I come up hard baby, but now I’m cool / I didn’t make it sugar, playin’ by the rules

You can feel Bryan Morton’s presence before you see him in a room. That’s not just his aura, a cloud of suave intensity. It’s a presence that can be as imposing as it is reassuring. That dynamic is a fine but necessary line to walk in Camden, a city that is in the midst of solidifying a new presence in the education landscape.

The conversations around education reform, in a district where the graduation rate has hovered at 50 percent for years and reading and proficiency rates at 20 and 30 percent respectively, have been fraught with tension. Everyone has walked a fine line there, respecting the deep investment the community has with schools and the need for an infusion of new buildings, opportunities, policies and conversations. In Bryan’s mind—a man born and raised in the city’s northern neighborhoods in the 1970s—Camden has had to navigate some tough conversations about itself.

Bryan has seen this city at its best and its most humble. During the golden years of Camden, the neighborhoods didn’t have the urban blight and poverty that’s now become synonymous with the city. In Bryan’s childhood, companies like Campbell’s and RCA were heavy footprints employing a solid, diverse middle class. Bryan ran the streets with kids, playing all over the neighborhood. But times got tougher, jobs started shrinking, racial climates climbed and the city slowly became unrecognizable. Around this time, Campbell’s started moving their factories and RCA began cutting jobs. The once-flourishing streets began sliding downward. The homes that Bryan spent afternoons visiting with local families and friends became vacant, sometimes overnight.

As you listen to Bryan talk, you can hear the overcast that gripped the city seep into his voice as those sepia-toned memories give way to something grimmer. Bryan remembers some families leaving in such economic and emotional distress that it wasn’t uncommon to find furniture left behind and food in the cabinets. To oblivious kids playing in the neighborhood, these abandoned home became clubhouses. They also became gold mines for some of the unemployed residents of the city. People scavenged the structures for piping, oil and other goods that they could resell and barter with as Camden continued a descent into the poverty profile that would define it for the the next couple of decades.

The private sector wasn’t the only group to feel the impact of Camden’s changing face. Over time these shifts changed the public schools. As the city’s population and wealth started to dwindle, Bryan, a school-aged Camden public school student, watched a gradual disinvestment in the city from teachers. More and more it became common for teachers to live outside the city, which he saw translate into more fractured engagement and relationships between teachers and students in the classroom.

In his mind, that distance had some real consequences. Teachers started favoring the well-behaved children from more stable households while children like Bryan—the hyperactive, talkative ones that exist in every classroom—became the target of mentions, detentions and suspensions. But those weren’t the only penalties. The collective climate in Camden meant that resources became both scarce and precious. Bryan watched teachers check in and check out of their jobs, doling out the best opportunities to the “good kids,” meaning that kids like Bryan were left out of the benevolence.

Take care of my business / With all my might / I come up hard, I had to win / Then start all over, and win again

Bryan quickly became familiar with the consequences of missed opportunities. Disenchanted with school by freshman year and dropping out, Bryan immediately fell into trouble with the law on drug charges. While he spent time in jail (something he doesn’t shirk from, saying “Of course you can put that down,” with a laugh, “it’s public information anyway!”), he dedicated his time inside to immense amounts of reading, honing his mind and challenging himself in ways that didn’t happen when he was in school. He read one to two books per day, studying other urban communities in the country and the deep history of inequity that traced further back than the empty homes he hopscotched through as a kid.

Most importantly, Bryan learned about the long, proud history of African-American political leadership and community organizing to combat systems of oppression. He also received tutelage from others serving time. Bryan recalls people telling him that when he got out, he needed to “make good on second chances.” So he did. When he was released, Bryan completed high school, enrolled at Rutgers University-Camden and completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees alongside classmates that would create their own legacy in the city, including future Camden Mayor Dana Redd.

From school, Bryan began working in youth and community nonprofits, focusing on getting in front of kids that fell into the prison industrial system early in life. He started the North Camden Little League with about 60 kids, and the program has now grown into 760 players, 76 teams and a documentary about its place within the city.

As the little league continued to thrive, three years ago Bryan formed Parents for Great Camden Schools, an education advocacy nonprofit fixated on issues that stymie parents and students from getting access to quality education. He says the idea came to him from his ongoing conversations with little league parents and community members. But what’s also possible is that behind Bryan’s eyes are the memories of the vacant homes and school expectations that placed him and so many other classmates on wobbly paths. That memory has not only fueled him but also aided him in activating a phalanx of parents around the city in a growing conversation about quality services for families and students.

In what might be seen as a surprising plot twist, the work hasn’t been in service of one school sector over another. Bryan and his team of parents defiantly walk a line of agnosticism, representing the interests and injuries families experience in traditional district, charter and renaissance schools. Nowadays, his team of parents and community members are reaching hundreds of families, vetting concerns that range from the mundane—missed bus pickups, persistent leaks at school entrances and uniform policies—to the monumental, like navigating special needs programs, enrollment practices (or malpractices) and cross-city transportation.

Start all over, and win again / I come up hard, but that’s okay / ‘Cause trouble man / Don’t get in my way

All of this is what makes it possible, arguably even necessary, for Bryan to be Bryan; a constantly roving man that gives you the impression that people should be following him. It’s not uncommon to hear him pipe in during the middle of a parent’s testimony as a hype man, enthusiastically underscoring that what’s being said in the moment is the unvarnished truth. His quick mind doesn’t just vet parent grievances; he connects them to something bigger, deeper. When someone talks about their child not being picked up by the bus, it’s not just about the inconvenience, it’s about what that means: connecting missed bus pickups to caregiver employment, to housing stability to the scarcity of jobs in the city to the long-standing starvation of quality and access that systems have denied brown communities in this country for generations.

In many ways you would think that the little league would have been enough. When he chimes in with residents at public meetings, you get the impression that some of the people forced to listen to these issues would have wished he had found it enough, too. But Bryan constantly expends his capital to lift up the message and messengers in situations where appearances and articulations can be the difference between being heard or dismissed. It also means that he and his parent advocates are never alone. Together they are doing what has become a pithy shortcut to articulating activism: speaking truth to power. Actually doing that—standing up in board meetings, town halls, press conferences, on panels—means that he’s not always a popular figure with some of the city’s leaders. But with so many people in the community vouching for what he’s done, it does mean that he and his village are respected and heard.

Bryan has been many things in Camden, and in a city that totals 10 miles, it can often feel like Bryan has covered every one of those miles alongside the 75,000 residents that either know him or know of him. Much of that comes from the fact that he’s been many things to many people in the city: a Camden ambassador to funders, schools, peer parent groups outside of the city; a pied piper for local residents and a voice of conscious to the city’s various powers that be.

Camden, in its latest attempt to reinvent itself and provide a better life for its residents, is in the midst of an educational renaissance. It would be easy to judge educational progress on the merits of the city’s own insular ecosystem, but that is neither a realistic or politically relevant way to assess things. At house meetings, block parties, baseball games, grocery stores, house parties, birthday get-togethers, parent-teacher nights and board meetings, Bryan sits with an attentive ear and earnest eyes. When a parent raises the newest issue at their school, some shift in their seats at the sign of trouble. But Bryan leans in: game on.

Tre Johnson is a writer, educator, advocate and part-time superhero. If you’ve been working in education or activism and would like to share your story, contact him at tre.johns@gmail.com


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