Warm Welcome for All
By Jack Killon
2008 Mayor and current Deputy Mayor
Some are calling Pennsauken a role model for the country—leading the way toward inclusive communities of the future. Maybe we are. Many of our residents,—black, white, Hispanic, Vietnamese, Middle Eastern, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, teens, parents, senior citizens—say, “We love Pennsauken.”
We call it “Pennsauken Pride.”
Pennsauken likes to learn from its diversity. Living together in one melting pot, like the beginnings of America, is second nature to a lot of our citizens. We live it every day.
The documentary by Andrea Torrice, “The New Neighbors: How One Town Created a Vibrant, Integrated Suburb,” tells our story of how we evolved from a mostly white community in the 1940s and ’50s up to the late 1990s when our neighborhoods had changed and different people of color and different nationalities moved into our town. They saw Pennsauken as a utopia, a place to raise a family, be safe and live the American dream.
A Force for Positive Change Unfortunately, there was a period in our town when there was white flight. The response of two individuals, Lynn Cummings, who founded Neighbors Empowering Pennsauken, and Harold Adams, who became chairman of the Pennsauken Stable Integration Governing Board, one white, one black, was a genuine response. It was heartfelt. What’s most gratifying is it was a grass roots effort. It’s just an example of the kind of people that live in Pennsauken.
In today’s society, for government to think we know all the answers is not the best approach. It’s not our function. Abraham Lincoln, in the Gettysburg Address, said “that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” That was Lincoln’s vision and for me it indicates that government cannot be a cure all or an end all.
Therefore, when Cummings and Adams came to us and shared their vision, much of the groundwork was laid. They asked for moral support and limited financial assistance, which we freely gave with the caveat that they take the ball and run with it. We, as township government, didn’t ignore the situation either. We worked together to discuss the problems and deal with the changes.
The Stable Integration Board was formed with everyday citizens whose focus was to work toward stabilizing Pennsauken’s housing market. We hired Philadelphia-based Fund for an OPEN Society, an expert in the field of intentional integration. That was one of the best investments the town has made in the last 50 years. OPEN helped develop marketing plans to combat our fleeing white population. People in our integrated neighborhoods realized when all races are vying for the same houses, it was the best way for Pennsauken to become diversified and have balance, thus ensuring our future as an inclusive society.
During this whole process, one incredibly wonderful benefit was that people got to know one another. They discovered that none of us are all that different. Even when the color of our skin and background differ, we all have similar ideals. We want to pay our bills, educate our children, maintain our properties and live in friendly neighborhoods.
Once these generational barriers were torn down, neighbors got to know each other and the bonds that prevented communication were torn down. It might sound like a fairytale but it’s not. It is “Pennsauken Pride.”
Turning Down $3M in RCAs Another investment we made in our community in concert with the grass roots effort of the Stable Integration Board was to turn down a $3 million Regional Contribution Agreement offered by another South Jersey community.
We were the first town to turn one down at the time. On one hand, it was $3 million we could have used to fix up our housing stock. It was one of the unique decisions Pennsauken made, the morally right thing to do and a major step in promoting integration in our community and drawing attention to the issue statewide.
We think saying no to the $3 million RCA gave us a voice in the state and it opened up a lot of people’s eyes. If we didn’t turn it down, it would have been counterproductive to what we were doing on the Stable Integration Board and our support of those activities.
New Neighbor’s Orientation To help promote “Pennsauken Pride” in the community, the Stable Integration Board became more and more involved in public events. One such event is the New Neighbors Orientation and Taste of Pennsauken, again as a partnership with township government.
The mayor invites new residents to a free evening where they can learn all that Pennsauken has to offer. It features food from local restaurants, prizes, giveaways, information on township activities, youth sports, clubs, churches, the library and a chance to meet the mayor and township department heads from the police department, the fire and EMT squads, as well as school officials.
The New Neighbors Orientation continues to be one of our most successful family events. As an added perk for those attending, the new neighbors gather in one big group and a photo is taken. The large photo is put on one of our billboards not only welcoming them to Pennsauken but also saying, “Everyone is welcome in Pennsauken.”
Leadership Development Training Getting representatives involved in the town’s civic life was something the Stable Integration Board, with help from OPEN Society, tackled. They held two sessions of leadership development training. More than 100 citizens volunteered to take the highly-successful training program.
We had parades and community events such as our yearly car show and out of the leadership training, came new volunteers and great ideas on how everybody can be involved in civic life. Township government representatives listened and tried to incorporate those ideas. Crafts, inflatable rides for the children and other children’s activities and fire safety were added to the annual car show, which is now a family event in which all our residents can embrace and be involved.
Let’s be clear, Pennsauken certainly isn’t perfect.
The New Neighbors When presenting our story in the documentary, “The New Neighbors,” in November at a League of Municipalities Conference, I wasn’t sure how people from other municipalities would react. The film is very well done and it was made for all the right reasons. A lot of New Jersey municipal representatives said it struck a cord with them internally and gave them ideas about their own hometowns. I think the film is very uplifting and inspiring. When it strikes people in such a fashion, it gives great hope for the future and hopefully it’ll have the same impact across the nation as it did in our town.
If this little story from Pennsauken can ignite ideas of how things can be, and it becomes contagious to just one community at a time, it can lead to a better world.
I feel honored and privileged to have been part of this effort and hopefully we can continue to keep it going by telling our story of how two people helped change an entire community.
This article was originally published in New Jersey Municipalities magazine. Vol. 86, No. 3, March 2009