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Oral history interview conducted by Zaheer Ali
May 18, 2017
Call number: 2016.027.1.12
ALI: I'm Zaheer Ali, oral historian at Brooklyn Historical Society. Today isThursday, May 18, 2017. I am here interviewing Karim Camara for the Voices of Crown Heights Oral History Project. Now, if you can introduce yourself, giving your birth date, your full name at birth, and then your current name.
CAMARA: Sure. I was born [date redacted for privacy], 1971, and my name at birthwas Karim Abdur-Razzaq.
ALI: Can you spell that?
CAMARA: Sure. Karim is K-A-R-I-M. Abdur is A-B-D-U-R hyphen R-A-Z-Z-A-Q. Andchanged my name as an adult to Karim, K-A-R-IM, Camara, C-A-M-A-R-A. 1:00
ALI: Okay. So tell me about your family background.
CAMARA: Sure. Well, just starting with my parents. My father was AbdullahAbdur-Razzaq. My mother, Ohra Clark and then became Ohra Abdur-Razzaq. My mother's from Florida. My family's from Miami. And my father's family is from Virginia, but he grew up in New York City, mostly at Harlem. My mother's family moved to the Lower East Side when she was about 11 or 12 years old, and lived there and then moved to Queens. And my grandmother always marveled the fact that she was a homemaker. She took care of other people's homes, but she saved up enough money to buy her house, buy her own. So she lived, moved from the city, you know, to the suburbs. You know, so one of those American dream stories. My father grew up, again, mostly in Harlem. My parents met, married, had kids. [laughter]
ALI: How many siblings did you have and where were you in the line of --2:00
CAMARA: I'm -- out of my -- out of children my parents had together -- you know,he was married before my mother and I have an older half-brother, and then they had five kids together. I'm second to the youngest. I have two older brothers, one older sister, and a younger sister. And I also have five brothers and sisters now that are, you know, ranging in age from 18 to 11. Two brothers that are twins that are 11 years old, and three sisters, three other sisters from my father's last marriage before he passed away.
ALI: Okay. So there are three sets of siblings.
CAMARA: Yes. Yes.
ALI: Wow, okay.
ALI: Okay. So tell me about your -- where did you grow up as a child?
CAMARA: We grew up -- when I was, when I was born, at least my younger years, welived at 712 Crown Street, between Utica and Schenectady, in Crown Heights. And then we moved to 837 Park Place. 837 Park Place, we lived there, and the -- a 3:00school my parents were involved with there. And then some time around I would say, I believe I was around eight years old, we moved to 876 Park Place in Brooklyn. And I spent most of my childhood there, lived for a few years in Queens, out in St. Albans, Queens, then moved back to Brooklyn. And when I -- at the time I graduated from high school. Throughout my college years, were at 876 Park Place, as well.
ALI: So you spent much of your life in Crown Heights.
ALI: Tell me --
CAMARA: Overwhelming years of my life in Crown Heights.
ALI: Tell me what you remember about Crown Heights in the 1970s growing up.
CAMARA: Well the time when we lived in -- the time that we were in-- as theycall "Crown Heights South," which was 712 Crown Street. I remember that because we lived in a very mixed neighborhood. You know, it used to be that people used to talk about the other side of Eastern Parkway. The other side of Eastern Parkway was we had a concentration of the Hasidic Jewish community and we lived in that area. 4:00That was Crown Heights South. And so I remember living in a very mixed neighborhood. Matter of fact, ironically, the building that we lived in was owned by a Jewish gentleman. Now it's I believe owned or operated by his son. As an assemblyman, I ended up giving an award to his son at an event sponsored by the Jewish Children's Museum. But I remember a very mixed neighborhood. I have strong recollections of my father, you know, standing outside of the building talking to somebody. At that time, I thought they were all rabbis, you know? But they weren't all, you know. And you know, I say that without any, you know, hopefully any offense. But you know, I saw all the men with the beards and hats were rabbis. From my recollection, my father was always talking to one of the rabbis in street corner conversation, of course. Me as a five or six year old, you're tugging at your dad's pants. You're annoyed. You want to go, etc. So I remember that neighborhood very well. Strong West Indian population. Strong Hasidic Jewish community. But as a child, I never recalled any what 5:00people later on, people described as tensions between the Black community and Jewish community, etc. And I guess a lot of it was because of how I saw me interact, my father, who was Muslim. My father was involved with Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. You know, here he is and he's an African American. This person's a conservative, Hasidic Jew, and they're talking to each other. So that's what I remember.
ALI: What-- You said your father worked with Malcolm X. When did you learn aboutyour father's history and, and what can you tell me about it?
CAMARA: Right. I don't remember any definitive point in time. It's somethingthat always, you know, as long as I could remember I was aware of this. At the time of my birth, Malcolm X had been already assassinated. And so my father at the time was no longer in the Nation. He was a Muslim. He considered himself an orthodox Muslim. But I remember growing up, the stories of him being involved with Malcolm X. And sometimes they were scary stories. You know, the fact that 6:00he was there with Malcolm X, you know, got assassinated. And right there in the Audubon Ballroom. But I believe that became part of our-- We weren't raised as Muslims. We weren't raised in the Nation of Islam, but there was something -- whatever called him to the Nation, that idea of being involved in social justice and fighting for social justice. That was something that was in us as children. And so he didn't talk much about the stories. It was -- you figure. I was born in '71 and even up until the time my father -- we'll talk later -- my father this country around, in 1977. Actually he left here in 1976, that that, the wounds were still there. You know, Mal-- it had not been that long, had been about a decade. And so when you talk about Malcolm X, he would just burst out in tears, you know, because the wounds were still fresh. And so he didn't talk much about the details about Malcolm, but the way he lived his life, you know, was such that you knew that he had lived during a dangerous period of time, you 7:00know. If someone called the house, we could never say where he was. He would get upset. You know, "Why you tell them where I was? Just say I'm not here." And that was about his sense of, I don't want to say paranoia, but sense of you know, you can literally not return home one day. You know, you fear for your life, of course, taking bold stands at a very difficult time in our country. And so we didn't talk much about Malcolm X directly, but we knew that he was someone who was still an activist. You know, the things we talked about at our house was, you know, giving yourself for community, you know, for the world, making the world a better place. He was very critical of the public education system, that my parents eventually started a school because of that, because of their viewpoints on how the public education system was failing children of color, failing Black children. And so the social justice language was very prevalent and, but again, we didn't, he didn't talk to us that much about Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. Those were things I found out later in life. 8:00
ALI: So you, you talked about how your education was really important to your,to your family.
ALI: To your parents. Tell me about your early education.
CAMARA: Well, when I was one, my parents started, it was, it was called theAl-Karim School. And what I found out later in life is that they didn't just set out and say at the time, "We're going to start a school." They eventually wanted to do that, but it got to the point where the school was half a block away. They did not feel it was up to par for their children, didn't have the standard of excellence for their children, or other quote-unquote, "poor children, Black children" in the neighborhood. And so they started the school to teach their kids. The private schools were out of their price range. And so they started the school. And then, from what I understand, by the end of the first year there were 18 students, because they started the school, then other people were finding out about it. And then neighbors were saying, "Hey, can you teach my child also?" So you went from having home schooling your children in your -- in a, you know, two-bedroom apartment to having a school with 18 students in a 9:00two-bedroom apartment. And my mother is the school principal, and the gym teacher, and the, you know, the school nurse, the school cook, you know, etc. And it grew from there and lasted for about 45 years, Cush Campus School. And so you know, education was always what they beat us over the head with in terms of --
ALI: So by the time you were ready for school, the school had been in operationfor about four or five years.
CAMARA: No, by -- oh, by the time I went to the school.
CAMARA: Yes. But the time I --
ALI: You were ready for --
CAMARA: Right, right.
ALI: First, kindergartener, first --
ALI: So you didn't-- Did you ever attend a public school?
CAMARA: I did. I attended Cush Campus up until fifth grade. For sixth grade, Iwent to I.S. 33 in Bushwick. My mother was, when the school was founded, she was on the founding team, she was the first PTA president. And she was involved with naming the school. And so we had a history there. I went to the school for one year. My brothers and sisters, I believe, went there for sixth, 10:00seventh, and eighth grade. So to answer your question, I went to public school for one year out of my life. I went from Cush Campus School. I went to I.S. 33. No actually, I went to public school for two years. I went to school Upstate. I was living with a relative Upstate New York, Minisink Valley Central School for seventh grade. Eighth grade, I went to Brooklyn Friends School and I was there from eighth grade to twelfth grade. So for two years I went to public schools.
ALI: When did-- So I'm interested to hear what it was like going to school inthe private, the Al-Karim -- when did, when did Al-Karim become Cush Campus?
CAMARA: I can get you the exact date, but it was somewhere around-- I would sayit was probably somewhere around '89, '90. I can find that out, right?
ALI: Okay. So what was it like when you were at -- at the time it was Al-KarimSchool, and then you went to a public school in fifth grade? What was that like? What did you -- what was your experience like going to a public school after having--? 11:00
CAMARA: Right. It was, it was difficult because I was, I was always theintrovert by nature. And so I went from this school where your mother's the principal. All your brothers and sisters are there. You're -- and people that your classmates and you have known from kindergarten. You all transitioned you know, up together. So the people that I was in fifth grade with that I've known since I was in kindergarten, first grade, at least a strong foundation of them, not all of the students. Then also we had moved to Queens, so I was in sixth grade. I was traveling an hour and a half each day to go to school. I would take, at that time I was taking the train and you know, bus on my own. And so it was difficult. You know, I ended up having a -- probably about two or three close friends, you know, and then by the time I became close friends with them I left again, and I went Upstate New York for school. So that was difficult. It wasn't difficult academically. I did well academically. I did have some challenges at that time. My father wasn't there and I was going through what -- and I -- from my perspective I say Black males, but probably males in general 12:00when you don't have a father in the household, and you know, some of the things, unresolved with my feelings of him being in South America, etc. So that challenge was there, you know, going through that adolescent stage. And so you just had all these forces coming together in one. So that -- it was difficult. You know, I liked the school. I think I did well there, but then there's no one who I've known from that period of my life that I've stayed in touch with, seventh grade on, you know. So, but it was a good school and I -- in terms of the academic experience I think it was enriching, you know.
ALI: Tell me what a typical day was like at Al-Karim School when you were there.
