Black in Collingswood: Neighbors Share Experiences in Community Forum as Borough Reckons with Racial Bias Incidents


Amid reported racial bullying and the alleged formation of a white identity group at Collingswood High School, the borough Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee panel discussion, ‘Amplifying Black Voices,’ gave neighbors a chance to share their experiences with race in the community.

By Matt Skoufalos | May 24, 2024
Additional reporting by Reet Starwind

In February 2023, Collingswood High School students protested what they described as a climate of bias in the district. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

Last February, when Black and brown students at Collingswood High School (CHS) staged a weeklong walkout to protest what they perceived as disproportionate discipline from an almost uniformly white district staff, the district and community leaned into a multilayered response.

Allegations flew thick and fast at a community conversation that followed the protests, in which students and their families complained of historic mistreatment along racial lines, both within the Collingswood Public School district and the broader community at large.

In the wake of those incidents, the community response included the formation of a Collingswood Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee, organization of the first Juneteenth celebration in the history of the borough, and a commitment by the school district to chart a path forward for reconciliation in the school community.

Culture doesn’t change overnight, however, and for all the efforts expended in addressing the concerns of bias in the community, the district still felt pushback, as it grappled with staff retention issues, criticisms of leadership, and operational hurdles, from a pending infrastructure referendum to labor negotiations.

Then, this spring, a group of CHS students was disciplined by the district for allegedly establishing a “white student union” in response to the formation of a Black student union, and for alleged racial bullying that included the defacement of another student’s vehicle.

The case has been referred to borough police and the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office for investigation, but no official word about its outcome has yet been issued. At the latest meeting of the Collingswood Board of Education, the body voted to authorize a third-party investigation into the district’s handling of racial bias incidents by the law firm Madden & Madden of Haddonfield.

In the meantime, students at the high school continue to report that racial bullying is commonplace, particularly in the manner that white male students speak to their Black and brown female counterparts. In response to the uproar around these incidents, the Collingswood borough government, school district, and police issued a joint statement condemning the behavior and outlining responses to it.

Amplifying Black and Brown Voices Flyer. Credit: Collingswood DEI Committee.

Among those responses was a panel discussion, “Amplifying Black and Brown Voices,” held May 16 at the Collingswood Senior Community Center, in which longtime Black and brown Collingswood residents were invited to share their experiences and perspectives of years in the community.

Presented by the Collingswood DEI Committee, the conversation ranged from encounters with law enforcement and neighbors to students and peers.

The firsthand accounts they shared illustrated the differences in their lived experiences from those of their white counterparts in the borough, and underscored that the social climate at the high school is neither novel nor innocuous.

Nadine Herring spoke about the fatigue she experiences generally being asked by her white coworkers to account for the actions of other Black people every time any circumstances with racial undertones emerges.

Herring, an educator of 30 years, described how she would brace for the water-cooler conversations the day after a high-profile news story.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “Every time there’s something going on on the news … I brace myself. Oh my gosh, who did something, and who do I have to explain myself to tomorrow?

“It’s exhausting,” Herring said. “If a Black person does something, it is the whole race; if a white person does something, it’s just that person. You get tired of going to work the next day and people want to force you to talk about it. I don’t want to talk about it.

“It’s hurtful, and it’s tiring,” she said.

In four years of living in Collingswood, Herring said she’s unaccountably found feces on the steps and porch of her home, as if a neighbor were encouraging their pets to relieve themselves there. When her child’s $600 bike was stolen while he was at sports practice, Herring said borough police told her the perpetrator was “probably from Philadelphia because we don’t have crime here.”

“I’m tired of the nonsense,” Herring said. “There needs to be some action. There is a problem here. The stories that children are saying, they’re talking. They’re telling the truth about what they’re exposed to, what adults are saying. Listen to them. It ain’t about your comfort. It’s about them.

“I’ve lived here almost 40 years, and two neighbors speak to me,” she said. “I’m just as good as you are. My child is just as good as any other child.”

Zakiya Devine said her anxiety around stories of Black women being shot while sleeping led her to create and practice an evacuation plan for her children in the event that she were to be shot.

File photo: Collingswood DEI Committee Chair Bruce Smith. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

She described how that fear has her raising her children differently, deputizing her white husband to answer the door, or to talk to police if there’s something as innocuous as a cruiser on their block responding to a vehicle crash.

Stifling her physical reactions around law enforcement has become difficult to impossible.

“That is just in my mind,” Devine said.

“There’s no way they’re not coming. I’m married to a white guy, an all-American guy, who has to absorb that trauma. He has to deal with me if I’m terrified why is this cop sitting there.

