A sidewalk chalk drawing that says “WE LIVE HERE.” At the top of the sidewalk/photo is a group of children drawing with the chalk.
Chalk art by ‘WLH’ along a pathway in Gateway Park.

Stories Invincible: Earth Day celebrations paint message of hope in Camden

Reet Starwind
Center for Cooperative Media

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For Camden, being a green city is as much about preparing for the future as it is about celebrating the present. April 22, 2023 marked the biggest Earth Day celebration the city has seen to date, according to Camden special services district, with nearly a dozen different events and activities spread across town. Two of these events, combined community art with environmental service.

A group of people posing for a photo and holding up framed versions of their work.
Recipients of the ‘Environmental Heroes’ award, presented at Camden’s 2023 environmental summit on April 23rd. Pictured in the back row, middle to right are Donald, T. Williams, Breiner Mortez, Priscilla Rios, and Adriana Amador Chacon of the ‘We Live Here’ artist collective. Photo credit: Neill Borowski, Tap into Camden

One commemoration, a tree-planting event that took place off of Admiral Wilson Boulevard at the Gateway Park, reunited some familiar faces of Camden’s ongoing environmental efforts. For this partnership, the New Jersey Conservation Foundation teamed up with Camden’s own ‘We Live Here Artists Collective.’

The four-person collective (comprised of Amador Chacon, Breiner Mortez, Priscilla Rios, and Donald T Williams) specializes in environmental advocacy through the arts. Their name symbolizes the pride and purpose they find in using their passions to serve their community.

Don Williams (alongside WLH) carefully illustrates mural for Camden Fireworks, Earth Day 2022

Linked by Adriana, a past fellow of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, and a member of the ‘We Live Here’ (WLH) collective, the organizations developed a plan to plant 30 trees in park soil as well as provide snacks, entertainment, activities, and WLH’s signature community art within the space. The artists supplied guests with chalk for creative expression along the park’s pathways-illustrating an array of plants, insects, and pro-earth messages.

Among the groups represented at this event were the NJ Tree Foundation which provided the new trees volunteers planted and Stormwater Matters, a collaborative news project on solutions to flooding and stormwater management. The collaborative promoted their ongoing work and t-shirt design contest to local artists. While the collaborative focuses on northern NJ, their stormwater coverage highlights the impact of climate change, in cities such Camden. Here these issues are addressed by the local non-profit, the Center for Environmental Transformation. (Read more about their mission here).

Over in Waterfront South, non-profit organization Watu Moja hosted its earth day event using Camden Fireworks as home base.

Watu’s mission is youth and community development; their work includes community art shows and advocating for the people of Camden. Last year, Watu Moja hosted guests from Harvard’s advanced leadership fellowship to create ‘Elaine’s Garden.’

A whiteboard sign leaning up against a brick wall. The writing on the board says “WATU MOJA: EARTH DAY.”
Community garden on Fillmore & Ferry Avenue in Camden, formed Earth Day 2022

In the spirit of last year’s outing, Watu invited this year’s guests to get their hands dirty refreshing Elaine’s — cleaning up the lot and planting fresh annual flowers in the garden’s beds. planting flowers in a garden the organization started last year. (For balance, consider adding some behind-the-scenes/ planning details for this event and how it came together as you did for event 1. Or, try trimming the background of the first event…)

After the outdoor activity, attendees were led back to Fireworks’s gallery for live music and poetry performances themed around the message of the day.

Performance by the Unity Community’s African Drum Ensemble (left) and Lexa Lay (right) during Watu Moja’s Earth Day event on April 22, 2023.

Backed by ‘The Rhythm Section’ on instruments, songstress Lexa Lay passionately sang, “we’re all connected by the land, tune into every heartbeat and you will finally understand, that there is a master plan.”

Local upstart eatery Space Foods kept guests full on tacos and fresh brewed teas, even providing vegan options for guests with plant-based dietary restrictions.

To conclude the day, guests were invited to decorate their own planters and take their newly planted flowers home. The plant life they returned home with serves as a reminder to care for greenery wherever it lives.

These two events, while only capturing a snapshot of an entire day’s worth of celebrations, provide another look at the ever-changing face of Camden. On Earth Day, it is an identity poised against the pollution and corruption commonly associated with the city in the past — a small sign of greener pastures to come to the City Invincible.

Additional photography in this article was provided by Lia Preston.

👋 Want to learn more about Stories Invincible? Visit the project homepage!

Reet Starwind is the Stories Invincible project coordinator for the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University. He is an artist, educator, and organizer in the Camden area working with the Center to elevate restorative narratives about Camden’s residents and history. Contact Reet via email at reet@storiesinvincible.org or on Instagram at @mrstarwind.

About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a primarily grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. The Center is supported with operational and project funding from Montclair State University, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, NJ Civic Information Consortium, Rita Allen Foundation, Inasmuch Foundation and the Independence Public Media Foundation. For more information, visit centerforcooperativemedia.org.

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Reet Starwind
Center for Cooperative Media

Reet Starwind is an artist, educator & organizer in the Camden area working with the Center to elevate restorative narratives about Camden’s residents