CAMARA: Sure. It really academics, you know, rigid academics. Students werechallenged academically, intellectually. We were doing work that two, three years ahead of the grade we were supposed to be in. So I was in kindergarten, I was doing second grade work. There was a balanced structure because it was 13:00disciplined, but at the same time it was loving, it was nurturing. They didn't take any mess. [laughter] You know, students do that, whatever age, where there was no excuses for not listening to your teacher. But they also took you through the steps of giving you the basic building blocks you needed to go to the next level. So someone will say, "How is a student going to do algebra, you know, two years ahead of the time they're supposed to be doing it?" Well, very simply. They would make sure you knew your multiplication tables; they knew you knew the basics of division, and you knew the basic adding and subtracting. Once you had those basics, then okay. Then you could master the next level. The other thing I appreciated with the small classes, you were in a class with you know, 15 students and a teacher. So you had more time. They didn't allow you to fail. They made sure that if there was a problem, there was never any characterization that you're special education or you have a learning problem. The challenge always was, "We missed something at the stage before that. Let's go back to the previous stage, and let's teach you what you need to know at that stage. And then we can move on to what you need to know," which I appreciate. And I think 14:00maybe times, what I've seen through my experience there, that you have in some education systems, in some public education systems where if the student does not learn that level then you say, "They have a learning problem. We have to isolate them into a class with other students who have learning problems." And I think the biggest thing about Cush Campus was, you know, they treated you as individual. They said that, "You are gifted. You're smart. And we're going to find out what the challenge is."
ALI: Did you ever, I mean as a kid, you know, a lot of kids are like, "Dang. Mymom is at my school. My mom is at home. Like I don't ever catch a break." Did you ever feel -- did you ever get in trouble?
CAMARA: I did. I did.
ALI: Tell me about a time you got in trouble.
CAMARA: Well, you know, funny thing about it is I -- I joke. When I speak toyouth groups now, I tell them that I got suspended from every school I went to and except the one my mother was the principal. [laughter] You know, I never got suspended from that school, but I got into trouble, you know. It was even worse because if you did something wrong, the teacher, who was the teacher 15:00of your class, let's say, your mother's the principal. So they held you to a higher standard. And then so if my mother was the one who saw me, you know, "You're my child. I ex--" So they expected more from us. So I didn't get in any, any serious trouble, you know. As I said, I didn't really start having really what people called discipline challenges until I was out of Cush Campus. And that was more not because I was out of Cush Campus, because of that stage in life that I was in, you know, going through adolescence leading up to puberty, etc. And so the good thing about it was, my mother-- I mean, some people would say my mother worked 16 hours a day. So we a -- a respite period where, when sh-- we would leave school she was still at the school. So we had a time when you know, we were just kids, you know. My oldest brother, I joke with him. I said he was like the one in charge, the man of the house since he was like 11 years old or whatever, you know? So, so we had a period where we could go home and be kids, you know, etc. You know? And so-- 16:00
ALI: So you had a lot of siblings. Did you-- What kinds of things did you do forfun as kids?
CAMARA: You know, we were pretty much, like I said -- my mother was so dedicatedto the school, you know, fun things were games we created in the house, you know. I didn't have the opportunities that my own children have, you know, where you know, weekends, you know, it's gymnastics, and basketball, and soccer. We didn't have those opportunities, you know, because she was -- as a principal of a new school, she was literally working seven days a week, 16 hours a day. So our weekends were, you know, literally, I might be collating, you know, papers for her that she's preparing for Monday, you know? So we were learning office work at six and seven years old. So fun stuff was with relatives. Fun stuff was games we did together. Fun stuff was, I always liked animals. So we always a pet hamster, or a parakeet, or snake, or turtle, or something like that. But in terms of the, you know, weekend trips and weekend sports, that, that didn't come 17:00until probably high school, you know. So the school was part of her life, so it was part of our life, you know. And that's--
ALI: So, let's-- So then let's move forward to Brooklyn Friends School.
ALI: Tell me about, or how did you decide to, or how did that happen that youdecided to go to Brooklyn Friends School?
CAMARA: You know, I don't really know exactly when -- how my mother found outabout it. I remember when -- I was in seventh grade. I was living upstate with a relative. I was going to go through high school there, but there were some challenges there with the school that I was in. You know, and there were some diversity issues. And so we came to the conclusion that was not the best place for me for a multitude of reasons. There was not the -- I was not going to follow through with this plan to go there through, through high school. So she found Brooklyn Friends. I remember going to the interview. I remember, and I went from Cush Campus. And then I went to, you know, public schools for two 18:00years. And now I walk into a school with carpeted floors, and you know, you call the teachers by their first name. And Brooklyn Friends, the name itself threw me off. What is a Brooklyn Friend? I was not familiar with the Quaker Society Friend, so why did they call it Friends? Because everyone's so nice? You know, etc., etc. So I was starting the eighth grade. For the first week or two, I hated the school. I didn't know why I was there. And but then I grew to love it. Some of my best friends in life, you know, I've known since the eighth grade, you know. When I got married, people outside of my wife's brothers, the people that were in the wedding, grooms weren't even my brothers, were people I've known since, you know, eighth grade. So I've grown to appreciate the Quaker tradition, you know. And similar to what happened at Cush Campus. Different perspectives, but the same -- that same basic, fundamental belief that everybody has a gift, that you treat everybody with respect, that everyone has a strength they can contribute to the larger picture. Everyone should be able to express what their opinion is. So I think that the -- that was what I needed at that 19:00time, you know, from Brooklyn Friends School. I was there from eighth grade through twelfth grade. I played basketball there. Still in touch with the school. And I've gone back for alumni night, you know, I believe every year since 1989. I graduated in '88. My children go there. And so that was, that was really at the time, as I said, I was like, "How did my mother find this school?" But it ended up being a blessing, you know, and I believe one of the key institutions. You know, Cush Campus Schools, Brooklyn Friends School, Xavier University I believe helped shape me at crucial points in my life. It helped me always to have the knowledge that whatever I'm doing I'm actually in some way be contributing to society, be contributing to the world, and my community in some form or fashion.
ALI: Tell me about your decision to, after high school, what did you decide to do?
CAMARA: After high-- I was on track. I was going -- initially I was20:00going to be a veterinarian. That's what I wanted to be my whole life. And then when I got to twelfth grade and you know, just talking to other people and people talking about what they want to do, and people always said, "Veterinarian? You know that, you know, a physician. What about a physician? They make more money. It's prestigious." And I admit, you know, that got to me. And I got supposing, "You know what? That's right. I'll become a physician. That's right." You know, and so I was on track to go to -- I was going -- planning on going to medical school. I went to school, Alfred University for two years and then up transferring to Xavier University. And I did the pre-med curriculum. You know, I took the MCAT. I did pretty good on the MCAT. I went to a program at Meharry Medical College that was designed for students who had promise and they felt needed some extra work before you started medical school. And so I went to that program. And during that program, as much as I loved the program, that's when I realized I didn't want to become a physician, particularly when I got to the gross lab. We weren't -- we were not -- we were going to visit it. We weren't, you know, sort of interns doing the work. But 21:00just to go in a room where there were dead bodies [laughter] all over the room, that was the thing that let me know, convinced me like, "This is really not what I want to do." You know? And, and so I went through a period-- I graduated from Brooklyn Friends. I mean, I graduated from Xavier. I was back in New York, but I wasn't sure. I was contemplating going to law school. I was comp-- I was looking at some programs that were hospital administration, you know, because I could still be involved in the hospital in some ways. I don't want to be a physician. And then in July -- I left New Orleans in May of '93. In July of '93, a friend of mine got shot and killed in New Orleans. And he had just completed his freshman year. And so that really, that shook me, you know, you know? And me, at the time I graduated from college I was I believe 20 years old. He was 18, 19. And so that was a point when I had a spiritual calling, when I felt called to 22:00the ministry. At the time, I didn't -- I said I didn't-- I said, "Okay, I'm not called to be a pastor, but I'm going to be called to this, something religious, something spiritual. I'll be involved with the church. I want to find out a way how can I have this calling through this tragedy, you know, work with men in particular, boys in particular. And so I -- that was in '93. And then by '96 I was in seminary, the New York Theological Seminary. And so it was fast going from being undecided, not sure to all of a sudden saying, "This is what I want to do. I'm going to live the life of a spiritual vocation, but a fear-- a spiritual vocation that's also about a human transformation."
ALI: So you said your father was Muslim.
ALI: And your mother, she was Christian--
CAMARA: Christian. Pentecostal Christian. Yeah.
ALI: What kind of religious upbringing do you remember having?
CAMARA: We had a very spiritual upbringing. We didn't have a very religiousupbringing in terms of being connected to religious institutions. And as I -- My 23:00father was Muslim, but you know, we didn't go to Jumu'ah on Fridays. My mother was Christian, but we didn't go to church, you know, on Sundays. A lot of it may have been with her being consumed with her work. We were connected with church. I went periodically with my grandmother. She was a church mother in the Church of God in Christ, First Church of God in Christ in Brooklyn. So I went periodically, but that was not part of our regular upbringing. It was only until I believe, if I recall correctly, sixth grade or the seventh grade we started going to Sunday school. And, and then we would go to Sunday school. We'd come home and then my mother would be going to the Sunday morning service for church. But that was -- but we always lived in a, you know a, family believed in God that was spiritual, and religious language in the house you know, we prayed before we ate our food, etc., but we were not connected to any religious institutions. 24:00
ALI: So how did you decide in terms of what your denominational affiliationwould be? How did you come to that?
CAMARA: Well, initially, I -- the church that I was familiar with, the FirstChurch of God in Christ. And so, when my friend got killed and I'd just graduated, his funeral was in Houston. I ler-- I didn't have a way to get to the funeral. I didn't have the money for it. Just graduated, just started a new job, etc. And so I went to First Church of God in Christ as, you know, to have my way of grieving and having memory of my friend at a Sunday morning service. And that was a time when I felt the sense of being called, you know, to ministry as a vocation. And, but really, you know, I -- so I went from, I went from Church of God in Christ. And when I was in the seminary, I went to intern at First Baptist Church. And now I pastor a church that's non-denominational. And we were going through a process of being affiliated with United Church of 25:00Christ. But myself, I, according to my belief, I'm not a big denominational person. I believe in organization. I believe in you know, churches being able to connect with each other, but I'm not one in terms of you know, a strict doctrine, that this denomination, you believe this. This denomination is wrong. And this one is wrong, etc., you know. And so I believe it as a practical organizational entity, that there's power in Christian organizations or religious organizations in general coming together and finding out how they can use their strength. But I'm not denominational as you know, strictly, so to speak.
ALI: Before we start talking about this, your later adult life, I do want tocome back to your experiences growing up in Crown Heights.
ALI: In the 1970s. So you know, there are a couple of major events that, thatNew Yorkers experienced in the 1970s.
ALI: And I wonder what you remember, if you remember what your experiences were.26:00Say, for example, the 1977 blackout. Do you remember that?
CAMARA: Yes. I remember that very well. That was, in fact, I remem-- I was nothere. I was in Florida. At the time, we were on -- we lived at 837. That's where we lived and where the school was. And right around the corner from us was Brother Syl's Sporting Goods. It used to be called, it went from Brother Syl's Sporting Goods, I think, [to] believe, Trophies by Syl. And so we lived in a small, I say two-bedroom. It was probably really a one-bedroom that you just you know, throw up a sheet to separate. It would not be classified as a two-bedroom. We used it -- we turned it into a two-bedroom. But we were in Florida. So I don't -- I was not here to experience it. I remember my mother saying at the time, in Crown Heights they were breaking into people's homes. They were breaking into stores. And we had two, big, black German Shepherds. And they were in the house. And my mother, until this day, she'll tell the story about someone 27:00was coming in through a back alleyway, because you had the commercial stores-- We were the first one on the corner, so you could access our back yard through the alleyway where the stores were. And somebody was trying to come in. Well, when the dog barked, you know, they fled, you know. So she says to this day, she's thank god. She was there alone. Her five kids were in Florida. We were with an aunt, uncle. And that if it was not for the dogs then someone would have broken into the house. And I believe Brother Syl was really, his store was devastated to my knowledge, if I remember correctly. He, they broke into his store and stole a lot of items. So I remember the sense of fear through hearing it from my mother. But I was not physically there you know, at the time, right?
