Empowering. Inspiring. Hopeful.
I recently attended an evening event on February 9th for the Boundaries and Bridges project that is going on now in Chester, PA between Widener University and the city of Chester residents. This particular event was designed predominantly for the youth of Chester and Widener students to come together for an evening. Buses were provided for students from Widener to go to the M.J. Freed Theater; a revitalized theater that Chester community organizer and Widener Artist in Residence, Devon Walls, had purchased and recreated. When you walk inside the theater, it is almost like walking into a building you would be visiting in Paris in the 1920’s, where artists from around the globe met to share their art, and to discuss events of the day and try to understand where their own voice was in the bigger picture. There are paintings, motivational statements, and pictures framing the walls. A beautiful grand piano and studio equipment appear on the stage. Food was steaming from delicious looking catering dishes, prepared by Chef Lamont. It was snowing outside, but the snow only made the theater seem warmer. The atmosphere was mixed with hope and intrigue.
It seemed that the goal of the evening was to make everyone that attended the event comfortable enough to let their guards down and have an open discussion about the problems that the Widener and Chester residents face together, and how to mend with each other to strengthen as one community. To bring together individuals from diverse backgrounds and openly discuss and think about what the bridges and boundaries are between these two communities, and how they might be mended. This theater is not located in Paris, or even downtown Philadelphia. Although near Philadelphia, Chester sits next to the Delaware River and has an identity all of its own. As I watched the Widener students and the Chester students walk in one by one, they couldn’t help but look around them at all the beautiful colors and art and life that had been breathed into this building. Everyone was welcomed with open arms. That is why this event was so powerful. Students and adults of all ages came to the event, with only their own experiences and stories and a willingness to share and discuss with others. This may seem trivial, but when you look at the society and culture we live in, it definitely is not. It would have been much easier for all of us, that attended this event to stay home in the inclement weather. To stay with friends or family or to login to our numerous devices and be physically in Chester, but not actually actively engaging in our community. Individuals that attended this event consciously made a decision to look outside their personal comfort zone and try something new and different. That is always the first step in change and art creation. Stepping out of what you know, bearing enough confidence in yourself, but also yearning to learn more from others from different backgrounds than your own.
Art materials were provided to the group, and after a brief discussion about what Creative Placemaking is by the project leaders, Dr. Sharon Meagher and Devon Walls, everyone was challenged to work within their groups to create a monument that represented Chester. Each group presented their monuments together in front of the rest of those present; and each group clearly had a new sense of pride and togetherness that had not been there when the event had begun. Bonds were made, new friendships were created, and open discussion occurred between members of the Widener community and members of the Chester community.