There’s a change taking place in Camden.
Key leadership roles in the community that were once held by non-Camden natives are now being led by people who grew up in the city.
“The power of Camden lies in the homegrown,” said Tameeka Mason, who recently was named executive director of Camden Enrollment.
Mason, Katrina McCombs and Al Dyer are just three examples of those who have grown up in the city, have been through the local school system and are now in leadership positions.
Being raised in Camden helps these homegrown leaders to connect with Camden’s youth in ways that a non-Camden native may be unable to.
“The best way to show kids that they can succeed growing up in a city like Camden is by living it and showing them first hand,” Mason emphasized. “We’re creating a narrative of success in this city.”
Mason has been with Camden Enrollment for the past five years, recently being named executive director this past August and replacing non-Camden native Abby McCartney. Camden Enrollment is an independent non-profit that has developed a family-friendly unified application system to make it easier for families to enroll in the public school of their choice.
Before Camden Enrollment, Mason was a Human Resource Specialist within the Camden City School District.
Mason explained that the value of a Camden native is the important relationships they have established within the community before entering into a leadership role.
McCombs, who has led the school district since July 2018, first as Acting Superintendent of Schools before being named Superintendent of Schools this past May, agrees.
“Knowing the community well gives me a deeper sense of empathy, overall, which can help to inform my policy and decision making,” she said.
She first started as a kindergarten teacher within the Camden City School District in 1991, but 30-some-odd years ago, she was walking the halls of Camden High School as captain of the cheerleading squad.
McCombs went back to school to earn two master’s degrees and climbed her way to running the entire district. She took over after a non-Camden native, Paymon Rouhanifard, led the district for five years.
“You can be a woman of color, born and raised in this city and sit in a seat of power,” McCombs said. “Here I am, showing the next generation that this can be normal from Camden.”
McCombs said that since she took over the school district, she has implemented changes including the development of a strategic plan based on feedback from local stakeholders and the creation of the Riletta Twyne Cream Early Childhood Center, which provides higher quality preschool options in Centerville.
As the executive director of the Camden Health and Athletic Association (CHAA), Dyer connects children with something he relied on when he attended Woodrow Wilson High School in the 1980s — sports.
Through this non-profit, boys and girls from ages 4 to 17 are provided with opportunities to enjoy various athletic activities.
“Growing up in Camden was certainly a struggle and I needed sports as an outlet when I was in school,” Dyer said. “I went through these same youth programs and I know the challenges this city faces.”
During his years of playing inner-city youth sports, Dyer didn’t always have proper safety equipment or qualified coaches. Since taking over CHAA, which was formerly run by the Cooper Foundation, Dyer has made it his goal that every team in the association has the proper tools.
Another big change that Dyer and CHAA are making to the youth sports scene in Camden is by introducing non-traditional sports such as lacrosse and rowing.
“Everyone always thought that inner-city kids only wanted to participate in certain sports like football and basketball but we have so many kids participating in the non-traditional programming,” Dyer explained.
Dyer has been in education since 1995, serving as Camden High School Athletic Director from 2008 to 2011, vice principal from 2011 to 2014 and most recently as the Director of Career and Technical Education for the Camden City School District before joining CHAA.
Both Dyer and McCombs reflected on how Camden has changed since they attended public school, stating that the downtown area has completely transformed.
“My office is right downtown so I’m always walking to grab lunch and the fact that you can walk blocks and blocks now is just incredible,” Dyer said. “Slowly but surely, the city is connecting the dots.”