ALI: Another thing that began happening in, in Brooklyn and certainly New Yorkwere a series of conflicts, some of them ethnic, but some of them with police. And, for example, in 1978 there was a businessman named Arthur Miller who was 28:00killed. Were you -- you would have been about seven or eight years old --
CAMARA: Right. Yes.
ALI: -- when this happened.
ALI: I wonder if -- what do you remember, if any, about that incident or similar incidents?
CAMARA: I remember the person -- gentleman on my block, Al Shepherd, who livednext door to us. I remember him outside the house. We were not at 837 at the time. We lived in another house across the street. But I remember him telling my mother about it. And you know, at that age, I was not part of the conversation, you know. But I remember, you know, this sense of fear that came across me. And he said something -- you know, when chil-- when people, adults speak, they speak in a sense that children take everything literally. He said something. This may not have been the exact words. "Well, if they killed him, they can kill any Black man." And when he said that, I'm thinking, "Wow. I can get killed." You know? So I remember that sense of fear, thinking, "Wow. An officer can come up to me and kill me for no reason." And I think that's a thing a lot of people 29:00don't understand, you know, when we're talking about the whole conversation of policing. They don't look at it from other's perspective and to say that, "Okay. Yes. We can respect police. We need police. Oh, well, the number of police, you know, obey the law, follow you know, their procedural code by their department." But there are individuals who had -- who have had negative experiences. So that shaped my thinking, you know. And I remember from that age, you know, it being drilled in me. And I'm sure my father had conversations also. You know, he always said that, "Never argue with the police officer. Yes, sir." If there's a problem, remember the badge number. You know, and you know, you get stopped. In the later years in life we were told, you know, "Stop. Put your hands on the steering wheel. Don't move." Etc. But the first time I heard of a civilian getting killed by a police officer was Arthur Miller. And out of all the names, you know, hundreds of names we've heard since, that name years later still rings most strongly in my memory, that Arthur Miller got choked by the 30:00police, you know. And you know, fun -- at that age, too, just thinking back was I was, I was like, "Did we know him? Do we know this person," because you hear it, so much of the conversation would be like someone that I personally knew, you know, that was part of my circle, whatever. Because you know, just like later on life, those names that you hear, they become names that are embraced on such a wide level that even if you don't know the parents, you own them and you connect with them. You consider them one of yours, as well. But Arthur Miller, again, that was the first one and the one that rings most strongly.
ALI: Do you remember -- you said your father and your parents kind of instilledin you certain ways to kind of defend or prepare, ways to interact with police. Do you remember your parents having any kind of specific conversations with you any time these kinds of incidents happened, to kind of like say like, you know, because you know, you are growing up in the school that your family, that your 31:00mom ran. So it's very kind of protected space. Do you remember any kinds of conversations your Mom or anyone would have had with you, or older siblings, to say like, you know, "This might happen and here's what you should do."
CAMARA: I think it was a combination. I think it was a combination of you know,conversations about justice, about how individuals were treated, and then justice was -- that they spoke more of being critical of the power structure. But then also, personally, they would say -- talk to us about how we should carry ourselves. I mean, one day I went to the local corner store and I got -- I don't remember what it was, but it was something where it was like I got a soda. And I just walked out of the store with a soda. And I got home and she said, "Where's the bag? Where's your receipt?" You know. She was really mad at me. "Don't you ever leave the store without a receipt and a bag. Of course, a cop could come and say you stole something. You don't know what's going to happen. Make sure you always have that." So it was a combination of question -- I mean, rather conversations about the power structure, what was going on. But then 32:00periodically there were conversations about how you should carry yourself, how -- and I want to talk the larger macro conversation about what's going on in society, but I also have to talk to you about you know, this is what you need to do to make sure that you're protected in the community that we live in.
ALI: So were coming of age in 1980s in New York, Brooklyn.
ALI: And there's a lot coming of age. [laughter]
CAMARA: Oh, yeah.
ALI: In 1980s Brooklyn.
CAMARA: That's Brooklyn itself.
ALI: So there are a couple of things that, I mean, I'm interested to hear whatyou remember of the emerging music scene. I mean, hip-hop of course is coming out of New York, too, at this time. What, what was your experience with like youth culture as a young person coming of age in 1980s New York?
CAMARA: Oh, wow. We were, my, we were hip-hop kids, you know. We were, you know,I wore the shell top Adidas. I wore the name belt. I wore the windbreaker, you know. It was the best thing was when a girl decided she was going to wear your 33:00belt, you know. So I had a name belt like, "Wow. She's wearing my belt." It's like, "That's my girl for now," whatever. I remember the hats. I used to go to, to, to the store, Albee Square Mall, you know. And we would get our spray paint and half -- spray painted, you know, sweatshirts or whatever. So we really into hip-hop. You know, I remember when Run-D.M.C. came out with a song, it was a song, "Peter Piper," right? And so my brother was hip-hop. We actually started a, a little rap group, you know, ourselves. And we used to write songs, practice, go to the studio, etc. I went to college. I wasn't -- I didn't grow -- I was just doing like cat/bat/sat, but he was doing these complicated rhymes. So, and I gave it up. But I remember when I -- I believe I was in eighth grade. Maybe not eighth grade. It was probably ninth or tenth grade that we would listen to whatever the, the pop-- I forget the pop-- the names of popular radio stations, but they would always have -- they would give you a release of a song before it came out. And so Run-D.M.C.'s song with "Peter, piper, pepper," I'd memorize the words to it. I had it on my mixed tape. And so I was going around 34:00school singing it. And so this one guy, Albert, was like, "Yo. That's you. That's you." I said, "Yeah. That's me, man. That's me." He says, "Sing it again." I said, "Oh, oh." But I'm laughing. Like he really thinks it's me. I didn't tell him I was joking. He came back like a week away, "Oh, man. You lied. Well, that wasn't you. That was Run-D.M.C." You know, whatever. So we were hip-hop kids, you know. We loved from Run-D.M.C. the other one he had, like, "Eric B & Rakim." You know. To me, to this day, I still think he's one of the best lyricists ever, because that's what I, you know, I grew up on. So we were really hip-hop kids. We were into the culture. We didn't do a lot of the parties, you know, I -- until high school and that's when my mother allowed me to go out, you know, school events and stuff like that. But we were really immersed in hip-hop and in the culture, you know, from, as I said, from the clothes to the music, the artists, you know, the-- What's the magazine they had? It's-- Was it Right On? Was it-- They had a hip-hop magazine that became real popular and Salt-N-Pepa, and you know, it was just you know, that was, 35:00that was a good time period. You know, this, I'm sorry. The last thing is I always recall back when I talk to young people because back then it was still braggadocious, but it's braggadocious about your clothes, what you had on. It wasn't really saying, "I'm gonna go get my uzi." They really meant, "I'm really going to get my uzi." [laughter] You know, and I'm really [inaudible]. And so somehow, you know, when you had continued poverty and then talk about materialism, and the rap music now has changed to where I think it's gone a lot away from the essence of what it was supposed to be.
ALI: In a contrast to what was happening in terms of youth culture, there werealso some challenges that young people were starting to face growing up in New York. There were several high-profile incidents. There was Michael Griffith's, who was like a Crown Heights resident I think in 1986, was chased into the highway from Howard Beach and he was killed.
ALI: There was Yusuf Hawkins who was killed in Bensonhurst in 1989.
ALI: You were coming of age. In fact, I said you were a teenager now when-- Tellme what you were feeling and what your experiences were as you were hearing about these? Like what, you know, what were some of these things that you heard and what were your responses?
CAMARA: Well, for Michael Griffith, what was -- I don't know if it ever cameout, but what I believe and for people I know, you know, who grew up and people start talking was that him getting chased, that was not a random thing. That happened all the time. Unfortunately, like to the point where you know, he got killed you know, because of that. And, but you know, it, since then, you know, there's still a stereotype about Howard Beach in my mind unfortunately. You know, I know people who live there. I'm not saying you know, castigating in the negatives of the whole neighborhood, but I still remember knowing that literally, don't go to Howard Beach. Not as a stereotype, you know. It's not 37:00just that this happened in this neighborhood. Someone says, "No. Don't stereotype the neighborhood." It was more about stories from people I heard saying, "No. This happens on a regular basis. This is a sport in this area by certain groups of young kids." And so that was really, that was devastating. You know, devastating -- and again, a devastating tragedy of a life lost because also as a young person, it creates a sense of fear, you know, in not just that neighborhood but going in any neighborhood. I don't know of any African American male who was not taught that. Don't walk in a White neighborhood alone. Or who did and had experience of the officer randomly comes up, you know. "Can I help you? What are you doing here?" And so that was, that was both on many levels. That was really, really devastating. Devastating again, to a family, you know. I didn't go through what they went through, but it also, what it does to your psyche as a young African male. That's not something you should be dealing with you know, in your early teens. 38:00
ALI: Do you remember the first time you heard about what had happened?
CAMARA: I -- what I first heard about I heard on the news. I didn't hear it fromindividuals. My -- when I first heard about it it was on you know, one of the local channels. And then from there, then it became part of community conversation. But I didn't hear about it directly from an individual.
ALI: What were some of the community conversations you remember?
CAMARA: I think that same thing. Don't walk White neighborhoods. Don't drive inWhite neighborhoods. Don't go there after dark, you know. You know, stay in Black neighborhoods. Don't go you know, on your own. And then a lot of times, like I said, that was not police involved, but it still went to you know, it could happen to you from civilians, but also be careful because the police might stop you for something. So I think the, the conversations that I heard from the-- First it was the tragedy. Then it was justice for him, for his family. But then it also went from justice for his family to what you need to know to 39:00protect yourself so it doesn't happen to you.
ALI: Do you -- so some people began-- For, for any time these kinds of incidentshappened, people would organize and you know, demonstrate. And certainly in Brooklyn that was happening. Do you remember any of the efforts that people made to organize? Or what was your perspective of -- like the protests, like shutting down the Brooklyn Bridge and things like that. What were your feelings, do you remember?
