CAMDEN, NJ — A happy commotion coming from outside the window greeted a young Minister Wasim Muhammad in the 1970s.
Drills being run. Plays shouted. Two-a-days. And sometimes all the noisy thrills common for a high school football scrimmage.
For when his mother, who was born and raised in Glassboro, and his father, a Savannah, Georgia-native, moved to Camden, they decided on a Park Boulevard home across from the Camden High School football field.
“It was the greatest thing in the world to hear that every day, to be around some of the great football teams this city has had,” Muhammad, 52, told TAPinto Camden in an interview. “There's nothing like growing up around that group of people and that energy.”
Muhammad — who stepped into the role of Camden school board president in April — was fated for a different sort of athletic prowess.
Formerly Donnie Walker, Muhammad graduated from Camden High School and played starting guard for the undefeated 1986 Panther’s basketball team alongside Ward 2 City Councilman Victor Carstarphen who he remain friends with.
He then headed to the University of Mexico, where he met his high school sweetheart, Stephanie, and continued his basketball career.
“Luc Longley was our center, and if you know anything about basketball you’ll know he would eventually play for the Chicago Bulls alongside Michael Jordan,” Muhammad said.
But a future on the court wasn’t in the cards for him.
When Muhammad returned to Camden in 1990 after his college stint he would open a number of businesses — including a childcare center and an employment agency.
Ultimately, he would help launch anti-violence movement Cure4Camden around 2010 with then-Mayor Dana Redd and the city's Center for Family Services. Muhammad helped run the community engagement side of the endeavor, which would go on to receive a grant from the Obama administration.
Upon his return to the city, he also geared his attention back to education.
Muhammad taught social studies and special education at Hatch Middle School for nine years from 1991-2000 before becoming a full-time minister running the Nation of Islam Muhammad's Temple of Islam No. 20 — serving a vital role in the re-opening of the school in 2010.
The private institution has as many as 50 students K-12 enrolled at a time.
He says his role with the school doesn’t diminish the attention he pays to every student in the city.
“As a member of the school district I understand the position I’m in to help the traditional public schools, however, I believe our young people in Camden should have the ability to choose the school types they are a part of,” Muhammad said.
As for his own trajectory — growing up in the city and then returning to help guide it forward — Muhammad acknowledged its more of a rarity than it should be.
“I believe it had to do with my upbringing. I was taught through my father that I should take the education that I had the opportunity to be blessed with and come back to help my community,” Muhammad said.
Muhammad first joined the Camden school board in 2014 following his appointment by Redd — who notified Sara Davis that following six terms she would no longer serve in the position.
At the time, the BOE was in the process of laying off as many as 400 employees to make up for a budget gap.
Since then, more changes have come down the pipeline — including the district electing board members for the first time in years this past fall.
When those three board members were sworn in at the start of the year, Muhammad also took on the role of vice president — which he served until the untimely passing of board president Martha Wilson.
He, and other board members, have united in the sentiment that continuing to improve the education system in Camden is perhaps the best way to pay homage to Wilson’s legacy.
“We need to make sure our young people are able to get the jobs and opportunities they deserve,” Muhammad said. “One way we can do that is bringing in the larger industries we have in our city like Holtech and Campbell’s Soup and taking advantage of their resources.”
Muhammad praised the Camden City School District (CCSD) for its “quick response” to the challenges of home instruction, necessary during the COVID-19 outbreak.
He said helping the technology-challenged is a major priority of the district right now, as well as preparing to the academic year to come and continuing to build on the already-improved test scores and graduation rates.
"Camden is a work in progress, but it is definitely not the city that it was 15 years ago,” continued Muhammad, “because Camden didn’t fall overnight, and the rise won't happen overnight either.”