Meet Tawanda Jones. Some refer to her as “Camden’s First Lady Of Soul” and others call her “WaWa”. To us she is quite simply… a Woman You Should Know. As the founder and director of the Camden Sophisticated Sisters Drill Team (CSS), a dance based, non-profit youth organization, Tawanda strives to provide a safe haven and the opportunity for positive development to young girls who live in one of the most dangerous cities in the United States – Camden, New Jersey.
Not only is Camden considered the most violent city in our country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 42% of Camden’s population is living below the poverty line, making it one of the poorest cities in America as well. Unfortunately, the negative stats don’t end there. The New Jersey Department of Education reports that nearly 90% of Camden’s schools are in the bottom 5% performance-wise in the state with only 49% of children in Camden graduating from high school.
In November 1986, things in Camden were not much different. Tawanda, just a teenager (15 years old) then, witnessed so many of her girlfriends get pregnant, while others struggled with poverty, being different and making the right choices. A young woman undeterred, she set out to bring positive change to the Camden community she so loved.
Her solution was CSS, a community group centered on a precision and structured drill team and drum line. It was something she hoped would help young girls in Camden to stay off the street, stay out of trouble and do something positive with their lives, while teaching them discipline, dedication and self-respect. And help it most certainly did.
The CSS Drill Team program had its humble beginnings at the Camden Youth Activity Center, which was the former site of an old, women’s prison in downtown Camden. Initial support came from Tawanda’s grandfather, the late Walter (Dynamite) Green Jr. He gave her the money to purchase 80 uniforms and 3 drums. She picked navy blue and orange for her drill team’s uniform, an homage to the colors of the baseball league that Mr. Green started in North Camden… the area’s first African American women’s baseball league. From there, Tawanda’s program took off and quickly became a staple of the community.
Today, CSS has a roster of 4,000 kids who have participated in the program over the last twenty-seven years, and it’s still going strong. With an old water tower as its current home and headquarters, CSS remains committed to promoting discipline, cooperation and a sense of achievement in a structured setting that fosters pride in the community and helps to nurture future successful and productive citizens for Camden.
The ability to perpetuate this kind of ambitious mission over the course of nearly three decades in a community like Camden requires Tawanda to be steadfast. With that, she expects a certain level of commitment from all CSS members and holds them up to specific standards of excellence. To be accepted into and remain in the program, all kids must maintain a “C” average (Tawanda works directly with parents and teachers to make sure this happens). The kids also have to complete 200 hours of community service per year and are expected to write an essay on “How Can I Improve Where I Live”.
To ensure that her CSS members are conducting themselves properly at all times, even when they are online, Tawanda personally monitors everything on their Facebook pages, reminding her girls, “When you are cursing that means you have nothing intelligent to say.”
Over the years, Tawanda has incorporated boys into the team – Distinguished Brothers of CSS – and also started a drum line program – The Almighty Percussion Sound Drum Line or T.A.P.S.
Under her unwavering leadership through many challenges, trials and tribulations, CSS has impacted lives, prepared young people for a successful life, and proved that, despite appearances, there is genuine goodness in Camden, New Jersey.
Her organization has also managed to fiercely buck the statistics we quoted above by boasting an impressive 100% high school graduation rate among CSS members, with more than 80% of them going on to college or technical schools, to boot.
As excellence in education is so paramount to the CSS mission, every year one child in the program receives a scholarship. It is given in memory of Tawanda’s loving grandfather, who was her biggest supporter from the inception of her idea.
Tawanda, who often uses her own money to fund her organization, is still looking for a permanent place for her drill team to practice and CSS’s existence depends heavily on family, friends, and the community.
As recently reported by CNN Heroes, an award Tawanda was nominated for this past March, “She said she knows it’s an uphill battle to turn her city around, but she’s determined to do it one kid at a time.”
We say, “Brava!” to this inspiring Woman You Should Know.