CAMARA: I remember -- I was not directly involved at the time, but I thought itwas great. I thought that they got a sense of-- You know, particularly not just since, you know, Al-Karim School was not an Islamic school. You had people that were Islamic, you know, Muslim. You had people with Pan-Africanist. You had people that were Christians. But there was a whole sense of Black pride. And so there were many people connected with Al-Karim who were involved with these protests, you know. And there were people that we knew, like Jitu Weusi 40:00and you know, and individual, Weusi Shule and Uhuru Sasa and, and individuals like that from other local independent schools that were involved. So I believe that people, we felt, we felt the anger, the -- rather the righteous indignation over what happened to Michael Griffith. So there was a lot of community pride. There was a lot of unity in saying that we have to see that, you know, that justice, you know, is met. So I do remember that. I was not at those, but again, some of it is what you see on T-- and a lot of it was what happens in conversation at the school, you know. I'm sure there were times when you know, we talked about it as a family, again, from the social justice point of view, as well as you know, protecting ourselves. But so, I was not at the age, you know, as an adult where I was directly involved, but I do remember the climate, you know. 41:00
ALI: While you were in college, or I don't, I don't know if -- did you spendyour summers in, in New York?
CAMARA: I did. Out of the-- When I was at Alfred University I did. When I wasXavier, I spent -- I don't know. I spent some of the summers in New Orleans or in, in Nashville, Tennessee one year.
ALI: Were you in New York in, in August '91 when the Crown Heights, what peo--
CAMARA: I was not. I was in New Orleans. That's something else I was watching on television.
ALI: And what were your thoughts when you-- So I'm -- because I just kind ofmade a reference to it. When, when you saw or heard what was happening in Crown Heights in August of '91, tell me how you learned about it and what your thoughts were.
CAMARA: Right. I learned both from-- Let me think. That was so long -- I learnedboth, believe, conversations with people from the community, but also so much of it was you know, watching the news. And from the incident and how it started, we hear about Gavin Cato and the way the story was communicated. Again, you're 42:00shocked, you know, that there was an African American boy that was left there dead. And from that perspective it was wow, you know. Of course, there was already, not in Crown Heights directly but in society racism, and that we always felt that Blacks even then were not considered as valuable. And so for a lot of people, even before they got to find out you know, let me find the details of it, that right there, that narrative when we hear that, that causes you to be angry. And so that's how it started. But then, in terms of the riot itself, and I'll be honest with you. When I saw them watching pictures of it, there was just sheer chaos that from my perspective I was like, "Can anything be done to get this under control?" You know. From police cars being turned over. That was seen as though, from my perspective as, as a college student watching on TV, I'm 43:00like, "Did the police just stay the precinct and say, 'We're not going to do anything?'" It seemed like there was no leadership. There was no action to communities who-- There's no opportunity for dialogue now, you know. A Jewish community and a Black community on both sides, that if people are one side, both sides your histories of oppression and violence, and both of them are going now, it's just physical. You know, no opportunity for dialogue. And so once it got to that point, I blame NYPD leadership even more than I did the individuals. You know, I know now people look back and then they want to point to certain individuals who, you know, provoked it, etc. But I didn't go to that level of detail because I don't think any of us still fully know the full story of you know, what happened on a particular day, who started the riot. But when it's at that level, then I think a lot could have been done on a leadership level from police. There are people who I know now, like Richard Green. I know Rabbi Shea 44:00Hecht, other people I've talked to. And so they were key civilians who stepped in to say that, "How can we exercise you know, leadership?" But it should have to come to be that burden on them as community leaders. That's too heavy of a burden, that, the level of police. There could have been a lot more that was done to contain things and get it under control.
ALI: Earlier you mentioned growing up seeing your father having conversationswith his Jewish neighbors when you were living in, in Crown Heights South. Growing up, did you have any interaction with you know-- What was your interaction like with the neighbors, and who were your neighbors growing up?
CAMARA: Well, we were-- The, we were in a, the area where I said, where myfather interacted with a lot of the Jewish neighbors. That was a narrow period of my life. You know, that was -- we lived there for a few years. My father went to South America in like July 3rd, 1976. And so from that point on we 45:00lived in Crown Heights North, which was more of a West Indian neighborhood, African American neighborhood. And so we knew all of our neighbors. And many of them are still on that same block. And so they were close. Not close in a sense that we were going over to each other's homes for dinner, but that the young kids, these are the guys who were my buddies. This is who I hung out with in the neighborhood. This is who we would ride our bikes around the corner with, we'd go to Brower Park with, we'd go to the store with. We'd sit on each other's stoops. We jumped stoops. We played stickball. We played cocolevio and we played -- we got into trouble together. We broke many, you know, lights in people's front yards, you know, whatever. And we had -- people who saw it would take us back to our parents. You know, it was, was you know, you can't do it. I mean, you can't grab a kid's hand, take him to his parents, because a lot of people you know -- would be more upset about it. You know, so there was a really great sense of community then. A lot of people on the block I, I still know, and as I said, still live on the block. So there was a great community feel. 46:00
ALI: I was going to ask you something and it just slipped my mind. But it willprobably come back to me. Okay. So let's go on ahead and-- Your decision. So you decide to join, to go to seminary school.
ALI: And did you know that -- after college, so you went away for college. Didyou know that you wanted to stay in New York or you wanted to live in New York? Like what was that --
CAMARA: I wasn't sure. When I was-- I know when -- my last year of college whatI really wanted to do was I wanted to stay in New Orleans. I didn't want to come back to New York. Not because they had a problem here. I just loved New Orleans so much. And, but the job market was, was real-- I remember at the time, I think the equivalent of, I looked at an income assessment. And the equivalent of 47:00making $40,000 a year and the buying power you have with that, it's $18,000 in New Orleans. You know, that's what it was in 1993. So that shows you how the, the, the economy was. And so the one job that was promising was an American Express financial planner, you know. And so I didn't really-- That was a job for me to do and it was attractive, but I didn't really want to be a finance professional. It was just something that I said, "Okay. I need a job. This is good." Other jobs, the sales jobs, etc. You know, so I'll do this one. And so that's why I decided to come back to, to Brooklyn, you know. But the time, was I really, I had planned on staying in New Orleans.
ALI: And so while you were in seminary, what, tell me, as you're preparing tograduate, how are you thinking about what your next step will be in terms of your religious vocation? 48:00
CAMARA: Mm-hmm. Well, at seminary, the -- one of the reasons why I liked NewYork Theological Seminary, one time I was looking at schools outside of New York again, but with New York Theological Seminary, they were rooted in liberation theology. They were rooted in the notion that you have to -- you can't -- you have to go to practice. You just can't go in the, the study, academic stage. You have to implement what you learn. I started -- when I was at New York Theological Seminary, I was part of a program called Youth TURN, where I partnered with an individual from Sing Sing Prison who was getting their master's in prison. So we partnered together to go into lower income neighborhoods, connect young people, not necessarily with faith institutions, but with strong programs where they can have small groups. They can have discussions. They can get their GED. Some of them were, were arrested for low level non-violent offenses. So as part of their, you know, court supervision they were assigned to this Youth TURN program. And so it was in New York 49:00Theological Seminary that, as I mentioned, I got the call of the ministry with a friend who got killed, young African American male. And so New York Theological Seminary was where I was really fine tuning my thinking and getting that idea of the clarity of what I thought ministry should be. It's just that I went from not growing up in the church to going to college where I went from being detached from the church and more not interested, but very negative of the church. You know, I didn't like the church. I didn't like preachers. You know, I didn't like any of that. So the New York Theological Seminary, I had the theological framework to say, that no, it's biblical for us to fight for justice, fight for the widow, or fight for the poor, fight for the child. And so I think that helped me get the framework that I still believed, I believed as a minister, I believed as an elected official that this is how you're supposed to fight for justice. And that the -- social justice from a theological basis, so to speak.
ALI: So tell me how you got involved with First Baptist Church.
CAMARA: Sure. Sure. When I was in Seminary as part of the Youth TURN50:00program, I was assigned at First Baptist as a Youth TURN intern. Matter of fact, you know, I was -- I grew up in Crown -- as I said, I'd never been to First Baptist. I was originally assigned to Abyssinian Baptist Church, but there was a young, a young lady, or rather, older lady I think at the time. She was -- she lived near Abyssinian. She didn't want to go to Brooklyn. So she -- actually we switched our loc-- so I switched. First Baptist was walking distance from my house. And so I went there as an intern in the Youth TURN program and, and just for that year. And Reverend Norman who, you know, God rest his soul. He's since passed away. But he asked me to stay on as the -- as -- to be his associate pastor. So I was there for a year as an associate pastor and then became the executive pastor of the church.
ALI: So this was a storied church.
CAMARA: Yes. Oh, yes.
ALI: Tell me a little bit about what you knew about the church and what youlearned about the church while you were there. 51:00
CAMARA: What I knew was I knew about Clarence Norman, Jr., who was theAssemblyman, but Reverend Norman was a power unto himself. He was not an elected official, but he was a leader outside of the church. And so much of what he did in the neighborhood, from senior homes, to anybody running for President, or Governor, or Senator, any office, went to First Baptist Church to meet him and meet his congregation. They called him the Black pope, you know. And he was such a man of such stature, such a man who was serious, a man who got things done, you know. And so that was something that I was attracted to and became -- as I said, I didn't grow up with my father. He became sort of a father figure to me you know, in the sense of how you should carry yourself professionally, and what you should do, and how to get things done, how to help your community, you know. And, but the thing I learned the most from him was that he was just consistent. You know, he ended up pastoring the church for-- When he passed away it was like 52:0055 years or no. It was more. It was like-- He -- about 70, 75 years that he pastored the church before he died. No, it couldn't have been. It had to be about 60 years. He pastored for about 60 years, since he was about 22, 23. And so that level of consistency was what I learned from him, that he was just consistent in his daily actions, consistent in his work, consistent in his calling. And you know, I meet a lot of people that may have, be better preachers, or they may have people who are more talent. Not that he wasn't talented, etc., but that he was talented. He was a great preacher, but I think the reason why he was so successful was he was consistent, you know. Year in, year out. Day in, day out.
ALI: So by this time, you're -- the name that you are known as -- known by is what?
CAMARA: Right. At that time, when I was at First Baptist, my name was KarimAbdur-Razzaq. And I remember changing it because I remember going before the 53:00congregation to let them know that I changed my name.
ALI: Tell me about the circumstances of your name change.
