Urban BoatWorks brings Camden youth to the river
Students learn basic carpentry, life skills and mentorship — and connect to waterways in their own backyard
| May 26, 2022
On a recent Monday afternoon in Camden, N.J., a group of seventh-graders gathered around a 16-foot boat placed upside down across a shop table. Decked out in white smocks, safety glasses and bright orange ear protectors, they were poised to get back to work on the “peace canoe” they’d been building since the beginning of the school year.
“So, we’re gonna sand the paint off, and then we’re going to fiberglass it,” said Dave Schill, a contractor and longtime volunteer who was leading the class.
The students fiddled with their sanders — some had used this tool before, others were holding it for the first time. As they got the hang of it, the buzz drowned out all possibility of conversation in the boat shop. For about an hour, the students burned through a stack of 3-grit sandpaper discs as the bottom of the boat turned from forest green to sage to bare wood.
The students are part of Urban BoatWorks, a program run by UrbanPromise, a Christian non-profit organization that provides Camden youth with opportunities for education, after-school programs, internships and more. BoatWorks is one of three programs under UrbanPromise’s experiential learning department, which also includes Expeditions, RiverGuides and environmental education programs.
Every year, about 100 middle and high school students from five area schools spend time in the boat shop, housed in the Camden Shipyard and Maritime Museum on a shady corner just a few blocks east of the Delaware River.
This year, students will complete three boats: two 16-foot plywood canoes and a 16-foot cedar strip canoe. At a launch ceremony in mid-June, they’ll get to take their families out on the very first test paddle on the Cooper River.
“You’re kind of skeptical… something that I built is staying afloat?” said Jermaine Brown, a junior who’s helped build and launch four boats during his time at UrbanPromise. “You’re like, uh-oh, if I sink, it’s my fault.”
Since starting in 2009, Urban BoatWorks has built 47 watercrafts — canoes, kayaks, sailboats and paddle boards. (All of them indeed float.) In the boat shop, students learn basic carpentry, life skills and mentorship — and build a point of connection to the natural resource in their backyard.
“Overcoming the aftermath of never having had”
Urban BoatWorks grew out of UrbanTrekkers, a program started by Jim Cummings, UrbanPromise’s director of experiential learning, when he joined the school in 2004. Cummings, a lifelong nature lover, often took the students to spend time on the water in places like the Pine Barrens, Barnegat Bay and Assateague Island.
Rocking the Boat, a South Bronx-based non-profit that offers students opportunities for boatbuilding, environmental science and sailing on the Bronx River, sparked an idea for Cummings.
“I thought, ‘We could do that in Camden — this once-mega shipbuilding city,’” he said. The city was home to the New York Shipyard, founded in 1900. It was the biggest shipyard in the world during WW II, employing more than 30,000 people. It closed in 1967, during the peak of white flight that resulted in Camden’s infamously high poverty and crime rates.
“Things like this are exceptional because the circumstances that made it an everyday thing for kids in Collingswood or Cherry Hill or Princeton is predicated on Black children not having those experiences.”–program alum Chris Williams
From 1960-70, nearly a third of Camden’s white population moved out, resulting in a population drop of about 15,000, while in Cherry Hill, the population doubled. Today, about 36 percent of Camden’s 74,000 residents — 40 percent are Black, 27 percent Latinx and 17 percent white — live in poverty; the median household income is $27,015. Ten percent of residents have a bachelor’s degree; 32 percent didn’t graduate from high school.
It’s this disparity caused by disinvestment that creates the need for a program like Urban BoatWorks in a city like Camden, said program alum Chris Williams, who is now the social media manager and an editor at Above the Law.
“Things like this are exceptional because the circumstances that made it an everyday thing for kids in Collingswood or Cherry Hill or Princeton is predicated on Black children not having those experiences,” he said.
About 15 years ago, Williams was slated to attend Woodrow Wilson High School (recently renamed Eastside High School) based on the Zip code he and his mom were living in.
“It was basically a dropout factory,” he said. According to U.S. News, the current graduation rate at Eastside is 62 percent (the average in New Jersey is about 77 percent); reading and math proficiency is rated at just 2 percent, compared to 60 and 30 percent statewide, respectively. More than half the students are growing up in poverty.
Seeking alternatives, Williams’ mother found UrbanPromise. Once accepted at the school, he joined UrbanTrekkers and Urban BoatWorks and his story highlights another key aspect of the program: the exchange that happens at the boat shop between two groups with very different life experiences — young people of color who are growing up in a city struggling from historic disinvestment, and mostly retired white men who spent their careers in white-collar jobs.
