A young professor in Camden to help - and learn

From left, Stephen Danley, Ibrahim Jaaber, and Joe Gill in their Penn basketball days. Gill says Danley helped teammates adjust to the life of a student-athlete.
From left, Stephen Danley, Ibrahim Jaaber, and Joe Gill in their Penn basketball days. Gill says Danley helped teammates adjust to the life of a student-athlete. (JERRY LODRIGUSS/ File Photo)
Posted: November 11, 2013

CAMDEN In a night class at Rutgers-Camden, a circle of graduate students takes down notes as community activist Gary Frazier relays his frustrations with city government.

Frazier, who made an unsuccessful bid for City Council this year, is 20 minutes into animated remarks when he is politely cut off by professor Stephen Danley, who wants to ensure there is time for questions.

"I know I can be a little long-winded," Frazier says, "but, you know, a lot of people, they'll talk about it - but they're not from it."

This is the crux of Danley's "Local Knowledge" course and, even more, his philosophy of public policy.

The recently hired Rutgers-Camden professor sidesteps the theory and the experts in favor of the people on the ground - the grassroots activist, the local bookstore owner, the high school senior, and, last week, Frazier.

Danley, a 6-foot, 8-inch former University of Pennsylvania basketball center with a doctorate from the University of Oxford, moved to Camden to take the assistant professor job in July. He teaches two courses and conducts research in Philadelphia and Camden.

At 28, he is one of the youngest professors in the Rutgers network with a resumé nearly as long as his wingspan is wide, but he wants to be clear: He is not casting himself as a white knight riding across the Ben Franklin Bridge to save the city.

"I didn't come to Camden to fix Camden," he said. "I came to Camden to learn from Camden."

Danley lives in Camden, goes to church at Sacred Heart in the Waterfront South, and runs a blog that offers local perspectives on city issues. He has not been shy about criticizing political candidates or the decision to hold the city's only mayoral debate midday, when few community members could attend.

"Camden's a place that's been left behind," said Penn professor John DiIulio, who taught Danley when Danley was an undergraduate. "Steve has both the intellectual heft but also a civic zeal. He believes it's possible that by understanding problems from the ground up to have a transformative impact from the ground up."

Danley grew up in a wealthy suburb of Washington, raised by parents who met serving in the Peace Corps in Botswana. He was home-schooled until high school, which his younger brother, John, said, allowed a more holistic approach to education and also kept the family close as they were growing up.

"There was a sense that if you want to learn something, you just learn it," said John Danley, 23, a trained opera singer, who lived with his older brother in Philadelphia until Stephen moved to Camden. "It fosters a drive. If you want something, you just make it happen."

Danley is a two-time finalist for a Rhodes Scholarship, and he received a Marshall Scholarship. His interest in urban policy led him to New Orleans, where he worked with neighborhood associations for three years.

Danley also interned at the White House and spent a summer as a Philly Fellow running a youth basketball league in North Philadelphia.

Those who know him say the intensity that swatted balls out of shooters' hands in four years - and helped Penn win three Ivy League championships - manifests itself in his teaching and research.

On the court, former Penn basketball coach Fran Dunphy, who now coaches at Temple, said Danley "was the perfect example of getting the most out of your ability, maybe more so than just about anybody I ever coached. I don't think he knew anything but working hard."

Former Penn guard Joe Gill, 27, said Danley, whom the team called Sugarlips in a nod to the expressive faces he would make on big plays, helped teammates adjust to the life of a student-athlete. The two still see each other at alumni games at the Palestra, which Danley fondly calls his "favorite place on Earth."

At Penn, DiIulio called Danley "a renaissance man."

"You don't have many guys who are captain of the Penn basketball team, reading poetry, and wanting to do all kinds of civic and political work," DiIulio said.

Dilulio got Danley involved in studying governance and neighborhoods in post-Katrina New Orleans with the school's Fox Leadership Program after graduation.

Once there, Danley fell in love with the city and spent three years doing his doctoral work in the Faubourg Tremé neighborhood. He also perfected his swing dancing.

Now Danley uses much of what he saw in New Orleans to draw comparisons to neighborhoods in Camden.

In a first walk through Lanning Square, Danley said, two neighbors asked if he was looking to buy a house on the block. "The biggest thing they wanted in that neighborhood are other people living there," he said.

The interaction echoes a larger push away from what Danley calls " Field of Dreams developments, this idea of 'If you build the waterfront, they will come.' Maybe the place we should start is with the blighted houses," he said.

Danley is also researching the impact losing a voice in local decisions can have on residents. It's a touchy but topical subject in the city largely controlled by the state. The state provides most of the operating budget and now oversees the school district.

"The biggest takeaway in the mayoral campaign was every challenger in some way echoed that theme of 'We want more control over our city,' " Danley said. "We need to stop talking about policy always in terms of short-term budget and start talking about it in terms of long-term power."

Community power is a common topic in the Local Knowledge class, which is made up mostly of non-Camden residents.

In a spring commencement address at Danley's alma mater, DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Md., he cautioned graduates against the seduction of power.

"As you graduate and move on to the next big thing, I hope you use your abilities to empower other people," he said. "Not take their dignity, not take their decisions."


jterruso@phillynews.com

856-779-3876 @juliaterruso

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|