CAMARA: Well, you know, it's just -- it was gradual. Abdur-Razzaq's a beautifulname. My brothers and sisters still have their name. My father changed his name. And his name was part of a spiritual growth process that he went through, and part of his spiritual journey. And I went through my own spiritual journey and reached a point where I contemplated changing my name. I wasn't sure. Then I reached a point. I said, "I'm going to change my name. Do I change it back to Karim Clark, my mother's maiden name?" When you hear Karim Abdur-Razzaq, you know, like Karim Clark didn't quite sound right, you know. And then I said, "Do I change it back to Warden, which was his name? Now, why would I do that?" Whatever. And then when I decided to change it, I wanted to change it back to something that reflected culture, something that had a deeper meaning. And so I knew of a child with the Al-Karim School, later Cush Campus School, named Camara 54:00McKetty. And I thought that was a beautiful name. And then I came across it and I was looking in a book of African names. And I came across Camara. And interesting enough, Camara meant teacher. And I considered myself, as a spiritual leader, I wanted to be a teacher. I didn't just want to be a preacher. I wanted to be someone who was able to teach people things they could use for, to take action in their life. And I came -- my father was a teacher. My mother was a teacher. All my brothers and sisters at some point had been teachers. But then something else happened when I was in Seminary. I was reading something by Bishop Hélder Câmara of Brazil. And they called him the Red Bishop because they accused him of being a communist. But he had this quote that shook me. He said -- and it really resonated. He said that, "When I feed the poor they call me a saint. But when I ask why people are poor, they call me a communist." You know? And when I read that, it was so powerful because you know, even today in this world, it's fine. You go ahead and feed the hungry, you know, do the soup kitchen. That's no problem. When you start challenging systems is when you become a threat to the power structure. And for me, I felt because I 55:00don't, I didn't think it was by accident. I thought, my spiritual journey, I didn't think it was by accident that I came across all these confirmations. The name kept coming back to me, you know. And that's when I decided on Camara. And I've said that. I always to make sure it's part of my ministry. Yes. I have to help people who are poor, but you also have to challenge systems to get to the root of the problems about why people are poor, or the education systems, and housing systems, and criminal justice systems, healthcare systems. You know, why do people stay in poverty, generational poverty we have difficult breaking?
ALI: So around this time, you also became an administrator at Cush Campus Schools.
CAMARA: Yes. I was actually. I was at -- I was-- Around that time, before that Iwas administrator at Cush before I went to First Baptist, and before I went to seminary.
ALI: Okay. So tell me the circumstances for your--
CAMARA: I was at -- my parents were founders of the school. I was at -- I workedfor American Red Cross for two years, at a shelter for women who were domestic 56:00violence victims. And I was there for two years. And I reached a point where -- and I just felt, you know, my mother needed help, you know. And I had, I had learned about non-profits. I had worked for non-profits. I did some fundraising. So I decided, "Wow. That would be great to go and work and hopefully in some way, even in some small way, help the school at that phase, you know, of their, of the journey."
ALI: So there was -- and I think as you mentioned -- some of the other schools-- independent Black school movements --
ALI: -- that started in the late '60s, early '70s.
ALI: And, and there was a growing debate, right, in the, especially in the '90sand early 2000s about should people work to transform the public school system, or should they just set up independent schools and-- Do independent schools -- are they taking resources away that could be used to transform the public school 57:00system? How did you -- do you remember kind of-- How do you remember understanding that--
CAMARA: I remember the debate. I remember it very well. First is thatindependent schools, Catholic schools, you know, I'm hoping somebody does, I don't think anyone has up until this point, but documents the history of how many young people, how many lives are transformed by Black independent schools, and by Catholic schools. And particularly during that time when I was at Cush, you know, where you had students who were placed in special ed who should not have been in special ed, where that was part of the regular practice -- I'm not going to say all. I respect public school. Overwhelming number of students will be in public schools. We need public schools, but the fight to improve public schools, particularly in our lower-income areas. But independent schools were needed. And there were students who at Cush, who were placed in special ed who 58:00never should have been in special ed, who came there and thrived. Not only did they thrive, but -- and this is documented. These students were performing one, two, three years ahead of the grade. So there were eighth graders performing on national tenth grade level tests, you know. And so the schools were very much needed. Do they take resources away? These schools were -- they were teaching students, given a great education on about a third of the cost. So if anything, you know, you said, "No. We can. We found a way to do it for less," you know, etc. And so, as I said, as much as I respect the public schools, I think that these schools are needed. Now, one of the tragedies that happened is that when chartered schools started and some people used to argue about charter schools. But charter schools hurt independent schools more than they hurt public schools. Catholic schools, their population numbers have been decimated. They're closing. Independent schools like Cush Campus Schools, the Bridge Street School, Concord 59:00School, Johnson Prep -- the Weusi Shule. Look at all -- look at when chartered schools started and look at around that time period, two, three years later, how all the Black independent schools started getting shut down. Because if you're a parent who's of medium- to low-income, you know, your child's not in Cush Campus. Your child's not in Concord School. The option is not Brooklyn Friends or Poly Prep. That's not even a choice. That's not -- you can't -- you cannot afford those schools unless, you know, there's a scholarship tied. And so -- but then when you have a charter school and you have a choice between-- Let's say Cush Campus School's tuition in 1995 was $6,000. If you have a choice of doing $6,000 and three as a middle-income parent, and you can get equal education, who's going to say, "No. I'd rather spend the $6,000?" So they lost a lot of students and that led to a lot of school-- the overwhelming majority of those schools that started in '71, '72, the part of that network of Black 60:00independent schools, closed. You know?
ALI: When did Cush Campus close?
CAMARA: Cush Campus Schools closed in -- I believe it was-- Just give me onesecond. I was in the assembly in 2000. I think Cush Campus closed in like 2010, 2009 or '10. Yeah.
ALI: Okay. You just mentioned you were in the assembly. Tell me about thecircumstances of you getting involved in the electoral politics.
CAMARA: Sure. Well, when I was in -- before I was in --before I came back to NewYork -- in New Orleans, I got -- started getting involved into politics. There was a friend of mine, Oliver Simms who told me about a job where they were paying $5 an hour. That was big money for a [laughter] college student, to just give out flyers and canvass, you know, for votes. And so I did that. Then I worked on a few campaigns there. Low level, state senate, you know, council, 61:00etc. But then, in 1990 -- I got to get the dates right. 1991 I believe it was, then the election for Governor, you had the current governor, Buddy Roemer. You had a former governor, Edwin Edwards, who you know, left office in disgrace. And then you had David Duke, who said he was a former member of the KKK. And, and so people thought David Duke didn't have a chance. But David Duke gets more votes than Buddy Roemer, ends up in -- and Edwin Edwards did, too. And according to their law, there has to be a run off, you know, get a certain number of votes. And so there's a run off between Buddy Roemer -- I mean, between Edwin Edwards and David Duke. And I remember they said one was the crook and one was the racist. And so you actually had bumper stickers that said, "Vote for the crook." You know? [laughter] And, and so I got involved in politics then. You know, to me, I 62:00remember, it was not -- The energy was not the level of what I saw for President Obama's first run, but I remember, you know, students who were involved in politics getting involved. I remember campuses did not only interact, Tulane and Xavier, White school, Black school interacting. I remember the Black, Jewish and all ethnicities coming together to say, "We, you know, we're not agreed on anything. We agree. We got to stop David Duke from being governor. And Edwin Edwards, you know, won. So that was one thing. Then, in '92, I started a youth program in New Orleans called Project RISE, Reducing Illiteracy Scars through Education. And so as English major, I went and got other English majors who went to the local school and we started working on literacy through drama, through reading. We would get scripts. We'd teach them the scripts. We'd do plays for their parents, you know, etc. So it turned out to be a great program. Got some campus recognition. And so when President Clinton was elected, he announced the 63:00AmeriCorps program in New Orleans in 1992. I think like the first early part of his election. And I somehow got invited to be there, to stand with him when he announced it. And I guess maybe they reached out to Xavier -- you know, "We have a new student." Xavier said, "Got somebody for you." So I'm there as a, you know, 19, 20 year old. I think I was probably 19 at the time, standing with President Bill Clinton with this big announcement. So that's when politics really piqued my interest. At the time I said that I want to run for US Senate, and one day I would run for governor. I didn't know about local positions like state assembly, and state senate, city council. I was not familiar. You always, you know, you see the big names and the big titles. And so I was at First Baptist as a -- as Youth TURN, and I stayed on as executive pastor. I got married in New Orleans, August 20th of 2005. And then September 2005, Clarence Norman, Jr., Pastor Norman's son, was convicted of a felony and had to resign 64:00from the seat. And so I talked to my --
ALI: How did the community respond to that?
CAMARA: They were, I think there was mixed -- I think for the most part, therewas a lot of, you know, as people of color who were familiar with you know, injustice, there were a lot of people who saw that and you know, believed it was a just -- there was some people said, "No, he did something wrong." And, "Okay, that's it. That's what the law said. Jury decided." Etc. But there was also a lot of support from him in the community by what he was going through. And even people who were not certain about what happened, still knew him, and what he did as a leader in that community, knew what his father did. So a lot of people rallied around him, you know, through that time period.
ALI: And so how did you -- where did you see yourself in that? Like how did you --
CAMARA: I was a -- it was my pastor's son. So I was very -- and I -- for about ayear or two, I worked for him, you know, on a very low-level. I was community liaison, part-time job, 10 hours a week. But I was -- I really felt for him. I 65:00felt for him and his family, his wife, his father, you know. Clarence Norman, Jr., you know. And there's Clarence Norman, Sr., and the pride you have for your son. So that was a really difficult period, you know. I had just gotten married. I was thinking about running. There were some seats -- things were starting to move around. I was thinking about running. And, but I wasn't really sure, you know. And then, over a period of time, a few people approached me about running for Clarence Norman, Jr.'s seat. And I was like, "No. Not interested." And then one day I talked to my wife about it, and I said, "You know, these, politics. You know, they can be--" You know, sometimes you -- I always is a basis of opportunity. You could have a great candidate at the wrong time who never makes it to office. And you've had bad candidates at the right time, you know, whatever. And so if someone wants to run for office sometimes there has to be the opportunity. I said, "You know, this is the opportunity." And so --
ALI: Why did you say no initially?
CAMARA: I just got married. I wasn't sure about how to balance out ministry and66:00politics. I was always clear-- And I -- when I was there, sure, I'm sure there were a lot of people believed that you know, "Okay. He's a minister. Maybe ministry's a stepping stone to politics." You know? Whatever. But I was always clear that I really felt I was a minister first. And I had got married a month ago. And so it was a tough decision. Plus being from the church and all the distractions about it, you know. I thought maybe it is better for somebody who has no connection to the church to do it, who had no connection to the family. So initially I said no. My wife and I talked about it one morning before we left, you know, for the day. I said no. And then the more I thought about it, I said, "It'd be a great opportunity." And so married, two months later, I'm knocking on doors, and you know, [laughter] for votes, for, for office. So I ran and Governor Pataki declared a special election on November 8, 2005, the same day as the Bloomberg, Freddy Ferrer, mayoral campaign. So I ran and won and stayed in office for just short of 10 years, you know. I left office 67:00February 19, 2015 was when I resigned from the Assembly to take up a new --
ALI: When did you learn about Crown Heights as your -- were campaigning in theearly years of service as an assemblyman?
