Interview by Wes Schantz July 2009
The Louis D. Brown Peace Institute was founded in 1994 to assist and support families of homicide victims in the City of Boston. Today, the Peace Institute works with schools, families (both of victims and offenders), and communities to promote peace and unity. It is a place for families to turn in the wake of violence, offering resources and counsel to help those confronted with the death or arrest of a loved one. It is also a place for action, peace education, and advocacy. President and CEO Tina Chéry made time to talk with us about the Institute, her community, and the journey they are on.
NPi: Where does the story of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute begin?
Tina Chéry: Out of pain and anger, but at the same time out of love for my son, my living children, and my community… as a testament to who we are—Children of God. My son Louis was killed fifteen years ago on Geneva Ave. It was five days before Christmas, December 20th, 1993. He was going to a Christmas party with a group he had joined about three weeks earlier: Teens Against Gang Violence… He was caught in the cross-fire at about 3:15 PM on a Monday afternoon. He was brain dead and died the following day. At that time in 1993, it was the height of the violence. All you kept hearing in the news was “gang member shot and killed.” The rationale was the victims had just come out of jail themselves. So when Louis was killed, the way people looked at children shifted because he wasn’t a gang member. He wasn’t “at risk…” I’ve always lived in this community, but I guess I was blind, believing what the media tells you—that bad things only happen to bad people.
When Louis was killed, I say it woke me up. I realized that while I was doing everything to protect my family and raise my children… I was doing only part of God’s work. I wasn’t doing what I was being called to do. And that’s to learn what you have inside of you to share, not only in your home, but in the larger community… Society teaches us in order for you to move forward, somebody else has to lose. It’s the complete opposite. On top of that, it being five days before Christmas, the season of peace and goodwill—it really challenged every fiber of my being. I began questioning God, not understanding what had just happened.
Our community rallied around us. We received letters from across Massachusetts and across the country from people representing many different faiths and denominations. Letters saying, “We know that this young man was destined to be something great, and his loss is our loss. We’re here whenever you’re ready.” We felt a calling to do something. How do we share what this child believed and envisioned? How do we bring him to light? How do we show the larger society that young Black children do have dreams and goals? That they do come from families who also have visions, values, and dreams? That they do come from communities filled with life and so much to offer? We wanted to keep his memory alive and share who he was.
We approached the Boston Public Schools at first to do a display of Louis’ collections: Matchbox cars, different sports caps, the Sunday TV Weeks, and his many collections of books. Louis loved to read. We wanted to show a glimpse of who this young man was [so that others might relate to him]. To show that the Louis Browns of this world come in so many different shapes, sizes, colors, and classes, and whether you were from Wellesley or Roxbury… you could connect with him. Louis Brown was somebody’s child and brother, and when Louis Brown was killed everybody lost a piece of themselves.
NPi: Where did you go from there?
TC: While meeting people within the schools, one of the ideas that arose was, well, why not teach about him? There was a young man with cancer, Max Warburg, who died, which inspired something called a courage curriculum in the Boston Public Schools. We took a page from them. When something’s good, you don’t reinvent the wheel.
Starting in 1994, we put together an advisory committee—friends, lawyers, all kinds of people. We developed the Louis D. Brown Peace Curriculum: “Teaching Peace Through Literature and Community Service Learning.” Isn’t that wonderful? The Boston Public Schools’ role was to provide novels for the students… Our vision was for students to begin to build their own peace library… Conflicts are there, they are a part of our lives, this country was founded on violence. It’s not to say these things don’t happen, but we have clear choices and only with clear choices can we make informed decisions.
NPi: To get away from the mindset that it’s not my problem.
TC: It wasn’t my problem until it knocked on my door. But even with it knocking on my door, I don’t focus only on the problem. Look at all the solutions that are around you. Look at the assets within your own community… People from the advisory committee would go into classrooms to tell Louis’s story to the students… Students could see that people in the community really cared. Then student-written essays were published in Boston’s Book of Peace. We had an award ceremony at Hines Convention Center where the book was officially released. It was a very small window into the hearts and minds of Boston’s children, and it helped the children to internalize that they do have the power. At the same time, it was about connecting to peers and adults and beginning to rebuild community.
