Ph.D. Student Earns Eagleton Governor’s Executive Fellowship

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Returning to Tacony, his old neighborhood in Northeast Philadelphia, Spencer Clayton has quickly grown to relish his new role. As an intern for Councilman Bobby Henon, who represents the Sixth District, he routinely provides citizens – including longtime neighbors and friends – with the latest news and information regarding government-related programs and services. That is, when he isn’t listening to their questions or concerns.

“Sometimes it’s just helping them with the little things, such as filling out forms,” says Clayton, a Rutgers–Camden Ph.D. student in public affairs. “But more than that, I can help make sure that the residents’ voices are being heard. It has always been my plan to come back to this neighborhood and to help make a difference.”

It is this same lifelong drive and commitment to serving others which has earned Clayton an Eagleton Governor’s Executive Fellowship for the 2013-2014 academic year. Awarded by the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, the interdisciplinary fellowship provides select Rutgers graduate students – from diverse departments and schools on the Camden, Newark and New Brunswick campuses – with the opportunity to further their understanding of government, public affairs, and the practice of politics, and connect the fellowship experience to their chosen fields of study.

A total of 27 fellowships have been awarded for the current academic year through four related programs: Harold and Reba Martin Fellowship, Henry J. Raimondo Legislative Fellowship, Governor’s Executive Fellowship, and the Eagleton Alumni Fellowship. This year’s honorees also include five students in the Rutgers School of Law–Camden: Steven Brody, Leah DiMatteo, Peter Fu, Lauren Martinez, and Adam Scalice. For the 2014 Class of Eagleton Fellows, including biographies, click here.

Established in 1956, the Eagleton Fellowship Program enables scholars to work toward their graduate degrees for one year without interruption. Throughout the year, Eagleton provides its scholars with access to practitioners in state and national politics, and government, who help bridge the gap between the scholars’ academic training and the everyday challenges of a career in politics and public affairs.

As with other Eagleton fellows, Clayton is currently taking a seminar to prepare him for placement in the spring with a government agency or office on the local, county, state, regional or federal level. “I am only just beginning to understand the gravity of what it means to earn this fellowship,” says Clayton, a resident of Feasterville, Pa. “This is going to open up so many new opportunities and experiences for me.”

Back in his old stomping grounds, Clayton’s latest success is pleasantly no surprise for those who have charted his lifetime of academic achievements. He showed promise from an early age when he was accepted and, subsequently, graduated from Central High School, a prestigious college preparatory school in Philadelphia. Clayton then earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2005 at Yale College, where he conducted research in the Autism Program at the Yale Child Study Center.

Clayton also set his sights on a higher power. With the guidance of his pastor, Rev. Hubert B. Barnes, at Star of Hope Baptist Church in Tacony, he became a licensed Baptist minister in 2004 and preached his first sermon there at 20 years of age. He then pursued a master of divinity degree at Yale Divinity School with the goal of becoming an ordained minister. He recalls choosing to become a minister in order to inspire others his age and to send a clear message that there is more to his generation than what is often portrayed in the media.

As a young minister, Clayton became impressed with the impact that nonprofit organizations made in their communities. With his interest piqued, the divinity school student served an internship for the Capitol Region Conferences of Churches in Hartford, Conn. The experiences bolstered his interest in nonprofit capacity building, particularly with regards to faith-based organizations. “There are a lot of faith-based organizations, especially in depressed communities, that have very good ideas, but are not clear on how to implement them,” he explains.

Upon graduating from Yale Divinity School in 2008, Clayton heeded the advice of conference mentors and continued his graduate studies, pursuing a Ph.D. in strategic management at Temple University. At home again in Philadelphia, Clayton was ordained a minister in December 2009 at Star of Hope Baptist Church, and helped his cousin, Rev. George Nelson Jr., launch a new church, Your Will Christian Ministries, shortly thereafter in the Castor Gardens neighborhood. Today, Clayton serves as executive pastor of the church, helping Rev. Nelson to implement his vision. “Working in a new church can be frustrating, but it serves as a constant reminder of what can be accomplished when people have the courage to try,” he says.

In fall 2011, he transferred to Rutgers–Camden, where, a year into his studies, he shifted his focus after writing a research paper analyzing the impact of gerrymandering – the redrawing of political boundaries in order to give a political party an advantage – on local-level community development efforts in the Philadelphia area. Among his findings, he discovered that, in Pennsylvania’s First Congressional District, which covers parts of Philadelphia, the African-American population was above 50 percent before the most recent redistricting, and fell below 50 percent after the new boundaries were drawn in 2000.

Clayton quickly concluded that many faith-based organizations in the communities affected by gerrymandering, “especially the African-American community, where the minority vote was essentially being diluted,” would be at a loss if they were aware of this practice. With his newfound perspective, he created a niche for his doctoral pursuits – and ultimately his career aspirations – by merging his focuses on community development organizations and congressional redistricting.

“Community development organizations have set boundaries for the areas that they are trying to develop,” he explains. “If those boundaries are within a certain district, they have to cultivate relationships with those particular city council representatives in order to get funding. If the neighborhoods are split across several districts, it makes it difficult for these organizations to get anything done.”

Clayton plans to analyze these issues further in his dissertation, focusing on Tacony and Castor Gardens. In the meantime, he is committed to helping Tacony residents with their plans to revitalize their neighborhood. He hopes to learn a host of new community development strategies that are being used successfully throughout New Jersey when he begins his Eagleton internship this spring. And just as he has done time and time again, Clayton plans to carry those lessons with him when he returns to his old neighborhood.

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