“When we see a police officer, I immediately start crying, because I can’t help myself,” she said. “I am absolutely terrified that no matter how well-spoken and educated I am, it doesn’t matter. I can’t absorb any more. I don’t have room. I literally don’t have room.”

Growing up in Woodlynne and attending Collingswood High School as a teenager, Daitza Cohen spoke about how “the cops from Collingswood will protect the borders” between the two communities.

“It was almost systematic,” Cohen said. “When you are the other, you know. It wasn’t harassment, per se, it was like, ‘be mindful.’”

As an 18-year-old student for whom English wasn’t her primary language, Cohen described an encounter with a summer-school teacher that ended up becoming a legal issue that would follow her throughout her adult life.

Cohen said that her teacher told her that if she continued to speak out of turn in the classroom, she’d be sent out, and the absence would affect her summer school status.

“There was a girl there who was talking, and I thought, ‘Why didn’t you say something to this girl, just me?’” Cohen said. “In my broken English, I was trying to say, ‘This is bullying, and this is what happens like kids, and they act out like in Columbine.’

“That sent me to the principal, who sent me to my house; they sent the police to my house, which got me arrested for a national threat.”

At the time, Cohen was 18, and had no understanding of the implications the incident would have on her future. Her mother was in Puerto Rico with her grandparents at the time, and she was advised to “just go with the flow.”

“So I get fingerprinted, sent back home, and then a letter is sent to me that I have to go in front of the judge,” she said. “I go to the courts and they say, ‘You have to write an apology letter to your teacher.’ I write this letter, not understanding the judicial system, thinking that because you write an apology letter, those charges are not there.”

Unfortunately, Cohen discovered that the incident had followed her when she was trying to cross the border into Canada with her husband. Canadian border agents denied her access for a full 24 hours on the grounds of that incident, telling her she might be a threat to national security.

In 2023, Collingswood High School students protested what they described as a climate of racial bias in the district. Conditions haven’t changed much in 2024, they say. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

“Even at the time, I don’t think I understood the magnitude of this; what this meant professionally, for me traveling, socially, for peers in my community to find something out for me,” Cohen said. “It creates a stigma.”

Years later, when she returned to Collingswood to start over, Cohen was advised by her brother to try to join the military.

She was told by enlistment officers that she wasn’t a viable candidate because of her record.

“I had no one in my own personal life,” she said. “My mom couldn’t handle things like this. And no one stepped up. The military is an option for Black and brown people, and that was cut off for me.”

Marcus Bell, who runs a nonprofit called Leader-UP, said he was 17 years old the first time he had a gun drawn on him at a traffic stop while he was retrieving his driver license. The emotionality of that moment has lasted with him in every encounter with law enforcement to this day, he said.

“Every time I pass a police officer, I look in the rearview mirror until I can’t see them anymore,” Bell said. “I have never passed a cop from the time I got my driver’s license.”

Even in Collingswood, when reporting a burglary at his neighbor’s house 15 years ago, Bell said he still faced a presumption of guilt from police investigating the matter. After police apprehended two suspects, they knocked on Bell’s door to see if he was the witness who’d called it in. When he didn’t answer the door, detectives asked him to come to the police station to give a statement in person.

“I go to the police station,” Bell said. “I am now being interrogated as though I was one of the young men who broke into that home to take or to steal or to rob. I tell the whole story and at the end of the story, an officer walks out, leaves me in there about 20 minutes.

“I’m boiling,” Bell continued. “He comes back, and I say, ‘So how did the recording come out? I told you the same thing I told 9-1-1. You could have gotten it from 9-1-1.’”

The capstone to his experience came when Bell received a letter asking whether he would admit the suspects to the nonprofit he worked for at the time as part of their community service.

“The judge has now sent me a letter asking me would I do something with them in my program,” Bell said. “And I tell them yes. I’m a community guy. But in that whole interaction, I was treated as one of the criminals because I called in the whole thing in my own town.”

Bell’s solution to try to build community in the borough has been to host high-school team sports dinners at his home, just so he can get a feel for how local teens interact socially, and what they talk about amongst themselves. Yet even in his house, even within the same team, he’s seen the children segregate themselves racially at those dinners.

“You have to be intentional about your relationship with kids; it’s just the ability to show that you’re there or that you care,” Bell said. “Unfortunately, as I watch it, it looks an awful lot like the cafeteria: white kids sit together, Black kids sit together.

“Children follow what they see adults do, so it’s time for children to see adults do something different,” he said. “To find a person who’s going to listen to you is going to be a difficult task. Begin to understand who you can trust. How do I articulate my story? It takes people who sit in a room like this to hear these stories. It takes relationships in a community.”

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