CAMARA: I would say I learned first as a level of, until this day, there's alevel of -- I don't want to say distrust of elected officials. I think there's more so now than there was then, with all of the-- Since then there've been 10, 15, 20 different stories of elected officials, public corruption, things like that. But the time, there were a lot of people who had problems with the system of politics and felt that they don't see the changes in their neighborhood. I 68:00thought a lot of times, I thought as elected officials we didn't enough of communicating with our con-- with our, not congregations, with our constituents on how things are done. You know, we accept the title and we want to be the hero. And we want to be the star. But guess what? Now you're the star and if something doesn't happen they can blame you. And so unfairly, as a local assemblyman, a local state senator, you get blamed for the local schools. You get blamed for the police. I'm serious. Whatever happens, you know. At one meeting where, a lady said to me, she said, "Well, what are you doing about the young boys, about them pulling up their pants?" And I'd say, "So listen. I'm raising my own two kids. And [laughter] I hope you also have--" I said, "I can't get the kid, get your son to pull up his pants. Now if you were talking about doing youth programs, yes, but don't put that burden on me." We actually formed something, "I am the change." You know, Crown Heights area for the next generation empowerment. And the idea was saying that, "Okay, let's come together. Let's have a coalition. I'm your voice. You let me know what I need to go to all, and what I need to say, what I need to advocate for." And it worked 69:00for a while, but it came back to people-- We have this system now, people say, "No. I elected you. You're the expert. You solve the problems." And so until we get around that you're always going to have, you know, someone runs, and you have a period of good grace. And you get to six years or seven years, and the schools have not improved, and there's still crime in the neighborhood, you're going to get the blame for it, you know.
ALI: So tell me how you, I'm interested, I have-- So tell me when you startedcampaigning for this position. Did people say, like, "You are from the same church as Clarence Norman, Sr., and Clarence Norman, Jr.?" You may have, you said you did some low-level campaigning work or political work for Clarence Norman, Jr. How did you, what did you say to people to kind of say like, "I'm my own person."?
ALI: What were the kinds of things you were campaigning on?
CAMARA: I ran on a reform platform. And I believed in term limits, which I70:00actually, I did once I was, later on in office, I introduced legislation for it. I said I'm going to run on you know, this campaign of you know, integrity and, and you know, fighting for you, etc., etc. I think it resonated. The people knew me from the school, Cush Campus schools in Crown Heights, probably a quarter mile at the time from where Cush was at the time, a quarter mile from First Baptist. So I had a base of support from the school. The church, I grew up at First Church of God in Christ. My family grew up in, rather, was not far. And I'd been at First Baptist for a few years. And that's a church that beats in itself when it comes to political engagement, community engagement. Be honest, I didn't get that much. Only person I got a lot of it from was Jeffrey Davis, who is now a friend of mine. He was running. His family went through amazing tragedies. We were opponents, and during the course of campaigns, you know, people get heated and that type of thing. So, but outside of that, he was not -- 71:00I don't remember him being the dominant theme in the campaign. I think at that point he was gone. And I said to myself, "I couldn't win because I'm from the church," but I also didn't believe I would lose because I'm from the church. I had to go out and I had to let people know who I was and what I'm campaigning on. Now, we had a very grassroots-focused campaign. We went door to door. I did six days a week, except for Sundays. I did Sundays, like, the last few weeks of the campaign. But we went door to door, you know, and talked to people, introduced myself, and I would ask them "Can I count on your support?" you know, and if they said yes made a note of it. And we just built up -- we had built up about over a couple of months maybe about 5,000 people, you know, that were committed, you know, to voting for me, and we followed up with them. We called them before the campaign. So, so he -- Clarence Norman, Jr., you know, and you know, was praying for the tragedy he went through, but we were just -- we went 72:00out and said, "I've got to go out, and Karim Camara's going to win or lose this," you know, type of thing.
ALI: So Crown Heights is a really interesting neighborhood because of such adiverse population --
ALI: -- diverse groups of people living in Crown Heights. Typically, the way alot of these districts are drawn, they're such that it's like all a similar electorate.
ALI: Tell me what it's like -- what was it like trying to satisfy the cons--such a diverse constituency.
CAMARA: You know what? I -- when I first got elected I thought it would be amajor challenge, but it never was, because when you think about it they all want the same thing. You know, if you have children, you're concerned about your children. You're concerned about safety. You're concerned about -- if you have elderly parents, you're concerned are there programs for them. You're concerned about the local hospitals, you know, etc. So, and with the Jewish school -- I mean, some of the differences are they don't send their children to the local public school. They have local yeshivas where you have to pay tuition. That's a 73:00challenge for many families. So I'm not going to say there were never tensions, you know, but I heard the same thing from both communities, too. I heard the Black community saying, "Oh, the Jews, they get all the attention." I heard people from the Jewish community saying, "Oh, the Blacks, they get all of the attention," [laughter] whatever. And so I -- when you brought people together, I found out that if you just listen to them, don't go off the stereotype -- and if I went in with a stereotype about the Jewish community, you know, I went in with a stereotype about the Black community, you know, you're not going to succeed. But I always -- as constituents, treat them as individuals, you know? And I believe that we had a great constituent service office. I always tell them, I said, "This is customer service. You know, I want to succeed in all--" It bakes -- it boils down to how you're serving people locally. And so there were never -- there were not major challenges. I will say this: now, by the time I came into office a lot of the work had already been done, because there was -- after the riots, there were times of tension. So I came in when a lot of healing had taken place. You had people like Reverend Norman, you had people like Richard 74:00Green, you had people like Rabbi Shea Hecht, who formed a group called Project CARE, and Project CARE said, "How do we bring leaders together?" They met periodically. You had a group called Crown Heights Mediation Center, Amy Ellenbogen, and they worked, too, to bring people together. And so to their credit, when I came in, it was a different platform. And if I came in the office, you know, six years prior, seven years prior, there might -- ten years prior, there might've been a lot more of a challenge. And so another thing I did was I reached out to people, you know, and people appreciated that. I reached out to key Jewish leads, "Hey, can I meet with you." I reached out -- I reached out to people that I knew were not supporters of Clarence Norman, Jr. I reached out to people who I knew were his friends. I said, "You know what? I'm a leader in this community. I have to build my own reputation, build my own relationships." But in terms of the, the Jewish community, and the Black community, there were not -- periodically, you're always going to have that. You're always going to have, you know, within neighborhoods or within people or 75:00what people say when -- in small groups, but there were no outward signs of hostility. Matter of fact, there were at least two times when they could've been -- things could've gotten ugly. There was a time when an African American was attacked by some Jewish kids, a time where a young Jewish guy was attacked by Black kids. But each time, Black leaders and Jewish leaders, we came together, and we said, "We are not going to tolerate this." You know, when the Jewish kid got attacked by Black kids, as Black leaders we said, "No, we don't want this in our neighborhood." And when it happened to the Black kid, the Jewish leader said, "No, this person, they're not part of our active community. We will not deal with those type of individuals." And so I think that was probably 90% of why those few times things did not go back to the level they could've gone to, you know, because people wanted to have community.
ALI: One of the things I'm interested when you were saying, like, Crown HeightsSouth, and then [inaudible], what, what do you consider the boundaries of Crown Heights? 76:00
CAMARA: That's a good question, good question. Well, I could tell you one areathat I know it's not. A lot of people on the -- on the western side of Crown Heights, people think that Crown Heights stops, some people say, at Franklin Avenue, you know. But I -- at the very least, that it goes down to Washington Ave, and that Washington Avenue is the border. And to me, I think that was sort of a fence. Once the community started to change, and then you had the wine shops, and you had the new coffee shop, that's when people started trying to run from Crown Heights, because Crown Heights -- Nostrand, Bedford, Rogers were not as develop. You even had one effort, I believe, by Corcoran called ProCo. [laughter] I'm serious. So ProCo was going to be the name. And then I think -- most people agree, I think, on going down to Empire Boulevard, I think, on the 77:00eastern end. I hear widely accepted that that is where Crown Heights ends and East Flatbush begins. And then on the northern end of it, then I would say -- some people say Atlantic Avenue, and some people say it's Fulton Street, you know, where it ends. But I personally think it's Atlantic Avenue, and you then you turn into Bed-Stuy, [laughter] you know, whatever. And so -- but then, you know, these things -- as long as it's-- And I'm not concerned about, you know, the Atlantic Avenue part, is it Fulton Street or whatever, because you're going down into, you know, Bed-Stuy, etc. I'm not concerned if, as the neighborhood develops, people try to run from the history and try to come up with a new name that's more attractive for more commercial capitalist reasons so to speak, you know. And, and so that's why I was -- I think the latest that I got involved was Crown Heights does not end at Franklin Ave. The border of Crown Heights is Washington Ave, and that's a border between Crown Heights and Prospect Heights. 78:00
ALI: So let's talk a little bit about the development. It's -- Crown Heights isprobably one of the most rapidly changing neighborhoods --
CAMARA: Right, yeah.
ALI: -- in the last 20 years in Brooklyn. How has -- how have you seen those changes?
CAMARA: Really alarming, alarming and tragic. You know, I believe, you know,according to, you know, my values, as I said, what I learned both from Cush Campus and, you know, Brooklyn Friends and Xavier University, I believe in and embrace multi-ethnic, multi-income communities. And so -- but the rate of the change and amount of displacement is what is tragic. The diversity is great, but the cost, I think, is what the tragedy is. And a lot of it could've been avoided. A lot of it was, you know, the failure of city policy, the failure of state policy, and when you talk about the combination of it. So you have -- you know, there is -- yes, we know in capitalism, you know, market forces, the 79:00supply and demand, but we also have city policy. We have changes in the zoning, you know, in terms of whether something is going to change from commercial to residential, how many square footage of commercial, how much square footage of residential, and then how they define-- And to me, I personally think -- people talk about the 421, 421. It's a tax abatement. That's part of it. But when you have both the tax abatement and you have -- the variance is how you define affordability. And what we've been dealing with the past decade, more, you know, that I've been, you know, dealing with this issue, this whole 80/20 formula, where you say 80/20 of it is market rate and 20 of it is affordable. And -- but the question is: what do you mean by affordable? First of all, you could even talk about that percentage, that it shouldn't be 80/20, that it just should be-- Now, what the developers say is that we have to be able to make a profit, so if you're talking about making a profit for individuals, yes, fine, but the city and the state could've invested more money in affordable so that we can raise 80:00that percentage from 20%. But then when you talk about even the 20, OK, you say that's affordable, it's such a wide range of the area median income, and particularly when you're doing it by, you know, Congressional district where you have Brownville and Park Slope in the same Congressional district. You know, and so I think that's one of the biggest reasons why now the train has left the station. Now you have such a demand, where Brooklyn is an international brand. We have people moving from Europe to say "I want to live in Brooklyn." I don't know if you've seen, but look at the amount of hotels that have come up in Brooklyn. It used to be that there were no hotels. Then you had one, the Marriott. Now, I see -- I live in Brooklyn. I see hotels pop up and I'm like, when did this hotel come? I never saw this hotel before. So I think it's very tragic that so many people have been displaced. When they did a census in, in 2010, the population of African Americans had -- at one time was about 85%, African American, West Indian American, and then 15% was White, non-Jewish, which is very little, and the Hassidic community. Then it went down to about 81:0075%, 2010, and now, since then, when we see the next census, 2020, I imagine we may be at about 50, 55%. I'd be shocked if the, the population of, of African Americans was higher than 60. You know, it's probably about 55, you know.
ALI: What neighborhood do you live?
CAMARA: I live in Crown Heights.