NPi: How did the organization grow from there?
TC: Working with the Harvard School of Public Health and Lesson One Company, we went after a U.S. Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools grant for the Peace Zone curriculum, which is for elementary school. The grant was substantial and Dorchester House served as our fiscal agent. We’ve been here since 1996, at 1452 Dorchester Ave. We provide internships for graduate students and college students. High school students will come and do community service through the court process. And then there is the work that we do with families whose loved ones have been murdered.
I remember Louis would always ask, “Am I a problem child?” I’d say, “What are you talking about?” He’d say, “All the time, you read it in the paper that the youth are the problem.” He’d say, “I don’t vote! I don’t make the laws! I don’t even have a job! So how can the youth be the problem? Heck, I was born into this mess.” I think when he was killed that really stuck with me: How can youth be the problem? That’s a question we need to ask ourselves.
NPi: And what do you say?
TC: It’s about family. Youth don’t come here by themselves. They inherit the problem. Each generation is responsible for leaving something better for the next. Somewhere along the line, a generation failed. I look at things fifteen years later and we’re still blaming the youth.
NPi: Do you feel like it has changed at all?
TC: Well, things have changed, but there’s so much more that needs to happen. Things have changed because now [people are speaking] the language of peace… The community, in the midst of how we’ve been portrayed, is coming to light. People are realizing everyone is impacted by this… The Peace Institute is now a fixture in our community. We see ourselves just as strong as our health centers: The Codman Square Health Center and The Dorchester House. We are fixtures in the community just as banks are fixtures, just as libraries are fixtures, just as churches are fixtures in the community.
NPi: Is this a model that has been taken up in other parts of Boston, other parts of the country?
TC: It’s a model that Boston is beginning to take on… There’s a vision you have as an individual and you believe everybody should be doing it. And sometimes you have to plant the seed and others water it. You may not be around to see it, but it will blossom because you are nurturing it and because you’ve come to it from a way of love and peace as opposed to the way of hatred and anger. For us, the vision is that there’s peace, if not a Peace Institute, embedded in every community. That every health center, hospital, school, community center, and church begin to teach peace… Begin to adopt the seven principles of peace: love, unity, faith, hope, courage, justice, and forgiveness. Have services and clear guidance and protocols for families impacted by violence. No longer look at our children as the problem and begin to rebuild community [without depending] on government.
Government has a role and a purpose. It takes a village to raise a child? This is partially correct. It takes a family, but the village has to be a nurturing village where all families are valued. We’ve turned government over to the people we elect, not realizing that they work for us… The only way we can get support is to voluntarily sign our children over to get services and support? It doesn’t make any sense. We have a society that’s not about rebuilding, but a quick fix.
NPi: What about the justice system?
TC: [Laughs] Again, justice is one of the principles of peace. What is justice? A discussion about justice needs to happen. The way it is set up now, the justice system creates and adds to the cycle of violence. The system is not about accountability, responsibility, restoration, and reconciliation. The way it’s set up right now, it’s about crime and punishment, plea bargaining and incarceration, and a revolving cycle of violence. There’s a lot of work to do within the criminal justice system to begin to rebuild, reconcile, and heal.
But it’s not just the system; it’s also the people… The word justice has a different meaning for everybody. We depend on a system that’s broken to apply justice. Whose justice? What justice? At whose expense? Ours is a community that’s already impacted by violence and injustice [due to issues] of class, color, and culture… You look at this case that’s in The Globe today, one of many cases related to violence. Again, a young man is dead, a family is devastated, life is forever changed. There are no resources for that family. A young man has been accused, indicted, and is going on trial for murder. You look at his history. He’s 22 years old; he’s a baby. At what point in his life did he get into the system? What did we do? What didn’t we do? What did he need? Where did we fail? Who else could have helped?
