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On Mother’s Day, calls for unity, responsibility, peace

Dan Devine
On Mother’s Day, calls for unity, responsibility, peace
Hundreds turned out to participate in the 13th Annual Mothers’ Walk for Peace, held Sunday, May 10, 2009, in Dorchester’s Fields Corner. Culminating in a rally at Town Field, the 3.6-mile walk raised more than $40,000 for the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, a Dorchester-based anti-violence organization that helps families who have lost loved ones to violence deal with the emotional fallout. (Photo: Tony Irving)

The tributes and memorials flooded the streets of Fields Corner on Sunday, the early morning sun shining like an interrogation room spotlight on messages born out of pain that, for many, remains too sharp to speak. Messages like “Violence Creates Incomplete Families” and “Give So I Won’t Cry Anymore.”

But as the harsh light softened, it also illuminated one phrase that would later reverberate across Dorchester’s Town Field: “Peace is Possible.”

The slogan and the hopeful sentiment behind it were repeated often by the hundreds who turned out to participate in Sunday’s 13th Annual Mothers’ Walk for Peace. The event is held each Mother’s Day by the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute to honor the memories of those who have died and to voice unified opposition to the use of violence.

Roxbury resident Natasha Steele said she attends the walk because it’s better than the alternative.

“If I wasn’t here, I would be just sitting at home thinking about him, or sitting at the cemetery,” she said.

Her son, Cedirick T. Steele, died in 2007, before reaching his 20th birthday. He was studying psychology at Bunker Hill Community College, and had made the dean’s list before he was murdered. She said one of his professors used to speak effusively about Cedirick’s ambition and his desire to learn.

Others, she said, spoke about his big smile.

“I like that,” she said. “That people remember him smiling.”

Sunday marked Natasha Steele’s third year attending the peace walk. She said she draws strength from being able to walk with other people experiencing the same struggles, and feels the public display of unity truly can make a difference.

“Each step I take, I feel like we’re getting a little closer to stopping this nonsense,” she said.

Clementina Chéry is the prime mover behind the Mothers’ Walk. In 1994, she co-founded the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute to honor her slain son. For 15 years, the organization has worked to help families victimized by violence by connecting them with people who have had to make the same difficult journey.

Through the institute’s Survivor Outreach Services program, Chéry’s staff reaches out to families within 48 hours after a murder — when Cedirick Steele was killed, Natasha Steele said, Chéry reached out within “two or three hours.” They provide grieving and often unprepared families with information on topics like making funeral arrangements and locating social services. The institute also publishes a “Peace Curriculum” designed specifically for city students.

For her work, Chéry last year received an honorary doctorate from Regis College, as well as citations from Gov. Deval Patrick, the state Legislature and the Boston City Council at this year’s walk.

So when the woman everyone calls Tina speaks, she does so with authority.

Addressing the crowd gathered at Town Field after Sunday’s walk, an impassioned Chéry repeated: “It is not the KKK, it’s not the white supremacists, it’s not the slave traders — our children are pulling the trigger.”

Asked later why she felt that point merited such emphasis, Chéry said, “Because our children are the ones killing each other. Ours are the ones going to [the state Department of Youth Services]. Ours are the ones who are ‘known to the police.’ We, at some point, have to have to say, ‘These are our children.’”

“And we’re looking to everybody to solve our problem, but it’s our problem,” she continued. “Yeah, we don’t manufacture the drugs, and we don’t fly the planes, and we don’t bring in the money … [but] if we don’t begin to look at each other and see who in our neighborhoods are involved in this, then we’re not taking responsibility for the problem.”

Some argue that the problem is getting worse, especially in light of the murders of two teens this month. According to police statistics, there had been 88 shootings in Boston since the start of 2009 as of May 3, up from 63 for the same period in 2008.

As of last Friday, the city had seen 19 murders so far this year, just behind last year’s pace. There were 63 homicides recorded in Boston in 2008, down from 65 in 2007, 74 in 2006 and 75 in 2005.

“The question should be: Who was the known gang member?” Chéry said. “Who are the ones who are known to police? How can we meet with the parents of these gang members and try to help them get through to their children, so that the killing can stop?”

As she and others wrestle with those questions, Chéry also continues to wrangle with another problem — how to keep the Peace Institute afloat in a stormy economic climate.

The institute was dealt a major blow last October, when Patrick announced more than $1 billion in emergency budget cuts and spending controls. The Boston Globe reported that the decision cost the institute $75,000, nearly half its total operating budget, and for a time, it appeared that the organization would have to shut its doors at the end of 2008.

Though a late surge in fundraising helped keep the institute open into the new year, the state’s fiscal fortunes have continued to decline. The state House budget removes all funding for the state Department of Public Health’s Youth Violence Prevention Program, which a message sent to the Peace Institute’s mailing list called “a major funding source” for the organization.

With dollars growing ever scarcer, fundraising events like the Mothers’ Walk become even more crucial. Between individual donations, grants and gifts from local foundations, the walk brought a total of $42,785.70 into the Peace Institute’s coffers, according to Chéry. It’s a big number for one day, but it accounts for only about 15 percent of the $287,000 that Chéry said the organization is hoping to raise by the end of the summer to bridge its funding gap.

Chéry said the institute will look to continue raising money through the various trainings and programs it regularly runs, and that it might have a trick or two up its sleeve.

“The next big thing we might do would be around my birthday, something like ‘An Evening with Tina,’” Chéry said with a laugh. “I’ve always envisioned having a different way of celebrating with people — instead of presents, they can give me their presence. But if they want to give me a present, they can donate to the Peace Institute.”

Natasha Steele said she’d hate to see the institute being forced to shut down.

“It gives us strength to go on,” she said. “If this stops … [Tina] helps us. She gets us through this.”

For her part, Chéry seems determined to continue helping, come what may.

“This is my purpose on Earth. This is God’s will — I believe what the Scripture says: ‘I will not leave you, nor forsake you,’” Chéry said. “… If I can’t raise the funds, I don’t need a building to do this work.”