ALI: Oh, you still live in Crown Heights.
CAMARA: Yeah, still live in Crown Heights, yes, yeah. Crown Heights North.
ALI: And so have you seen this, like, personally?
CAMARA: Oh, it's -- I've seen it where my block now, I used to know myneighbors. I don't know my neighbors anymore. You know, I talked to another neighbor who's been there for a while, African American. I said, let's do something so I can meet my neighbors, you know? I was back -- on a snowy day a few months -- I'm shoveling, and a young lady walks into the yard, and she walks in, she says, "Hi, how ya doin'?" I say, "Hi, how's everything going?" She introduced herself to me. I said, "OK, nice to meet you." She walks past me, going up towards my house. [laughter] I said, "Hey, can I help you?" She's like, 82:00"Oh, I'm so sorry; I'm at the wrong house." She lived next door, you know, what I was-- She's somebody who's -- who was new to the neighborhood, who she wasn't even sure where she was, you know. And so I've seen it change a lot. You know, I've seen it change from individuals. I've seen where, you know, in terms of churches, most of the churches -- I know Black churches -- I know Black churches that are fighting for their lives. Their memberships have plummeted. People have had to move to other parts of New York. People are moving to North Carolina and South Carolina and Atlanta. A lot of people moving to Arizona now. So it's tragic. I -- my brother-in-law from California, he was here maybe about six months ago, and normally when he comes in he goes into -- flies into JFK, and he takes the shuttle, takes the A train to Nostrand, right near us. So he gets off the train, is walking towards the house, and he pauses for a minute, and he takes out the phone and check to make sure he got off the right stop, has the right address, because he's like, "Where am I?" He had been there six months prior. Even say he'd been there a year prior -- I'll give benefit -- say even if 83:00it was a year, say he's off, he saw new shops, new people, didn't see as many Black people, and he's like, "This is a different neighborhood," you know. And I think that's what's tragic about it. You know, the amenities, you know, at what price? Now you have a coffee shop. Now you've got a local restaurant, you know. But, again I think the tragedy comes from people who were displaced where their lease was up. They couldn't afford to live there, had to move, you know, people who want to buy a house. Now, you can't -- that's another thing people aren't talking about that, you know, Furman Center of NYU, they did a study that showed African Americans, even with equal income, equal education, were getting subprime loans. And so now, since the economic crisis, if you want to buy a house, you have to have 10, 15, 20%. You know, 10% if you're lucky. You might have to have 15, 20% down. So that means I'm going into Crown Heights, and even if it's 10%, I have to have $100,000 cash and pristine credit, you know, in 84:00order to even buy a house. So you don't -- even if you have the income and you can afford the mortgage, chances are you're not gonna be able to buy a home. You know, so now -- you started losing the apartments. Now you're losing homes, as well, you know. And so, again, it goes back to, you know, it's the individual. That individual's looking for a place to live. The individual's not part of a grand conspiracy, "I'm White. I'm moving in to push somebody out." I'm looking for the home I can afford. So, more than anything, I don't blame the individuals. I blame the city, state, the federal policy, and the things that we could've done we didn't do. The last thing that, in terms of how it is, social justice now, one of the good things, now social justice, in terms of housing policy, you have Blacks and Whites united. You know, when I was in the assembly, up until, you know, I would say probably about six, seven years ago, when people came to the assembly office, when I was the Assemblyman at the time, they were African American, and they were complaining about the cost of living. And then 85:00there was a shift about four years ago, three or four years ago, where the people coming to the office were young, White millennials who were coming, social justice issue, "What are you doing about the cost of living?" And so now to have a group called the Crown Heights Tenants Union where you have Blacks and Whites coming together, you know, in the name of justice, about landlord tenant harassment and things of that nature, and so -- and I showed you how the face of it has changed. And I know people who were -- who say, "I don't know how long I'm gonna live here," because now they're saying, "Well, I moved here ten years ago. Now, I'm gonna have -- I may have to move out, also." So, you know, it's -- there's -- a lot has been done. A lot of people said it's too little too late, but I still think there's a lot we could do to preserve, you know, what's left, and to preserve the integrity of the neighborhoods, but also to protect people, you know. That's what -- I think that's what city and state government are supposed to do: protect people that are vulnerable. 86:00
ALI: What are some of the -- speaking of preservation -- and these don't evenhave to be formal places, but what are some of the places that you think have been really important to you as a child, as a young adult, growing up in Crown Heights?
CAMARA: Brooklyn Children Museum was key. We spent a lot of time there. BrooklynMuseum of Art was there. Brooklyn Academy of Music, key institutions. You know, the parks. Brower Park we've been going to off and on since we were younger; you know, Prospect Park. Those are all quintessential -- you know, Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. You know, my brothers and I actually, over the summers, we went and we took gardening classes, you know, Brooklyn, Brooklyn Botanical Garden, you know, and each summer we would have a different crop we did in our backyard. One year we did corn. One year we did tomatoes. One year we did squash. One year we did watermelons. We did all this in our backyard, what we learned from our Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. And so those are some of the key 87:00institutions in terms of buildings. In terms of individuals, you know, Richard Green is an institution. Rabbi Shea Hecht's an institution. Rabbi Clarence Norman's an institution. These are people -- Reverend Herbert Daughtry, even though he's not in Crown Heights proper -- you know, he's down -- further down, downtown Brooklyn, his, his church. But these are all people that I knew of growing up, and then had the good fortune as an elected official to know these people and call them friends and interact with them, you know, so to speak. So --
ALI: How did you -- so tell me, when you say you knew of them growing up, how --what -- how did you, say, learn of the work of Rabbi Hecht or --
ALI: -- Richard Green or Reverend Daughtry?
CAMARA: Well, Richard Green I knew of because he knew my family, and he had anindependent school, and -- but he said that a lot of what he did he said he learned from my mother, you know, in terms of education, the school that he started. So I knew of him from his youth work. Rabbi Shea Hecht I didn't know of 88:00until the Crown Heights riots, and, and I knew that in the Jewish community he was really key, and I knew that Richard Green -- they were two of the stabilizing forces during that time period. Reverend Norman I knew of in name. I hadn't met him. I, I didn't meet Reverend Norman until I was in seminary, and I went there to intern. But I knew of him. And Reverend Daughtry I knew of first, since, you know, he got, you know, negative press, you know, because the Crown Heights riots, you know, etc. And so -- but I met him, and I didn't see him through that lens. I know how news is reported, and how sometimes stories don't fully come out in terms of, you know-- So I met him -- again, he's someone else I met when I was-- I think I met him before I was in the Assembly. No, I did -- I met him as an Assemblyman. And so -- but their names were -- you know, they were forces, you know. And so Daughtry, Hecht were forces, Richard Green --- as I said I knew of those -- they became forces, you know, within their respective 89:00communities, right.
ALI: So what do you think of when you think of Crown Heights today?
CAMARA: [sighs] Unfortunately, I think of what I talked about. I think of therapid change, you know, and, and, and I question -- I say at this point in time, you know, what can we do to better manage change? I've been talking to groups about this. You know, there's the Bedford Armory Project that the City's involved with, and I met yesterday with Bertha Lewis as a faith leader to talk about what can we do, you know, that hopefully we can still protect people and say -- better manage what the community looks like, you know, and --
ALI: Tell me about that project and what the issues are.
CAMARA: Well, you have the Bedford Ar-- well, there's the Bedford AtlanticArmory. That's, that's different. That's a housing -- a homeless shelter, 90:00rather. But now you have on the Bedford Union Armory, you have that was -- it was state -- it was state-owned land. Matter of fact, remembering now when me and a group of elected officials met with a Governor Patterson, his administration, about doing something there with affordable housing, recreation, but then the city -- the state sold the land to the City during -- Governor Patterson was governor; Mayor Bloomberg was mayor. And so the city now is doing a project there. There's a lot of contention in the community. The city is saying they're doing as much affordable housing as they can. They're saying that they have built more affordable housing than ever been built in the history of the community. But people from the community look at the numbers and say that it's not affordable housing and, and, and some of this. I didn't meet with anybody from the group. I'm getting this information, because I have a different role now. I'm not the local elected, but getting from, you know, electeds and other people in the community, and some of the numbers -- they hear $1 million condominiums and things of that nature. And so there's a group of people in the 91:00community that are saying that this is not affordable housing. You have on the other side developers saying, "We're going to build as many affordable housing units as we can." And so the key thing is getting to the numbers, and also -- and seeing what the stance of the city is, you know? But if it's city-owned land, you know, and the city is not going to commit to building affordable housing, then what hope do we have? This is not land owned by a private developer. This land is owned by the city, so the city can better dictate what's going to be there. And then also you have to look at how much profit is developed. I mean, yes, you know, it's a capitalist country. Yes, they have a right to make a profit. But we can't limit the amount of affordability, you know, at the expense of the community so the developer can maximize their profits on the other end, you know. How can we subsidize some of it, do more -- a cash infusion to it, you know? I've heard about some people mention the idea of a housing trust, you know. Right now, as I said -- I'm -- the last two years 92:00I've not been engaged, with the new role that I play, in my official State capacity. I'm getting more involved as a faith leader. So over the past few weeks I've been getting more information so I can be more involved as a faith leader in Crown Heights with these issues.
ALI: So tell me, what, what do you see the role of the faith -- of faithcommunities in Crown Heights?
CAMARA: Right now, as I said, many of them are trying to save the congregationsand maintaining the membership, because a lot of people have moved out of the neighborhood. They're -- the only strong coalitions that I know about have to do with violence, like there's the SOS, Save Our Streets, Clergy Action Network that's part -- they work with the Crown Heights Mediation Center. There's not much discussion about the housing issue, you know, and that's something that, again, I've been talking about recently is how do we join -- how do we get involved with this army project? How do we, as clergy, use our voice, you know, 93:00and galvanize our members and say, "This is a justice issue; we're called to be involved with this," you know? And part of it is that, particularly in Black churches, and since the Civil Rights Movement, you know, many people think that we've had gains, we have victories, so there's not been a strong coalition of churches involved with social justice issues. But the climate that we're in now, post-Trump, you s-- I see that changing a lot. So a lot of clergy that had not been involved are saying, "No, I have to be involved. We have to be involved with--" Resistance is not just going to a march. How do we resist housing policies? How do we in-- resist injustice in criminal justice -- in criminal justice sector, and housing, etc., etc., healthcare, whatever. So --
ALI: Are the groups that you work with, are they primarily Christian, or they're multi-faith?
CAMARA: Well, they're, they're multi-faith. I would say primarily Christian,since I happen to be a Christian pastor myself. There are not as many mosques in the area, but I would say that there is a multi-faith effort to be involved with these issues. 94:00
ALI: OK. Ten years from now, what do you think Crown Heights is going to be like?
CAMARA: Well, it's a good question. I think a lot of it -- if, if, if things goat the rate they're going now, and there's not intervention by city government, state government, you're going to see a Crown Heights that is maybe 80% non-people of color, and you're going to see a neighborhood that you might think you were in Manhattan, you know. [laughter] You go by the shops, and you go by-- And I think with that it will lose some of the character, you know. And, you know, we've already lost a lot of the longstanding institutions. You know, each week we're losing more, you know. 95:00
ALI: What are some of the institutions that have been lost?
