- Associated Press - Friday, July 26, 2019

CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) - During a recent week, there was a forum for city nonprofits to discuss collaboration and resources, a trauma healing group for women, tumbling and gymnastics sessions, summer camps and a rotating cast of radio hosts and podcasters, all at the Jerrothia Riggs Center in Camden.

Not bad for a sprawling Kaighn Avenue campus that was at one point about to become another empty, aging building in a city full of them.

Anthony Ways and Nyemah Gillespie, both Camden natives who were looking to give back, ended up negotiating a 10-year lease agreement with the Camden School District that they hope will eventually lead to them purchasing it.

But they’re hardly alone at the campus, or in taking ownership and investing in its success.

In addition to Gillespie’s Dare 2 Dance and newly-formed Dare 2 Flip classes and Ways‘ Camden African Neighborhood Development Organization (CANDO), a radio station, WCMD, broadcasts and podcasts shows touching on music, culture, politics and news.



Pamela Grayson-Baltimore, a city native and licensed clinical social worker with more than 30 years’ experience, hosts functions for her I Dare 2 Care (ID2C) Association, from mentoring sessions for teens to college readiness classes to trauma support for women and parenting support groups.

CYLAB (pronounced like “co-lab,” a play on “collaboration”) hosts workshops and other events to build leadership, conflict resolution and financial literacy skills for young men and teens.

Gillespie, who studied dance at Morgan State University, remembered being told that “dance can’t make you any money,” a notion she dismissed.

She moved to Atlanta to join a dance troupe there but “got crazy homesick” for Camden, and returned in 2012.

“But I couldn’t find any place to share my talents,” she recalled. There were no dance schools in the city, and children who wanted to dance went to the suburbs or to Philadelphia for instruction. She did work for Creative Arts Morgan Village High School, her alma mater, and worked with the Camden High Mighty Panthers Marching Band, helping them hone their precision and professionalism.

She met Ways, a man with a compelling background, in 2013.

Ways was a 19-year-old gang leader when he was accused of murdering John Weist III in a 1989 shooting. He served more than 14 years in prison for the slaying, but his conviction and life sentence were overturned after another man’s jailhouse confessions and court testimony backed up Ways‘ claims of innocence.

“I decided then that I would be either an asset to my community or a liability,” said Ways, who’d spent his time in prison studying law and real estate. He chose the former.

Ways, helped by a sizable settlement after his conviction was overturned, launched a food delivery service that preceded the likes of UberEats and GrubHub and drew on his real estate knowledge to earn a living, while Gillespie worked to “bring dance back to Camden,” building a for-profit dance academy.

Now in its 5th season, Dare 2 Dance has about 150 children ages 3 to 18 enrolled in classes, learning tap, ballet, jazz, hip hop and modern dance. Seven paid instructors, along with Gillespie and a host of volunteers work with artistic director Rashid Mason.

Gillespie and Ways “broke open the bank account” to fix up the Riggs Center, calling in favors from friends and getting tenants to help with the renovations, which include new floors, paint, fresh furniture and fixtures and more. Parents who lent their trade skills or sweat equity got free classes for their kids; they bartered and bargained for supplies and help.

The center, named for a Camden education pioneer who championed lifelong learning, was originally an adult education campus. In other incarnations, it was a group home for teenage mothers and housed MetEast High School, now Big Picture Learning Academy, a magnet school that’s since moved to a bigger space in Parkside.

Students and summer campers don’t just come from Camden, Gillespie noted, but also from Lawnside, Pennsauken, Sicklerville and Willingboro.

Teens and young adults hear more than the usual get-an-education, get-a-good-job mantra, Ways said. Mentors ask them to think beyond their own future, their own security, their own families.

“Even when you go to college, there’s an expectation that you’ll go work for someone else,” Ways noted. Why not teach young people to use their education and skills to build their own destiny, he wondered.

“When you retire, your boss doesn’t pass your job to your children,” he said. “But if you build a successful business, that’s a generational wealth you can pass along. That’s a way to build the community again.

“We want to challenge how people think: We should know the law like we know that 1 plus 1 equals 2. I want the kids to ask, ‘Why is poverty OK?’”

Ways is a frequent guest on WCMD; Diamond Thomas, who runs the station, often pops in on CYLAB events; Grayson-Baltimore, whom Gillespie called a mentor and “truly a superwoman,” is a familiar face to the children in dance classes and summer camps. There’s a communal vibe to the entire campus, something Ways said is intentional.

“We partnered with each other to maximize everyone’s talent,” he said. The myriad occupants at the Riggs Center share several commonalities in background and in their motivations: They’re all Camden natives who’ve witnessed firsthand the city’s troubled past and want to make a positive impact on its future.

“It’s not an ‘us’ thing,” said Gillespie, holding 4-month-old Kaz, her son with Ways.

“It’s a ‘we’ thing, with all of us here.”

Online: https://bit.ly/2Y7LgWD

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Information from: Courier-Post (Cherry Hill, N.J.), http://www.courierpostonline.com/

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