That’s the struggle that I deal with as a human being and a mother. It took my son dying on the streets of Boston for me to wake up, for me to look at the potential that I had deep inside of me. Because I was blinded, I judged, I lived a comfortable life—my eyes were closed to all the injustice… I believed that if you do something wrong, you go to jail. Lock ’em up, throw away the key. Kill them. I advocated for all of that. [I was not] aware of what was going on. We believe that more police and swifter prosecution and more prisons are going to fix the problem. It puts a band-aid on a big wound. We tend to forget that when we take that band-aid off, when people serve their time, they have to come back out into the community. We don’t prepare for that. Then we’re shocked when violence happens again. Before we [talk about] what others should be doing, we have to look at ourselves. We have to lead by example. It’s about bringing together the families that have been affected by the violence on both sides to provide a safe space, hear their struggles and frustration with the system… Allow all that to happen and then ask a question: So what do you want to do about it? Then, are you ready?
NPi: Then, having woken up yourself, how do you wake others up? How do you spread this consciousness, this awareness?
TC: You live it… You accept people wherever they are without judgment. Since Louis was killed, our message has been peace. It doesn’t matter who is in front of us. Our vision is clear. Our philosophy is we will work with you wherever you are on this journey. Every mask comes off… We’re trying to empower people impacted by the violence so that they can uplift themselves and know how to ask for the resources that they need to help themselves. Not to look for a handout, but for a helping hand.
We are also looking to our faith community to understand their role in the healing and rebuilding of our city [Dorchester, Massachusetts]. The faith community has somehow lost it’s way… I believe that they have also been caught up in the quick fix solution. We want churches to be a place where families can go and get the help they need before turning to the system or the police for help. Many of the families we work with do not find their church to be a place where they can go to get help for their sons.
NPi: How about you? When you need help, where do you go?
TC: I’ll share something with you. This is where I go: The Women of Faith Bible… A minister whose son was killed, Reverend Odom, talked about a woman in the Bible named Deborah. He called me a Deborah… She is a prophetess. I’ve learned to look at the gifts that God has given me. I’ve suffered, but look at how God is using me… I name my struggles. I take time to appreciate and celebrate my strengths and accomplishments since Louis was killed. I have people around me who I believe God has placed in my path and have allowed me to put in place strategies that bring about healing and reconciliation… I call them my guardian angels. They didn’t let me stay stuck in a ditch. I also refer to them as my tow trucks, and I do get stuck. I have spiritual advisors. One is a Baptist Minister and one is a Unitarian Universalist Minister, both of whom I go to when I am struggling with the plans God has for me.
As a survivor of a homicide victim, I love to stay stuck. Because it’s easier, safer, and inner work is hard. Sometimes we don’t want to do that hard inner work. We find it easier and safer to fix others… Instead of asking, “God, why me?” my question has changed. Now it’s, “God, what do you have in store for me today? It’s reminding myself that I’m more than the mother of a child who was murdered or the director of an institution. I’m someone who, for the time I have on this earth, has been given a purpose, a reason that I’m here… This is to serve God, and this I have realized is to be of service to the broken-hearted, to bring His peace to the forefront.
NPi: What have you learned talking to people like this? Have you seen the people you work with be able to do the hard work of looking at themselves?
TC: Yes. It’s amazing! We do a group talk on Tuesdays and whenever we meet we ask questions like, “What are you struggling with today?” Just for that day, we’ll say we’ll focus on just X, Y, or Z. One of the things we all struggle with is forgiveness [Laughs]… Our work is transparent. Anybody anywhere can embrace it. [The principles of peace] are all principles we know and use every day… Different communities of faith from across Massachusetts support and embrace us because our message is peace. When you’re looking for change, change is not going to come overnight. All of this mess didn’t happen overnight. I think Gandhi said that you have to be the change that you want to see in the world. Obama’s talking about change…. Obama ran on hope!
NPi: Well, one of your son’s dreams was to become the first Black president. Do you see your son in the work that you do? in the world?
TC: I saw my son before Obama… It was already written. I went to visit Clinton in ‘97 or ‘98. We went to the White House [Laughs] and when we went in they told us we wouldn’t be able to talk to the president. We’d just have to wave. So we sat there and the next thing we knew, the president came over to us. And I’ll tell you, when this man walked in the room—President Clinton—I didn’t see a white man; I saw my son. For us, you know what that was? We brought our son home. We brought him home to the White House. That’s what that day meant.
