Taking young people to the seashore may seem to have little to do with safe streets and
the problem of gun violence in Chester, but it is all part of the work of making parents
and children feel more secure in a sometimes threatening environment. Just one of the
many ways in which Chester Eastside, Inc., seeks to meet people’s needs wherever they
Rev. Bernice Warren, CEI Executive Director, has worked closely with Heeding
God’s Call to End Gun Violence, an organization dedicated to reducing the threat of gun
violence. CEI Board member Will Richan was instrumental in involving a local group in
working on the theme of peace in the streets, looking toward a special program during the
Martin Luther King weekend in January, 2017. And the two of them are working with the
Chester Upland School District in fulfillment of the District’s anti-bullying policy. Some
years ago, CEI helped launch the Peace Leadership & Arts Camp, dedicated, among other
things, to helping teenagers find peaceful ways to settle their differences. And in 2015,
the CEI Board passed a resolution affirming the agency’s commitment to seek to reduce
the threat of gun violence.
A feature article in the September 11 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer told Chester
something no city wants to hear: Between the years 2000 and 2014, the average number
of homicides, mostly from guns, in relation to population size in Chester was the highest
of any city in the United States. And the majority of such cases were never solved,
meaning perpetrators might still be free to walk the streets. Victims were as young as two years old. A 14-year-old was gunned down while running an errand for his mother. More typically, young men in their twenties and thirties were the victims.
It’s not just the outright loss of lives, but also the impact on those who have been
shot and survived, to say nothing of parents worried about whether their children will
make it home from school or the play yard, and the trauma that impacts the very young
for years to come. To say nothing of the numbers people who feel impelled to keep
loaded weapons in their homes on the false assumption that they are thereby safer.
But Chester, if nothing else, sees bad news as a challenge, similar to how the
American people viewed the events of 9/11/2001. And so Chester Eastside, Inc., and
others in the community are actively seeking ways to reduce the threat of violence.
Heeding God’s Call.
Rev. Bernice Warren and others in this faith-based grassroots movement work to end gun violence on many fronts: holding vigils outside gun shops; asking how a person who is
not authorized to have a handgun gets one anyway through a so-called “straw purchase;”
demonstrating that one can walk into a gun shop and buy any number of weapons;
pushing for legislation to limit the trade in weapons. And then there is the work with
young people to convince them that owning a gun does not make you powerful but is
actually a sign of weakness. And those trips to the seashore and other activities to give
kids a break from the stressful conditions they live under.
“We are talking about changing a whole culture that these children grow up with,”
says Rev. Warren.
Peace in the Streets.
When CEI Board member Will Richan invited agency professionals gathered at the
monthly meeting of Communities That Care (CTC), an offshoot of the Chester Education
Foundation, to join him in working to include peace in the streets as a theme during the
Martin Luther King celebration in January, he got an immediate response from a number
of people, including sponsors of the meeting. Out of this has come a plan to devote a
major part of one of the monthly CTC meetings to the subject.
A panel of people from advocacy organizations and law enforcement, along with
those who have lost loved ones, will look at what can be done to stem the violence, then
invite the audience to join in the search for answers. “We still want to do something on
the Martin Luther King weekend,” says Richan, “which, after all, is about a young black
man who was the innocent victim of gun violence. But the work needs to begin long
before that and continue afterward.”
Richan noted that politicians have traditionally shied away from the issue of gun
control, often intimidated by the National Rifle Association, but this year both U.S.
Senate candidates from Pennsylvania are vying to show that they are the real ally of gun
control. “We may have reached a tipping point on the issue, with those preaching sanity
regarding guns being more willing to speak up. And what better place than Chester?” he
Bullying: a different kind of violence.
It started with a series of physical bullying incidents on a school bus, one in which the
driver and an aide did nothing, not even report them to higher ups. Eventually it came to
the attention of top administrators of the Chester Upland School District. To its credit,
the District has been working to turn things around on the bullying issue.
Bullying, which can range from nasty messages on Facebook to serious physical
abuse like that on the school bus, is sometimes written off as just kids being kids. But it
can have devastating effects on children that can stay with them through life, even to the
point of suicidal thoughts in the victims. And, yes, in a few cases resulting in actual
From the start, representatives of Chester Eastside, Inc., have been following up
with school officials to make sure those fine words in the District’s anti-bullying policy
are translated into action at the classroom level and beyond. Rev. Bernice Warren and
CEI Board member Will Richan, working in league with psychologist Dr. Janice
Hoffman Willis, met recently with the Lead Nurse at Chester High School, who is
overseeing the anti-bullying training program for teachers.
One more way that Chester Eastside, Inc., is helping to create a safe space for