Camden Sophisticated Sisters is a non-profit organization based in Camden, New Jersey. Tawanda Jones, the organization’s founder, spoke at TU on Tuesday, March 3.
The full name of Jones’s organization is Camden Sophisticated Sisters, Distinguished Brothers and the Almighty Percussion Sound. It offers the youth of Camden an outlet and safe environment through a drill team and drumline.
Camden, NJ was ranked at the top of a 2014 list of the most dangerous cities in the U.S. Children face gang violence, bullying, teen pregnancy and suicide. The high school graduation rate in 2013 was 53.4 percent.
Camden Sophisticated Sisters came into being by chance when Jones was fifteen years old. Jones went with her cousin to audition for a drill team at the Camden Youth Activities Center. The director of the program encouraged her to stay and be the captain of the team.
The program lasted for about a year, but lost its funding.
“That happens a lot in Camden. Programs start but can never seem to survive past a year,” Jones said.
Within days, the parents of the children enrolled in the drill team gathered at Jones’s home to convince her to continue the team. With her grandfather’s support, Jones continued to work with the team.
For years the team practiced under bridges and in vacant lots. Even more recently the team was housed in an empty water tower.
“It was all about survival and keeping those kids safe,” Jones remarked. “The local drug dealers would actually warn us, ‘Are you practicing outside today? Today might not be a good day.’”
323 children are currently involved in CSS, with 200 more on the waiting list to join.
“Practice starts at 5, but sometimes we don’t start until 5:25 because I take the time to hug and kiss them or ask them how their day was,” said Jones.
In order to remain a part of the program, students have to maintain at least a C average in school and do 200 hours of community service a year. In 30 years, despite low standards for Camden’s youth, CSS boasts a 100 percent graduation rate.
“These kids want to feel good about themselves,” Jones said.
She has her kids stand in unity circles, in which they hold hands and do positive, team-building chants at each practice.
One such chant is, “It is possible. It is never impossible. If I can believe than I can achieve. It is possible. It is possible. It is possible.”
Taron G., one of the 4,000 alumni, gave this testimonial: “We’re in such a state of poverty and violence that it scares people from us when, honestly, we need the most help. The best way for me to describe Wawa (Jones) is like, if this was Gotham City, she would be Batman.”
Jones’s family is fully involved in the organization as well. Her husband and children all help teach and care for these kids.
“Someone has to be an advocate for these children,” Jones said.
“It’s more than drill team. For the children, it’s their life; they dance their pain away,” she said. “Just know, they are not their circumstances, just because they live in Camden, NJ; I want people to start looking at them as human beings, kids who can make it.”