In four years, had Louis lived, he would have been giving Obama a run for his money. Louis was a republican in a house of democrats. He felt if true peace was to be achieved it would be up to his generation, regardless of which side of the street they come from. I look at President Obama’s administration and notice a lot of his staffers are young, twenty-something, which is powerful! Louis’s dreams are alive and well… The Peace Institute is here as a stepping-stone for my son’s generation to walk through and to put into action what’s in their hearts without finding excuses or going through so much bureaucracy… Are you willing to get your hands dirty? Come and sharpen your skills. Then when you’re ready to fly, you’ll go and leave this place just a little bit better than you came. If you’re a perfectionist, then you’ll come here and get a dose of reality. Life is happening here everyday… If someone had said to me your son’s going to be killed and this is what you’re going do, I would have said to hell with you and heck no.
NPi: As an organization, where could you use help?
TC: We could use financial help, but we know everyone could. Right now we’re looking for a permanent home. We’re looking for a space where our constituency—a family who’s going to court because their child was murdered or a family who’s coming from court because their child was just sentenced to prison for murder—can go. A space where all parties can come together and do what no one else thinks can happen: rebuild community, heal, and reconcile… find the courage to forgive. I believe in a city where all families can live in unity and have faith that justice will be fair, have hope for a better tomorrow, and more importantly, be able to love unconditionally.
NPi: And as far as outreach?
TC: The more we do, the more work we get. It comes to us. Our name is on everybody’s referral list. We would love for our name to be on everybody’s list when it comes to funding also. We’re out there, but there’s more work that we have to do. We want to build more ties with higher learning institutions and religious institutions. They’ll ask me to speak and I do, and then we’ll have some people who want to volunteer. That’s wonderful, but we want to go beyond the volunteers in terms of the Peace Institute being a place where students can do their practicum. We’ve done a few programs with the Harvard School of Public Health. We just got two students from BU’s School of Social Work, which is excellent. We want to build these relationships.
Student teachers are going into schools—people who don’t look like the children they’re teaching—without experience in urban settings… They have the theory and good intentions, but then they’re placed in situations they aren’t familiar with. What this child is experiencing, where can you find that in any book? So while we don’t have the resources and the funding to have the peace curriculum in every school, we can partner with schools that are putting student-teachers in the urban settings so that they have the curriculum… It’s a win-win for all involved. It’s connecting theory and practice.
NPi: Is there a lesson you would pass on to other leaders?
TC: A message? Put God at the center of everything you’re doing regardless of what your faith is or what your culture or class is. That’s the only [reason we’re here]. As cliché as it may sound, that’s my testimony, that’s what I can attribute all of this to, the fact that I put my faith in God. Children are still dying and still going to prison. Why even bother, right? But it’s about relying on your gut instinct. It’s that little voice inside [guiding you] whether it’s God… whatever you want to call it.
NPi: What’s your vision for the Peace Institute from here on out?
TC: My vision is that we will have seven organizations that will each invest $50,000 in us for the next seven years. Within the next two or three years, we will have a center right in the community, whether it’s on Dorchester Ave or Geneva Ave. We will help the city to shift the way our community is seen. The city will see the assets we have here and be more fair about the way it distributes its resources… Instead of crime watch groups, we will have peace councils. Instead of police riding up and down the street because there are hot-spot zones, there will be families walking in peace zones. And instead of violence prevention, we will focus on peace education, promotion, and awareness.
NPi: What does success look like to you?
TC: What does success look like? For me, it’s being able to pass on what I know to someone of Louis’ generation. To know when my time is to move aside, knowing that the work goes on. That’s the difficulty that a lot of leaders have. We stay in a position until we’re 99 years old and then the only way we go is when bad things happen. We leave, but the legacy dies with us… We need ongoing, committed funders… It’s finding someone who wants to invest in peace because we’ve been doing it and doing it and it’s been working. It’s no longer about Louis Brown or Tina Chéry… Success will also be when society can invest in long-term, sustainable violence prevention rather than waiting until a murder happens to show that we care… You have to be able to really show people that you’re there for them. Sometimes people don’t believe they deserve anything good happening to them.
How to Get Involved:
Please contact the Peace Institute directly for more information.