Fifteen-year-old Louis Brown, an aspiring engineer with a penchant for comic books and Chinese food, wasn’t in a gang. On the contrary, he was on his way to a Teens Against Gang Violence meeting when he was killed in the crossfire of a gang-related shootout.
In the days and weeks that followed, members of Louis’s family found themselves on the receiving end of a flood of support from Boston city officials and the local community. But while appreciative, his mother, Clementina Chéry, says she couldn’t help but wonder if they would have received the same treatment had the circumstances surrounding Louis’s death been different.
“What if my son was gang-involved?” she muses aloud, 24 years later. “What would happen to my family and me? Would the city really have provided us support?”
That hypothetical scenario, coupled with a desire to spread Louis’s vision for a more peaceful world, has guided the creation and development of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, a Boston-based organization whose goal is to “transform society’s response to homicide.” Though best known today for helping the loved ones of homicide victims, the Peace Institute has, over the course of its more than two decades in existence, adopted a holistic approach to address the roots of violence. This includes working with law enforcement agencies across the state, developing a peace-themed curriculum for local schools, and providing support to incarcerated persons and their families.
As founder and chief executive officer of the Peace Institute, Ms. Chéry – a chaplain who goes by Tina – has received widespread recognition for her work. She was named Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers in 2010, has addressed the National Organization for Victim Assistance’s annual conference three times, and has published research in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
But sitting in her office at the institute’s headquarters, tucked away on a quiet residential street in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, Chéry says her top priority is making a difference in her own backyard, one neighbor at a time.
“Our mission is that we’re a center of healing, teaching, and learning,” she explains. “I think when we start with families and with individuals and begin to treat people with dignity and respect, just basic human needs, then hopefully individual families, communities, society, and eventually the world will change.”
Chéry recalls that prior to the media learning that her son wasn’t involved in illegal activity, few resources were readily available to her and her family. It was only after the public learned of Louis’s clean record that “the resources came to us.” It’s thus of prime importance to Chéry and the Peace Institute that the families of all homicide victims receive the support and resources necessary to begin the healing process, regardless of circumstance.
Chéry has developed a number of tools for families, including a workbook for grieving children and the Survivors Burial and Resource Guide, which gives step-by-step information on matters such as selecting a funeral home and interacting with the police.
But the Peace Institute’s support for grieving families extends beyond practical guidance. Scattered around the institute’s headquarters are small toys and objects used in “sandplay,” a therapeutic technique in which people create a manifestation of their imagination in boxes of sand.
Some survivors, as Chéry calls them, prefer to express themselves this way. Some visit support groups to connect with fellow survivors. Others opt for one-on-one meetings.
How one mother has gotten help
When it comes to healing, there’s no single path, says Ruth Rollins, who lost a son in 2007 and visits the institute biweekly to meet with Chéry. “Everyone’s prescription ... is a little different, and you’ve got to get your own,” she says.
Ms. Rollins says she has felt – both personally and through her work as a professional domestic violence advocate – the “stigma” put on bereaved mothers whose children were associated with illegal activity. Her son, Warren Daniel Hairston, who went by Danny, was involved in gang activity at the time of his death.
“I knew my son mattered ... but [society] didn’t acknowledge it,” Rollins says. “I lost a child who may not have been a saint, but he was my child. We’re all victims when we lose a child to gun violence.”
Rollins says that Chéry and the Peace Institute have helped give her direction. “If you find a purpose, that’s half the battle,” she adds. “Tina helps you find your purpose. She supports you through your purpose.”
The Peace Institute is also known for its work with another kind of victim, even less frequently recognized: the families on the other side of homicides. These efforts, too, were born out of Chéry’s personal experience. Years after Louis’s death, she reached out to Doris Bogues, the mother of the man who pleaded guilty in the killing – in part, she says, to understand “who could raise a child that could kill.” The two met at a local bar, where they greeted each other with “silent tears and a warm embrace.”
“We really saw each other as mothers,” Chéry says. “When I saw her, I really saw me. In addition to seeing her shame, I felt her pain.”
Through support groups and partnerships with local nonprofits, the institute’s Intergenerational Justice Program aids the families of incarcerated people as they deal with that sense of pain and shame. In formulating the program, Chéry took a “do unto others”-type approach.
“I’ve always looked at, What would I want done if my son was the one who was accused or convicted of killing someone?” she says. “Both families are impacted, because none of us raise our children to kill or to be killed.”
Mother’s Day Walk for Peace
Today, Ms. Bogues is a regular volunteer at the Peace Institute. She and her son, Charles Bogues, who was paroled in 2012, have also participated in the institute’s Mother’s Day Walk for Peace, an annual march across Boston that attracts thousands of survivors and allies from around the state. At the culmination of last year’s walk, Mr. Bogues, for whom Chéry helped coordinate a reentry plan upon his release from prison, addressed the crowd at City Hall.
Despite rain in Boston this Mother’s Day, hundreds turned out for the walk, including Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh.
Since its inception 21 years ago, the Mother’s Day Walk has been “a movement, a tradition we look forward to,” says Ayanna Pressley, Boston city councilor at large, who has worked with the Peace Institute in various capacities.
“The number of families, homicide victims, and people who are promoters or agents or advocates for peace from throughout the city who participate is inspiring,” Ms. Pressley continues. “It has everything to do with the mission of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, but also the leadership, the compassion, and the heart of Tina.”
Many local change-agent groups, she notes, have been created and developed with the “generous” support and mentorship of Chéry and the Peace Institute.
One such organization in the works is helmed by Rollins – We Are Better Together: Warren Daniel Hairston Project. The initiative, which Rollins is set to formally launch in June, will “educate, support, and serve families on both sides of gun violence in order to break cycles of violence and victimization.”
Throughout the development process, Rollins says, Chéry has been her “biggest cheerleader,” offering both emotional support and practical guidance. But even as Rollins continues to grow her own initiative and help others, she doesn’t foresee a time in the near future when Chéry and the Peace Institute won’t be a part of her life.
“That work takes a toll on you, and it becomes emotional,” she says. “I know when I go to the Peace Institute, I don’t have to be strong. I can breathe. I’ve got support. I’ve got family.”
• For more, visit ldbpeaceinstitute.org.
How to take action
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