Rutgers–Camden Ph.D. Student Proving to be Valuable Asset to Camden Community-Based Efforts

Rutgers–Camden Ph.D. Student Proving to be Valuable Asset to Camden Community-Based Efforts

Growing up in a poor neighborhood in the Southeast Bronx, Rasheda L. Weaver knew that she was going to make a difference.

“I believed that I was smart and could do anything I put my mind to, while many of my peers felt poverty limited their potential to do and be something great,” recalls the Ph.D. candidate in public affairs-community development at Rutgers University­–Camden.

Rasheda Weaver
Fast forward to the present day, as Weaver is quickly making her presence felt in her adopted city of Camden. Her research project, titled “Survey of Community Attitudes and Utilization of Cooper River Park West,” was part of a successful revitalization effort to restore and reopen the park, also known as Gateway Park, which has been closed for the past 14 years and now is preparing to reopen next spring.

“The park is truly a community asset,” says Weaver, who recently moved to Camden’s Cooper Plaza neighborhood. “It’s a beautiful, but historically neglected, resource in Camden, where there is a limited amount of uncontaminated, green space.”

A Civic Engagement Graduate Fellow at Rutgers University–Camden, Weaver was tapped to mentor students on survey development and analysis in the Honors College seminar, “Ecology: The Urban Science?,” taught by Tom Knoche, a part-time lecturer of urban studies. The course focused on Cooper River Park West, an open space located between Admiral Wilson Boulevard and the section of the river west of Route 130.

As Weaver explains, the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) closed the park in 2000, citing lack of funds for maintenance and renovations. In 2010, Camden County announced a $23 million plan to improve the adjacent Cooper River Park East in neighboring Pennsauken. Shortly thereafter, the Friends of Cooper River Park West formed and began to call for the western section in Camden to be reopened.

The group then reached out to the Honors College at Rutgers–Camden to conduct a series of research projects that would help make its case. During the spring 2014 semester, students in Knoche’s class conducted surveys, tested the water and soil qualities, conducted a historical analysis, held community events, and developed a business plan.

“I fell in love with the project right away,” says Weaver, who attended DRPA meetings and learned to navigate the public policy process.

Utilizing her research experience, Weaver surveyed more than 100 members of the Camden community on their attitudes towards safety, maintenance, utilization, and desired features regarding Cooper River Park West. She applied Broken Windows Theory in order to highlight the connection between park maintenance and safety perceptions.

“According to the theory, neighborhoods that are unkempt or in a state of disarray are more susceptible to vandalism and violence, or make people feel that they are, because it shows that no one cares for them,” explains Weaver.

Consistent with the theory, Weaver determined that participants who found the park poorly maintained tended to view the park as unsafe and in need of security. Her research also revealed community members’ desires for amenities such as lighting, security, biking and walking trails, playgrounds, picnic tables, and bathrooms.

The research would have an immediate and lasting impact on policy efforts. In April, Knoche’s students presented preliminary findings at the DRPA’s monthly meeting. The DRPA announced that it would sign over ownership of the park to the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority (CCMUA), which would work with the New Jersey Conservation Foundation to reopen the park.

“I could have cried,” recalls Weaver. “For everyone who fought for this, it was an amazing sense of accomplishment when the chair of the Camden County MUA turned and said, ‘Congratulations, your park is going to be opened.’”

The DRPA officially signed over ownership of the park to the CCMUA in October. The following week, the municipal authority announced that it would handle security of the park, while the New Jersey Conservation Foundation would maintain the space. Weaver’s survey results were subsequently used in the development of the Cooper River Gateway West Vision Plan, which explains how the park is going to be revitalized and operated after its anticipated opening in the spring.

“While I have been involved with other community-development projects in the past, I am most proud of this project,” says Weaver, who also presented her research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia’s Community Development Graduate Research Forum in October and is working on publishing her work in an academic journal.

It is precisely this type of community impact that Weaver had dreamed of as a child. Harkening back to her humble beginnings, she had sought to understand the devastating effects of poverty on children. She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Herbert H. Lehman College, with plans to create interventions that could help lift children out of poverty and give them the opportunities to lead more prosperous lives.

Weaver pursued a master’s degree in human development and social intervention from the department of applied psychology at New York University. During that time, she gained considerable research and grant-writing experience, which included securing a $75,000 grant for a local soup kitchen.

Just as importantly, Weaver discovered the power to put her expertise into action at an institutional level.

“I discovered that all of the knowledge and training I gained could actually be used to influence policy,” she says.

Upon graduating in 2013, Weaver arrived at Rutgers–Camden, where – as evidenced in the park project – she has proven valuable to local organizations and community-based efforts. She is currently working with the Latin American Economic Development Association in Camden to evaluate the effectiveness of its Entrepreneurial Development Training Program.

But she’s just getting started. Weaver plans to open a community research center in Camden to provide local organizations with low-cost research and grant-writing assistance.

At home in Camden, Weaver sees a city full of “beauty and potential” and wants to be a part of building a community.

“There is so much to be done here, so if you really want to influence community development, it really is the perfect place to be,” she says. “There are so many opportunities to do things – to make a difference in the world.”

Tom McLaughlin
Rutgers University–Camden
Editorial/Media Specialist
(856) 225-6545
thomas.mclaughlin@camden.rutgers.edu