Williams didn’t have the opportunity to learn how to drive in high school, like many young people.
“Maybe they had parents who drove, and at some point found an empty parking lot and said, ‘Have at it,’” he said. “My mom didn’t have a car and my school didn’t offer driving class, but I did have Mr. C teach me how to ride a bike over at the parking lot at Urban Promises so I could do the 50-mile Pedal for Promise ride.”
After getting his bachelor’s degree at Rutgers in Newark, he went to Washington University in St. Louis for law school.
“It was my first PWI — primarily white institution — and the humble-bragging and the money… it was a different ball game,” Williams said. The experiences he gained through UrbanPromise programs — building boats, traveling internationally, cycling — “they were the things I held on to and those times where I felt like I was out of place,” he said.
“We take students on the Upper Delaware to some of those beautiful, pristine areas where it’s fishable and swimmable — and that little 27-mile sector with Philadelphia and Camden, it’s not. It’s a sense of, why can’t I have this in my community?”— Jim Cummings, UrbanPromise’s director of experiential learning
It’s an impact many BoatWorks students feel when they, like Williams, more clearly understand the context of the place they grew up.
“There’s so much never having had in Camden; things were taken in a way we’re just made to seem as if it was an accident or normal,” said Williams. “I think of BoatWorks as being a small way of addressing that — it’s preparing kids to grow up with and overcome the aftermath of living never having had.”
“I didn’t care until I was out on the water. Until it was a place for me to be.”
For decades, Camden residents have lacked access to the local waterways that border the city — another consequence of disinvestment UrbanPromise’s environmental programs are working to reverse.
The Cooper River runs along the northeast side of the city out into the Delaware River. Residents pass over it on one of four bridges in the city, or drive alongside it on the highway, but, especially a decade ago, few actually spent time on the river. Historically, it’s been degraded by industrial pollution, untreated sewage and trash, and suffered from few access points. Contrast that with Princeton, for example, where locals row, paddle, sail and fish on the pristine Carnegie Lake bordering the east edge of the city. The manmade lake formed from a dam on the Millstone River has a public boat launch, canoe rentals and hiking trails in close proximity.
Though water quality in the Cooper River has significantly improved since the Clean Water Act and, more recently, wastewater treatment overhauls led by Andy Kricun, the former executive director and chief engineer of the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority, it’s not a change residents can see — especially from shore.
UrbanPromise freshman Angie Rivera grew up walking on the trails with her aunt at Cooper River Park.
“We used to see people out on boats and be like, ‘That water’s pretty dirty… what do you do if you fall in there?!’” she said. She held the common perception of the river as simply gross.
But since joining Urban BoatWorks and becoming a student environmental intern under UrbanPromise’s environmental program, Rivera has seen for herself the herons, egrets and snapping turtles on the Cooper and Delaware Rivers. She’s learned how to test for dissolved oxygen, bacteria levels and other markers of water quality to better understand the actual state of the river. And she’s found peace in being out on the water in a canoe. “It’s literally so stress-free,” she said. “It’s just you, your paddle and your partner — that’s it.”
This summer, she’ll get to share that experience as one of the eight student employees of UrbanPromise who work as RiverGuides, bringing community members out in BoatWorks boats for ecology and history tours. Since UrbanPromise started the RiverGuides program in 2015, it has taken more than 2,000 people from the greater Camden area on the river.
The program is in part funded by the William Penn Foundation through RiverWays, a consortium of six organizations in Philadelphia and Camden working with youth to build connections to local waterways. Organizations include the Center for Aquatic Sciences at Adventure Aquarium, Bartram’s Garden and Glen Foerd, which is now home to Philadelphia Waterborne, a boat building program BoatWorks helped inspire in 2013.
These young people come to appreciate the beauty of local rivers while learning about the problems they still face — namely combined sewer systems that cause untreated sewage to flow into the rivers during heavy rains — and the inequity across the watershed.
“We take students on the Upper Delaware to some of those beautiful, pristine areas where it’s fishable and swimmable — and that little 27-mile sector with Philadelphia and Camden, it’s not,” said Cummings. “It’s a sense of, why can’t I have this in my community?”
Through BoatWorks, students build a connection to the natural resource that is very much a part of their community — and, for students like Rivera, that connection provides a pathway to advocacy.
“I knew the Cooper River was dirty and the Delaware River was dirty, and the pollution rates were really high,” she said. “But I didn’t care until I was out on the water. Until it was a place for me to be.”