CAMARA: I mean, when you -- when you go from-- I mean, some of them were not thelast ten years. I mean, when you talk about -- I think one in the last ten years was --
ALI: Or even broader --
CAMARA: -- Syl's Sporting Goods. When I was -- when I was growing up, we livedon Park Place. We were 837. There was Mr. Bell's Cleaners. There was -- Mrs. Smith had a pet shop. There was Sill's Sporting Goods. And matter of fact, I think there's one left. I think Mr. Green's Realty -- I think he's the only one that's left that's been in the neighborhood for, like, since the '70s. No, Robert Paul, the chemist, Robert Paul's pharmacy, I think he's been there. So you have two left that have been there probably for, you know, 30, 40 years. But outside of that, you know, their local barbershops have closed. There was a guy, Tunde, who had a vegan/vegetarian health food store. He owned the building. They're closed. And now each week there's a new coffee shop, there's a new 96:00restaurant, there's a new bar, new wine shop, and etc. And -- but again, you know, what does it mean for the people that live there? Where do those people go, you know?
ALI: I'm, I'm interested when -- how -- you said that --
ALI: -- that the character is changing as these institutions or thesebusinesses-- To help me understand what those businesses meant for defining the character of a neighborhood.
CAMARA: Right. I think that when you had people that were-- It seemed to me thatthe pe-- the business owners growing up, they were either -- they lived in the neighborhood, or they were more fully vested in the neighborhood. They were not just shop owners who came -- opened their doors at 9:00, closed them at 6:00, and went home. They were involved in the community, were involved in community issues. Their presence was felt. Now, there's no connection. There's -- it's lost human connection. As I said, my neighbors -- there's human -- we've lost 97:00that human connection. I see people in the morning, and I -- some of them I for-- I say good morning. People don't, don't even speak to each other. People are just going about their business, you know. A lot of the homes on the block that I live in now, they're no longer families just living in a brownstone. Some of them have been converted into two-, three-family. Fine, that's all right, but now that means there are people there who are renters who, you know, I don't see as much anymore -- I mean, I don't know as much, because they may be there for a year, they may be for two, and then somebody else coming in, you know, etc. But we just lost that feel of community, you know. And, and that's what I thought of Brooklyn. I thought that there was -- that you had these community connections with the institutions and the people, and I don't think that's there anymore, you know? And then we're rapidly losing it. And then again, on the social justice part, the fact that, you know, if people who had lived in this community, grew up in the community are forced to leave because they can't afford to live there, then, again, that's another tragedy, you know? And so it's 98:00already happened at an alarming rate. And then how long does that continue, you know? What can the City do? Some people may say, "Oh, it's all market forces. There's nothing you can--" I believe that there's more the City can do. People should have a right to sell, buy, rent out, etc., but in terms of maintaining affordable units then I think there's a lot more the City can do.
ALI: I mean, we've covered a good, good ground. If there's anything else thatyou wanted to, like--
CAMARA: I think that was a lot. I think a lot of things that piqued my interestyou, you talked about already.
ALI: I mean, we didn't cover everything, but, you know, it's like --
CAMARA: Right, right.
ALI: -- if there's anything that you want to-- Yeah, I'm interested-- One of thethings that kind of goes hand in hand with gentrification, or community development, is a change in policing and policing tactics. Certainly, you know, 99:00you talked about Arthur Miller. There's a recurring, cyclical-seeming thing of police--community relations, and although this didn't happen in Crown Heights, it did impact New York. Tell me -- tell me about what you felt or learned, or how you responded to the killing of Amadou Diallo.
CAMARA: Yeah, that was-- When Amadou Diallo was killed -- what year was Diallokilled, again?
ALI: That was '99.
CAMARA: Right, right. Ninety-nine, I was not in the Assembly, but I was involved-- so I was not involved as a leader at the microphone, but I was involved with many of the protests. I think that's still, you know-- That one was shocking because, you know, it was like, here we go again. You know, it's '99. We thought 100:00we've arrived at a better place. Blacks have improved, many people said, in terms of income in New York State and across the country. But here you have an unarmed African American, you know, killed by the police. And so Amadou Diallo I remember. I remember better Ramarley Graham because I was in the Assembly then, and I've gotten to know his family well. But I think those instances really just -- they shake you to your core. And no, no matter who you are -- I mean, that one was amazing because the people that came out, you know, who were involved with the protests were not people who were normally part of protests. But I think that, that reached a level where it said any person, Black, White, of any ethnicity, that if you're not outraged by this then you can't have a human bone in your body, you know? And I remember through Reverend Al Sharpton a lot of the acts of civil disobedience and arrests that he led. The people that were there, you know, these were not people who ordinarily would say, "I'm not gonna go get 101:00arrested for anything, I'm not gonna be involved with civil disobedience for anything." And so that was -- that was just really beyond belief, you know? And, you know, since then I remember the, the legislature then, you know, start-- bringing forth the effort for a special prosecutor. And, and I remember as an Assembly Member, you know, people had -- they had started that, and got people like Keith Wright and, and other elected officials. So I don't want to pretend I was there then when they started it after Amadou Diallo. I heard about it then, but then as an Assembly Member I joined that effort, and it took almost, what, 15, 16 years, you know, for -- and later for this Black Lives Matter movement, and the, the unrest and outrage of, of a continuation of this across the country. For New York to have a special prosecutor bill, a special prosecutor legislation -- actually, it's not a legislation; it's an executive order by the 102:00president, so it's -- by the governor. So it's law, but the governor has to do it each year. It's still not, you know, codified in the law. And so what do you have to do? What do we have to do? And so, no, that, that was really, you know-- I, I can't say that was the most egregious, because anytime an unarmed civilian is killed it's egregious, but I think that one really just, I think, became -- that tragedy became an awakening in so many people to show that you think you made it, you're African American, you think that you escaped this, but this can happen to anybody, you know.
ALI: How old are your children?
CAMARA: My son turns ten on Saturday. My daughter, she turns eight in June, endof June.
ALI: So I'm interested -- you talked about when you were their age, your parentsand elders in your -- in the community, and your older siblings --
ALI: -- kind of talking to you about interacting with police. Have you -- how103:00have you talked with them about what's happening?
CAMARA: We talk about -- no, interestingly enough that my son-- You know, when Iwas growing up, I don't remember -- I didn't have many people that I knew of from the community or young who got killed. I'm talking about individuals killing individuals, not police. And so, so that's something that I think is on his mind more than it was on my mind. And my wife and I talked about it, because once maybe about a year ago we mentioned that someone died, and he said, "Did they get shot?" You know? And how did that become normal to people think that the reason why people died is that they get shot? And I asked him, "Why did you believe they got shot?" He said, "Because you said they died." I said, "No." I said, "People die by other means. You can't assume--" But because he now hears in a community, and hears in the park, or hears here about someone who got shot and killed, not someone who reached old age and got killed, that's part of his consciousness now. And I'm like, that's the tragedy. A nine year old, eight year 104:00old, part of the consciousness should not be people get shot and die, you know, before they reach a ripe old age. And so, so we talk about both. We talk about the social justice aspect of it. I talk to him, too, about some of the things that my father told me. He, he, he -- they grow up now where, you know -- we're at a probably better level economically than my parents were, and so -- and so, you know, I think at that age a lot of stuff I did -- when I was sixth grade, I was going to school on my own. There was more independence. Now the world is different. So he's more protected, as well. So he's not going down to the corner store by himself at ten like I did when I was ten, you know. [laughter] I'm going with him to the store, really. And so the lessons are different, but we still talk to him about life, and, and how the world works, and try to prepare him, you know, for his future, as well, you know. Yeah. 105:00
ALI: All right.
Oral History Interview with Karim Camara
Born Karim Abdur-Razzaq in Brooklyn, New York, in 1971, Karim Camara spent most of childhood and young adult life in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. His father Abdullah Abdur-Razzaq was an activist who had served as a chief aide to Malcolm X, and his mother Ora Clark Razzaq was an educator who co-founded and served as principal of Al-Karim School, an independent school in Crown Heights. The school evolved into the Cush Campus School and was in operation for 45 years. Camara attended the school up to fifth grade, and went on to attend Brooklyn Friends School from grades eight through twelve. After college he went on to attend New York Theological Seminary, and he served the congregants of the First Baptist Church of Crown Heights, first as associate and then executive pastor. In 2005, he was elected to the New York State Assembly, where he served until 2015, when he became the Executive Director of the Governor's Office of Faith-Based Community Development. He is an ordained minister, and founding and senior pastor of Abundant Life Church in Brooklyn.
In this interview, Karim Camara talks about growing up in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, and his political and spiritual journeys to government service and church leadership respectively. He describes the disciplined but also nurturing and loving environment of the independent school that his parents founded. He recalls the time he spent helping his mother with the school, and the stories his father told him about working with Malcolm X. He talks about his and his family's interactions with their Jewish and West Indian neighbors, and he fondly recalls childhood games at Brower Park. He recounts his spiritual evolution, including his decision to attend seminary, his pastoral leadership at First Baptist Church of Crown Heights, and his name change. He relates how his experiences at First Baptist inspired him to enter electoral politics, and eventually work with faith based communities on behalf of New York State. Finally, he reflects on the changes in Crown Heights over the years, and the impact of gentrification. Karim Camara was also recorded for the Listen to this: Crown Heights Oral History collection in 2010 (2010.020). His mother, Ora Clark Razzaq, was also recorded for Voices of Crown Heights oral histories: Brooklyn Historical Society. Interview conducted by Zaheer Ali.
This collection includes oral histories conducted by Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS), Brooklyn Movement Center, and Weeksville Heritage Center beginning in 2016 and collected and arranged by BHS in 2017. Each organization's interviews form a series within the collection. This oral history is one in the BHS series. The assembled collection was part of broader programming efforts by the three organizations to commemorate and examine the transforming Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn a quarter-century after the August 1991 conflicts and unrest sometimes called "the Crown Heights riot." The oral history collection features a broad range of narrators; educators, community organizers, activists, entrepreneurs, artists, bloggers, and longtime neighborhood residents, who describe the changes they have observed in their neighborhood over decades.
CitationCamara, Karim, Oral history interview conducted by Zaheer Ali, May 18, 2017, Voices of Crown Heights oral histories, 2016.027.1.12; Brooklyn Historical Society.
- Al-Karim School (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)
- Camara, Karim
- Clark Razzaq, Ora
- Cush Campus Schools (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)
- Norman, Clarence, Jr.
- Uhuru Sasa School
- Weusi, Jitu, 1939-2013
- X, Malcolm, 1925-1965
- African Americans
- Municipal government
- Politics and government
- Private schools
- Race identity
- Religious life and customs
- Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
- Crown Heights (New York, N.Y.)
- New York (State)
Finding AidVoices of Crown Heights oral histories