gillespie joked is notorious in his own right for his snack conglomerate “Kaz's Snacks” of which she acts as the unofficial treasurer.
Not only did she participate in Camden’s first publicly elected school board race since the state’s 2013 takeover, but was the top vote-getter in the election garnering 2,169 ballots.
“I didn’t know that was a thing until it happened,” Gillespie said, laughing. “I was getting calls the next day like, ‘Hey, top vote-getter,’ and I thought somebody had made it up.”
“It might mean I’m in the hot seat,” she continued, “but I’m someone who keeps her promises.”
Dance to drive change
Gillespie attended Riletta T. Cream Elementary School in Centerville for elementary and middle school. She then headed to Creative Arts High School — now the Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy — for high school where she majored in dance.
In 2006, she was awarded the Coca Cola Scholarship for best performance in dance.
Despite majoring in social work at Morgan State University, Gillespie “danced throughout her college career” as a member of the Magnificent Marching Machine's Foxy Ladies and the Modern Dance Ensemble.
She later attended Dallas Black Dance Theatre's Summer Intensives and ultimately joined the Atlanta Dance Connection taking the stage with highly-coveted acts like Allyne D. Gartrell, Juanita Bynum and T.C Carson.
“After a little while I got homesick and while I was visiting home, found there wasn’t that kind of experience here,” she said. “I saw an opportunity to give back to my community in my own way.”
She began by organizing a successful Alumni Benefit Concert for the class of 2012 at her high school. Fast-forward to today, and hundreds of students make up Dare Academy.
Gillespie’s desk is a makeshift art gallery, with pieces from a few of the students from her school — which specializes in ballet, tap, jazz, contemporary, hip-hop, and African.
Gillespie opened the school, which teaches ages 3 to 18 and offers adult classes too, with fellow non-profit community leader Anthony Ways. Ways founded C.A.N.D.O. (Camden African Neighborhood Development Organization) in 2009.
In addition to C.A.N.D.O, the multi-use center hosts Dare 2 Flip classes and is headquarters to radio station, WCMD — which transmits podcasts series on pop culture, news, and politics throughout the Camden airwaves.
What makes dance such a driving force?
“To me it’s an emotional thing,” Gillespie said. “This is an outlet for kids...the kind they don’t get anywhere else. There are days kids come in when they don’t have classes and it’s because they just want to be in this space.”
Teaching, but also learning
When she took the oath of office in early January, it was the first time Gillespie would be in public office.
She said that she, as well as other first-time board members, have pushed for classes with the New Jersey School Board Association and elsewhere to improve their leadership skills, as well as learn the ins-and-outs of such a role.
Changing hats has presented a challenge of its own.
“Just turning off the ‘community leader’ and turning on ‘the school board member,’” she said. "I haven’t yet found that balance yet but I’m working on it.”
Another factor that has taken adjusting is the nature of how the board is set up. BOE members serve in an advisory role to Camden Superintendent Katrina McCombs, but do not have the authority to vote or approve items.
“It can sometimes mean feeling like you could make more of a difference if things were set up differently,” she added. “It just means adjusting. I know there’s other ways to achieve what I want to and I intend to do just that.”