Beginning this past fall, I have had the pleasure of being PHC’s communication’s intern. Given my rhetoric and public advocacy background, I’m interested in exploring community development and the importance of creating transparency among a group of people. A peer exchange weekend with the Chester Made initiative gave me the opportunity. Chester Made is a civic engagement project that brings together various residents from artists and local leaders to entrepreneurs with a common goal of changing the perception of Chester and building a stronger community.
In fall of 2016, the Chester Made team–staff of PHC, Widener University, the City of Chester, and artists from Chester– travelled to Chicago, Illinois, and Gary, Indiana, for a peer exchange hosted by the Illinois Humanities Council. The purpose of the exchange was to bring people together with similar goals for their communities, motivated to use their skills to transform through the arts. The 2017 exchange gave the Chester Made team the opportunity to share their home and their art in a similar way. (Watch a video summary of the 2017 exchange.)
Being a city that has been affected by economic turmoil with a major industry relocating, Chester residents have a goal to revitalize their home. Prior to attending the Chester Made Exchange weekend events, I had not known much about the history of the city or its role in the making of America. By the end of the evening, I had discovered not only some historical facts but what makes the people of Chester so special.
The day’s events began with breakfast, followed by a meet and greet between artists from the three cities and partners of the programs. We then had the opportunity to see more of Chester beyond the event location. The driving tour included Chester gems such as Calvary Baptist Church (where Martin Luther King Jr. first began his years preaching), Deshong Park, and a museum on the Avenue of the States. Later that evening, we enjoyed a curated dinner with guest presentations on individual projects by Gary and Chicago guests.
As a new witness to Chester Made’s strives in civic engagement, I sat down with a few guests from Gary and Chicago to ask them about their reactions to what they had witnessed during the weekend’s events.
The first person I talked to was Krystal Wilson, a poet and artist from Gary, Indiana. She wears many hats that vary from youth poetry program facilitation to creative directing for musicians. She explained her love for the art that she has seen as a part of the exchange experience, stating, “Chester artists have their own distinct thumbprint that adds to the uniqueness of the city with an unashamed urbanism.” Rather than simply being an individualistic process, Chester cultivates various talents for the benefit of the art and the community. Krystal believes that type of structure is what they are trying to achieve in her hometown. When I asked if her community could benefit from a project like Chester Made, she responded, “I definitely think Gary could benefit. It was inspiring to see a platform created for both the youth and adults. Not only as an artist, but just as a member of a community, it is important to come together and show that you care about the direction.”
Sam Salvesen, a redevelopment fellow with the City of Gary, was also among the guests. Being that he is not an artist himself, I was curious to know why he was interested in Chester. Sam responded, “On paper, Gary and Chester have a lot in common. Having similar issues to Gary, I wanted to know what are they doing about it? I wanted to see how Gary could profit off of what Chester is doing.”
I believe there is much power in residents taking control of their own destiny. Sam expressed admiration for Chester artists in this regard, saying, “Artists are more than just artists, they are community builders. I appreciate how they are building this city with their own imprint.”
After engaging with residents and community builders during the peer exchange, I believe Chester Made is not only an initiative to bring residents together but a motto for the city and the embodiment of what it means to be a part of Chester. It gives people something to “sink their teeth into,” as Greg Irvin, a Chester resident put it.
Devon Walls, artistic director of Chester Made, exemplifies what it means to be Chester Made. He is an artist that was born and raised in Chester. Devon has been key in developing spaces such as his Artist Warehouse, the Chester Made Exploration Zone, and the revamped MJ Freed Theater. They are all spaces for educating young people, as well as their parents, and encouraging them to express themselves through various art forms. Devon also invested time and money into Chester Made, a project he believed in, for the people he believes in. He was once told that people will not go to Chester to buy art because of the demographic, but programs within Chester Made prove them wrong. Residents of all ages create works of art all while uplifting their community and discussing how to bring about change. There is an inherent community driven nature within Chester Made.
By the end of the peer exchange evening, I was in complete awe of what I had witnessed. I saw the potential of what the city could become and how transformative a model such as Chester Made could be for other communities on a national level. There are so many things in the making that are very inspiring for urban areas, such as creating an arts district, a sense of community, and wealth being established by and for the people. Witnessing the 500 block of Avenue of the States was ground breaking for me. This location is the hub of Chester Made activities and home to the Chester Made Exploration Zone. It is an entire block of African American owned businesses and that is so very rare and I honestly could not name one prior to visiting. That is the definition excellence. That is molding a community from the inside out.
Nangorlee Demenwu is a Communications Intern at PHC. She is a recent graduate of Temple University with a Bachelors of Arts in Strategic Communication, concentrating in Rhetoric and Public Advocacy, minoring in Digital Media in Technology, a collaboration of communications and computer information science.
Nangorlee has worked on a student run campaign to spread awareness of food insecurity on Temple University’s campus. This four month project exposed the issues of hunger on college campuses through seminars, social events, media, and fundraising. She then took this issue with her as she studied abroad in Dhrangadhra, Gujarat, India, this past summer. There, she worked on a mini documentary on food insecurity, nutrition, and general health of local citizens. Beyond her food insecurity initiatives, she has served as a board member of an organization called Black Diamonds Union. Their goal is creating after school outreach programs at elementary schools in North Philadelphia surrounding Temple University.